Culture, Not a Costume: What Appropriation Looks Like in the Fashion Industry

By: Chau Nguyen

Edited: Fizza Joffrey

Celebrities, fashion designers, and even people in your neighbourhood take on the codes of cultures – but how does one objectively define the boundary between cultural appreciation and appropriation, especially when the answer is so grey and big names in the industry are constantly dismissive of it? 

The very concept of creativity is to be inspired, to sample, and then to refine into something new. Artists from all walks of life start their humble beginnings by using pre-existing objects and nothings around them to be inspired; with fashion designers, there’s absolutely no doubt that one must be inspired by everything and nothing to come up with a collection of eye-catching pieces. Facets of culture is a significant source of inspiration for designers when they need new ideas. Of course it can be done well, but the industry is known for being conversational and outrageous – the fact that fashion has blurred the boundaries of cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation is no newsflash. 

The fashion industry is infamously known for its elitist and exploitative nature; from textile workers to models, and especially for individuals outside of the industry, there is a general feeling that their heritage and culture has been misused for the blind-sighted needs of the industry.

From magazine editorials to runways, to even empty phrases of an ‘African-inspired collection’, consumers and individuals who hold value for the industry must start considering the cultural ethics and morals of the industry and calling out designers. The industry itself must also be held accountable for being uneducated and narrow-minded about the complications of appropriation. 

Valentino S/S 2016// SRC

Valentino S/S 2016//SRC

Valentino is one of the many names in the fashion world to receive backlash for appropriation in their 'African-inspired' Spring/Summer 2016 collection. The clothing, which may or may not have been inspired by elements from traditional 'African' dresses, was a troubling companion to a glaring offense; the use of the cornrow braids styled into the hair of models. 

White models. Not one black model on the runway.

Adding fuel to the fire, Valentino continued to anger social media by putting forth a campaign for that very collection again. This time, the white, cornrows-styled models were now posing in 'Africa', surrounded by local villagers. There was debate that the campaign itself surpassed appropriation into clear racism and white superiority. 

Other designers, like London-based KTZ, have also faced backlash – they were blasted for using sacred symbolism of Inuit culture in their Winter/Fall 2015 collection. A number of garments had patterns based on traditional Inuit designs, all without consent. Salome Awa, a Nunavut native, had gone ahead with a complaint letter addressing the issue of appropriation to the brand and, after apologising, the collection was pulled from retailers. 

Some names in the industry have argued that fashion is about bringing individuals together with a sense of style, and that by ‘mixing’ together cultures with traditional attire, hairstyles, music, and even mannerism, that the industry and society will become better adjusted to cultural diversity. After all, isn't this industry, with its mass diversity of insiders to outside consumers, ideally positioned to become the next melting pot of cultures?

KTZ F/W 2016 / Sacred traditions of the Inuit culture// SRC

KTZ F/W 2016 / Sacred traditions of the Inuit culture//SRC

The damage of cultural appropriation is rather hard to comprehend when one doesn’t have an understanding of white supremacy, and pervasive anti-blackness. Historically black hairstyles (cornrows, twists, locs) have always, and admittedly still are, stigmatised and deemed 'unprofessional' by many businesses; many individuals lose jobs because of their hair. It becomes an eye-twitching moment to then see a white celebrity figure (See: Lena Dunham) wearing cornrows, suddenly turning the once-dismissed hairstyle into a trend that pulls away at centuries of black history. 

Origins of the Native Headpiece// SRC

Origins of the Native Headpiece//SRC

There’s more to it – from bindis, to the 'watered down Chinese-kimino' (which has been purposely worded wrong to bring a sense of the uncomfortable), to even the most sacred of Native headdresses; it becomes unsettling and upsetting to see white supremacy fashionably adopt parts of oppressed and minority cultures, while actual individuals of said cultures are demonized.

Beyond the industry, the annual holiday of Halloween oxygenates cultural appropriation; Professor Belk (1990) states that 'Halloween is seen as a holiday which focuses on the power of inversion – it's about turning the social norm into something that is not the norm.'

It's fine, of course, to dress up as celebrities or public figures because it's the social norm to see the humour in portraying in a well known personality--but when you try to dismantle a culture for the sake of this holiday – especially a culture that is presently (or in the past) experiencing oppression in one form or another – there is no inversion. This is when we begin to reinforce existing power structures. 

One of the most infamous 'costumes' (I use this term with as much respect as possible because it is not a costume, it is a culture) would be the Native American headdress. One too many times has capitalism seen the purchase and wear of the sacred headdress - built from individualized eagle feathers and even using colours and Navajo-inspired prints on the clothing.

In fact, it's actually illegal within the United States 'to offer or display, or even sell any goods in a manner that falsely suggests that it is Indian produced, or inspired by (a tribe).' (If you're interested, Urban Outfitters were sued by the Navajo nation). While the Halloween pieces may not go as far as claiming truth from a tribe, turning it into a costume that holds no value peels away at centuries of traditions and culture, which additionally adds onto the discrimination that so many Native American individuals and communities experience.

The question of cultural appropriation will never come to a conclusion because its answers will always float amidst the grey zone; perhaps the best way to analyze cultural appropriation is with the simple recognition of, and respect for, culture that inspires the arts in a way that does not damage or disrespect people who actually belong to said culture.

Moreover, at the end of the day, it is a responsibilityto prioritize the respect of a culture. Cultural appreciation is more than just a fashion accessory for a music festival, and it certainly amounts to more than the industry motto of ‘expressing yourself through clothes.'

For questions about this article, contact Chau Nguyen