Cultural Appreciation and Appropriation in Fashion

Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

I’m an avid user of social media to keep up with those whose style I admire. Whether it be the Instagram of a model, or the Twitter of a fashion blogger, I’m checking multiple times a day to both draw inspiration and learn about new trends. When you keep this connected with fashionistas, it’s easy to draw conclusions about what is consistently coming back into style; however, sometimes what I see is not always pretty. One of the most popular “trends” I see time and time again is using pieces of others’ cultures in order to add “exoticness” to their looks. In other words: cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation has been in cahoots with the fashion industry for quite a while. This utterly astounds me; how can something so offensive have such a strong reputation in a popular field? How have people gotten away with this for so long? It leaves me baffled. Culture is someone’s way of life, not a costume.

If you’re not as outraged about cultural appropriation in the fashion industry as I am, you most likely don’t know that that term means. The best definition I could find was from Urban Dictionary, which states that it is “The act of taking customs, practices, or traditions from one culture (usually by a member of a dominant culture) to either mock or simplify the meaning or significance of that piece of culture. Also, taking/wearing something from another culture and appreciating it only when it is not on the body of a member of that culture.” Essentially, cultural appropriation is using/wearing pieces of cultures that aren’t your own. If you want the culture, you have to undergo everything that goes with it; you can’t just pick elements of the culture that you want to use to seem cool.

The field of fashion picks and chooses bits from different cultures in order to “enrich” itself. It glues bindis onto white women’s foreheads, calls cardigans kimonos, and even uses Native American headdresses as props in photoshoots, all in the name of high fashion. Fashion labels think this makes their clothing seem edgy, whereas it really makes them look offensive and desperate for attention.

If you don’t believe this kind of appropriation is still happening, then you have to check out Junya Watanabe’s spring/summer 2016 “African” themed collection. Watanabe’s styling included cornrows, dreadlocks, African textiles, and Masai collars. The bombshell? There were no African-American models on the runway. And, sure, Watanabe is, himself, a person of color, but the culture that he borrowed from was not his, and that makes it cultural appropriation. It shocks me that there wasn’t more upset over this fashion show. How can you create a collection around African elements but not include anyone of African descent? That’s cultural appropriation.

There is, of course, a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, especially in fashion. A fantastic example of both cases is the 2015 Met Gala. The event was to honor an exhibit about China, so the “theme” of the night was, essentially, Chinese-inspired. Sarah Jessica Parker, for one, was all about cultural appropriation. She wore a large, red, flaming head-dress, which was supposed to represent China. How? Emma Roberts became another example when she sported chopsticks in her hair. This has been one of the most widely cited cultural appropriations if the fashion world. Imagine putting forks in your hair — that’s what putting chopsticks in your hair is like. Also, it’s very racist. Rihanna, on the other hand, wore a giant, yellow dress that was created by a Chinese designer. This is the correct way to appreciate culture. Go to someone of that descent and ask them what best represents their culture. Good for Rihanna.

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding cultural appropriation, as there’s a part of the industry that doesn’t believe it is a real problem. The thing is, however, is that it is. Taking pieces of other cultures is not only racist, but it also degrades an entire world of experiences and history down to small pieces that are then used in fashion shoots. This is not acceptable. I stand against cultural appropriation in fashion as much as I can. I don’t buy from companies that promote this behavior, and I tell others to boycott them as well. I speak out openly about cultural appropriation and call others out when they are a part of it. While I know my voice is strong, one voice alone cannot stop such a strong force in the fashion industry. People of Color (PoC) are, and should be, the strongest voices, because they are the ones being affected, but that doesn’t mean that white people can’t do anything. Support your PoC peers. Stand up against people who think cultural appropriation is OK. Don’t buy from cultural appropriative companies. Do your part in making the fashion world a safer and more comfortable place for people of all cultures.

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