You’ve probably heard the term “cultural appropriation” floating around over the past few years. It spurs loud uproar in social media and then gets swept under the rug mere moments later. But what is it, truly? Cambridge Dictionary defines Cultural Appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture”, and Oxford emphasizes that it is “ in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance”. Just now, you may have experienced a chilling flashback to an outfit you’ve seen (or even worn) and the sinking feeling that you might be guilty of this very thing. We live in a global society, where Fashion trends and customs form all over the world are available with just a quick Google search, and the occasional insensitive public figure pops up on our timelines. As such, it is inevitable that we sometimes teeter on the precarious seesaw, slowly swaying between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation.
I’m not claiming to have all the answers. This is a delicate topic with a vast gray area in the world of global fashion and worldwide influencers. Fashion is all about viewing life as art. What’s unquestionable, though, is that at a point, artistic appreciation can become appropriation. It always makes me roll my eyes when I see comments such as “Let people wear what they want!” or “What’s the big deal?” towards this issue. Let me be clear. If you are one of those “So what?” people, then you are a part of the problem. Firstly, cultural appropriation steals the opportunity for proper representation. For example, Gucci’s 2018 fall collection featured predominantly white models wearing turbans extremely similar to those worn by members of the Sikh community. In an instagram post, Diet Prada (@diet_prada), a self-described fashion watchdog account run by two fashion industry professionals, commented on Gucci’s actions: “There are many ways this disaster could have been avoided. 1. Hire Sikh models. Italy is home to the second largest population in Europe. It would have been a beautiful statement to see Sikh’s proudly representing their religion on one of fashion’s most major runways.” Due to lack of representation, some young people are still waiting to see their identities reflected on the covers of prominent fashion publications.
It’s apparent that representation in the fashion industry has changed dramatically in the past two decades — from Amna Al Haddad, the weightlifter who fostered Nike’s sports hijab, to Winnie Harlow, the first model with vitiligo to walk the Victoria secret runway. Representation is finally becoming about celebrating and mirroring real people as society changes, rather than regurgitating the same image with some “rebranding” every few years. Seeing authentic representation is vital to true diversity, and it’s important to have genuine role models to inspire people. It isn’t hard to find and celebrate models of diverse cultural backgrounds, and allow them the opportunity to give their own culture a spotlight.
Secondly, cultural appropriation invalidates the struggles of those who truly identify with said culture. Black females all across the world especially face scrutiny, ridicule, and microaggression for common black hair styles such as cornrows, braids, finger coils, or afros. (eg. Why is your hair so BIG?) But yet, Kim Kardashain has been praised for wearing cornrows for years to the point of them being dubbed “Kim K Braids”. One white woman receives millions of instagram likes, while a black woman is told she can’t wear them to work because it is “unprofessional”. Using the style for aesthetic purposes while never having to face the challenges of one’s culture is appropriation. No one picks their culture, and choosing to adopt a certain trait without respecting the entirety of the certain culture’s experience is cherry-picking.
Cultural appropriation on a smaller scale can be just as impactful. In 2018, a teen from Utah decided to wear a qipao, or cheongsam in Cantonese, to her high school prom. Understandably, this created a tidal wave of incredulity and frustration from the world, Asian Americans in particular. The 18 year old teenager found the dress in a vintage store, and simply thought “it was a pretty dress [she] found”, not knowing her prom pictures would soon be viral. One teenager replied to the twitter thread “my friends in my school were/are still bullied for wearing this beautiful style of dress. but when a white girl does it its ‘beautiful’ and enriching, that’s the difference”(@emmaleerose). Another tweet reads, “Ethnic people don’t wear our traditional clothes because they can be targets of hate crimes, a fear white people do not feel when they put on those same clothes” (@patriciaah_1). Those tweets speak for themselves, the words weighed down by exhaustion and discomfort. It’s a storyline that is all too familiar for people of color.
Culture and ethnicity play a massive part in one’s identity. Celebrating cultural identity can foster unity within a culture, educate others, serve as a symbol of pride, and connect people to those that have come before them. Especially for people who may live in areas where their particular identity is not often represented or welcomed, it is such a freeing feeling to be immersed in your cultural background. I say all this to try to portray what a culture truly means in our society, and to emphasize the grave injustice that occurs when any culture is invalidated or capitalized on. Think about the message one portrays when choosing to put on any cultural fashion that does not align with that person’s cultural identity. It’s essentially: “Your culture isn’t special because I can do it too.” Don’t be that person. Don’t make people feel that way.
As I mentioned before, sometimes, cultural appropriation can become a bit of a murky topic. Cultural appropriation is one extremely slippery slope. One step too far and you may have offended someone or a group of people, and there is no worse feeling. If you’re ever facing a situation where you need to confront a friend, or even yourself in the mirror about your fashion choices, here are some guiding questions.
Who inspired this look? Is it someone with a distinct cultural identity? Does this piece highlight or emphasize a cultural trait? What can you tell me about the significance of this style/piece? Just a note: If the answer to that last one is anything along the lines of “it just looks nice!”, that’s a blatant red flag. Also, we have the power to tear down cultural appropriation in the fashion industry. Let’s be honest, there is one way to really make a statement to those huge designer names: make their pockets hurt. Every time we choose to wear an item, we are proclaiming our support. If you see a brand releasing some questionable pieces, boycott! Convince your friends, start a petition, and stand against harmful businesses. Your seemingly small voice can start a movement that truly communicates the vast repercussions of cultural appropriation. Most of all: When in doubt, err on the side of caution. Trade out that fashion piece or accessory for a bold solid color or an eye-catching statement piece. I promise one day’s outfit is not worth making someone feel inferior, no matter how important it may seem in the moment.