Cultural appropriation is a term which has been used since the 70s when “[e]thnic elements began to enter the high fashion” (Laver 268) but it has gained more popularity for the last decade with the help of internet and social media. However, contrary to the popular belief, the term is not a negative one in itself. The negativity of the term depends on which condition it is used because not all the cases can be labelled problematic cultural appropriation. Originally the term is neutral. “[A] term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non-Western or non-white forms and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance” (Oxford Reference). There are some nuances when deciding whether the case is a problematic appropriation or not. “If it is a culture that was historically exploited by colonialism appropriating a historically colonizing culture…” (Ellis) it causes no trouble. However, the problematic cultural appropriation includes the phenomenon in which a culture that is a victim of colonization; such as African Americans, Asians or Native Americans etc. The problematic side of cultural appropriation can be seen in such branches as art, performance art and music industry. Even people who dress up as other races during Halloween have been the target of criticism.
What happens with Halloween costumes is people start to dress up as individuals from other cultures, and it makes people from those other cultures almost feel dehumanized as if they were something scary, funny or exotic. However, fashion still is the most controversial and comprehensive category in the modern world. Especially big fashion companies such as Victoria’s Secret, Gucci, Moschino etc. are criticized as such because of the way they design their products which offends the people who belong historically colonized races. They do it by converting the traditional elements into mainstream whitewashed versions of them. For instance, hairstyles of African-American culture, clothing styles of Asians or even religious Islamic culture are constantly used in these big fashion companies’ runways, advertisements or designs. In this article, we are going to dive into cultural appropriation and give examples from recent incidents.
The countries where black people live in predominantly have suffered from colonization since the 15th century and they also have been tormented based on the “inferiority” of their culture. In the beginning, the ones who used their own traditional elements were marginalized from society by being called “ghetto.” A lot of black women were reportedly facing discrimination at work due to their natural hairstyles. Yet, in modern times people have been using these hairstyles to look more interesting.
For example, in 2017 dreadlocks which originally belongs to black and Indian culture was used by Marc Jacob for his 2017 spring collection. These controversial dreadlocks not only were worn by white models but also they were in pink and purple colour which creates another problem: modifying. According to DailyMail.com, “Marc Jacobs claims the look was inspired by Harajuku girls, rave culture and London style in the 1980s” (Corvino). Like dreadlock, another example of a hairstyle that is appropriated from black culture is African braids. This hairstyle was historically important since African people used it in order to hide their dry food against colonizers. If we take into consideration its colonial background, it’s very normal to criticize. However, it was used on Giorgio Armani runway but it did not get attention as the previous one.
Apart from them, baby hair also quite popular. We see in the music industry that many artists use it such as FKA Twigs (left), Rihanna, Alicia Keys and they are appreciating it with their non-white roots. However, It is also used by many fashion companies such as Chanel which has done a photoshoot with this hairstyle recently. Last but not least, Cornrow is another victim of the industry. It is used excessively for the sake of trendiness. For example the early 2000s the hip-hop culture emerged, and we started to see its effects on celebrities like Justin Timberlake (right) or David Beckham. We are exposed to it in our daily lives even if we do not want to be a part of it. Like people of colour, Native Americans also experienced discrimination throughout history. In the past, thousands of them were killed or forced to emigrate just for who they were. They even weren’t counted as citizens for years. However, in the modern world, with the help of major music festivals such as Coachella, their elements are accepted and worn by everyone without hesitation. We can see the Native American headdresses in photoshoots, music videos, Halloween parties etc. In 2012, Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show designed a hyper-sexual version of American Native costume and received tons of disagreement. The company tweeted that they will remove the outfit from broadcast and Victoria’s Secret Angel Karlie Kloss also apologized to anyone offended. This is not the first time Karlie Kloss involving such actions. In 2017, Vogue did a photoshoot where Karlie Kloss in a Kimono with, traditional makeup and hair. Even though Vogue stated that what they did was appreciating diversity, it makes us question their sincerity. Why didn’t they prefer a Japanese model?
Think about Central Asia. Their clothing styles, Sari and Choli or accessories such as nose- ring, bangle and Sikh are very significant representatives of their culture. They are used by fashion companies very often yet when an Indian themselves wear these, their own cultural elements, they are mocked. Recently one of the most well-known brands in the industry, Gucci made a collection including Sikh, a kind of turban that men wear, and received criticism: “[t]he Sikh turban is a sacred article of faith, @gucci, not a mere fashion accessory #appropriation. We are available for further education and consultation if you are looking for observant Sikh models.” (Sikh Coalition)
With the help of economic developments and major events such as EXPO, the Middle East especially the United Arab Emirates have become popular among the fashion and magazine industry. Considering the close relation between Arabian and Islamic culture, it is inevitable to say that Islamic culture is appropriated because of the popularity the UAE gained. There are a number of brands and magazines that are constantly appropriating Islamic garments. For instance, the famous Italian fashion brand Moschino designed a “burka” that is originally the traditional Islamic garment for women and printed its own iconic “Moschino” word on it. In conclusion, capitalist society, through the way it uses different cultural elements in many shapes and forms, shows its hypocrisy in that these elements are ridiculed or mocked when they are used by their original owners. However, when they are whitewashed and marketed society accepts them. The fashion industry is the most inarguable hypocrite. Although we see some traces of major cultural appropriation in cinema, music and even dancing; we can not deny the fact that the fashion industry surpasses them. They use hairstyles that minorities faced discrimination for using or they use patterns on their clothes that would be ridiculed otherwise. The question is why is it problematic? Basically it is cultural theft. Look at the past and you will see the racism and discrimination took places for many years against the owners of these cultures. Today usage of them in fashion without permission as nothing happened is quite problematic and it is the reason why these people are offended that much. The solution is to educate ourselves on how to appreciate and not to appropriate culture. We should learn how to respect and what offends these people. We should never forget the outcome of our actions and also never let the brands make us a question: Is it fashionable when it is white?