Vv Magazine‘s Sarah Botelho takes a closer look at the issues surrounding cultural appropriation in fashion.
Once upon a time, you probably sat in an elementary school Social Studies class and had a teacher tell you about a little thing called globalization. Since then, we’ve all grown up with this idea that North America is a melting pot of cultures all mixing to create one diverse group of people. In actuality, North America functions more like a salad bowl: it’s made up of many different groups, but they’re still discernable from one another and some are more prevalent than others. And with that visible divide inevitably comes cultural appropriation.
Law professor Susan Scafidi describes this appropriation as, “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” It can include using a culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, or religious symbols. And it seems to be most harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways, or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive (like religious objects).
By this definition, we all might (unintentionally) culturally appropriate different aspects of a culture sometimes. People of all races cooking curry, Eminem and Macklemore rapping, celebrities commodifying the spiritual act of yoga, children hanging a dream catcher in their window, worldwide cultures celebrating or engaging in Christmas traditions; all of these things are by and large acceptable. The real offender seems to be fashion.
Maybe the reason this strikes such a nerve is because it’s a visual portrayal that suggests the wearer of said stolen fashion is something they’re not. Or, more likely, it allows dominant cultures to turn traditional clothing into something “cool” and “trendy.” For example, when Katy Perry wore a kimono-inspired dress to perform at the 2013 American Music Awards, she was heavily criticized for appropriating Asian culture.
Nicki Minaj, Selena Gomez, and Iggy Azalea have all donned bindis in their music videos. This year’s Met Gala raised eyebrows with many of its attendees arriving dressed in (sometimes overtly offensive) Chinese-themed fashions. And who could forget the uproar over Karlie Kloss’ Native American-inspired headdress at the Victoria Secret Fashion show. Interestingly enough, the whole debate around cultures borrowing, re-appropriating, and often sexualizing the traditional clothing of minority cultures normally gets more publicity and press than the actual fashion event itself. Clearly, people care about this. So before you get narrowed into a one-track-minded box, you may want to consider reading this BINGO card. If any of those statements start running around in your head while reading this, try to put them aside. They tend to interfere with your ability to have a mature conversation.
Essentially, there are two arguments.
The first (and the most common in the Tumblr world) is that if you are not part of a certain culture, you should NOT wear anything that belongs to said culture. Ever. Full stop. Supporters of this argument often comment on the appropriation of traditional fashions with things like, “it makes me SICK!”, “it’s disgusting!”, “there’s no such thing as white culture,” and “how DARE they!” And what they’re really saying here is: “this is my culture; you have no right to take aspects of it for yourself.”
It used to be far-right racists who suggested everyone keep to their cultural norms – that black people should wear their traditional clothing and whites should not. Or else. Now, it tends to be people who are extreme-leftists who do this under the guise of “cultural appropriation” – that is, that people should generally keep to their own cultural identities. The funny thing is, most of the people crusading and policing this cultural appropriation are not usually minorities themselves, but rather, white politically correct North Americans contributing to this divide between cultures.
Cultural appropriation then becomes a heated argument over who has the right to wear certain clothing. And no one really has the right to tell you that.
Take Katy Perry’s kimono-inspired outfit. Most people agreed that Katy Perry, a white American woman, had no right to engage with Asian culture in this way. She was criticized for “stylizing” aspects of Chinese and Japanese fashion and the performance itself was even labeled racist. Offended viewers pointed out that while she could come out on stage in a westernized Asian fusion outfit and look fantastic in it, afterwards, she could take it off and escape the stereotypes Asians would’ve normally had to deal with. And this is why people get so riled up about the borrowing of cultures in fashion – when their own culture is fused with and strung throughout North American high fashion, it’s interpreted as offensive costume-wear for people who don’t understand the cultural significance behind the clothing. These minority groups may take issue with the fact that people of other cultures and races can wear their traditional clothing and are praised for it; if they wore their own traditional clothing out in public, they would be stereotyped for it.
This brings us to argument number two: cultural appreciation.
Contrary to what people may want to admit, this is not Star Trek. Cultures in the world were not created in a vacuum, and now – more than ever – have the ability to mix, mingle, and influence each other through globalization. People on this side of the argument believe that incorporating aspects of other cultures into their fashion is actually a form of appreciation. Having kimonos take the stage as high fashion pieces enforces the idea that the fusion of cultures is becoming more accepted and traditions are being embraced worldwide. One Twitter user even suggested that they were glad Katy Perry gave a nod to (stylized) Japanese culture with her performance because it allowed Asian fashion to have some representation in Western culture.
So where the heck is this dangerous line between offending people and embracing culture? To be honest with you, I have absolutely no idea and unfortunately, I think you’ll probably always run the risk of offending someone.
Some say that you should only wear items from another culture if you have done your research and understand its cultural significance. Which, is a valid point. This year, Montreal music festival Osheaga banned the use of Native American headdresses as fashion accessories. These headdresses were often earned and worn by respected members of the community and are a sacred item in Native American culture – something you might not want to accessorize your look with. The same goes for bindis, which are sacred in the Hindu community.
So is it wrong to embrace fashion aspects of different cultures and think they’re beautiful? Absolutely not. It’s okay to admire these cultures. It’s even okay to wear these pieces of fashion. But why not try real cultural celebration and appreciation instead of appropriation. Actual details of a culture are so much more fascinating than the stereotypes that haunt it. You don’t have to be an expert about a culture to access aspects of them. If you aren’t sure, ask! If you really, really want to be decked out in another culture’s clothing, why not go directly to fashion designers in that culture? This list of Canadian-based boutiques boasts beautiful Aboriginal pieces that allow you to embrace culture without stereotyping it.
It’s okay to make mistakes because this is a complicated issue. In which case, the classiest thing to do is admit that and apologize. Facing the issue and handling it with grace and consideration is an important step to mutual understanding, respect, and acceptance. So if you want to wear those moccasins, dreadlocks, or that kimono, technically no one can stop you. Just make sure you do your homework and understand what it means to wear them.
What do you think about cultural appropriation in fashion? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below, or tweet us @ViewtheVibe.