Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation: Where Do We Cross The line?

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“Never was it my intention to hurt someone,” says the acclaimed stylist, Rei Kawakubo, of the cult Japanese fashion label, Comme des Garçons. In January, the prestigious brand faced backlash from spectators after models, mainly Caucasian, walked the runway for Paris Fashion Week at their men’s autumn/winter 2020 collection, sporting corn-row wigs. The show was widely branded as an act of ‘cultural appropriation’ and left even the most renowned fashion publication in the industry, Vogue, to comment that the choice of hair was “odd.”

In the fashion industry, ‘cultural appropriation’ is a word certainly gaining prominence, but what does it mean? 

To be culturally appropriate is to adopt aspects of a certain culture, that is not their own. Cultural appropriation is far deeper than the act of copying, however, as it also refers to a power dynamic at play. 

The Body Is Not An Apology, a radical self-love and body empowerment movement, states: “Why is cultural appropriation wrong? The answer is both straightforward and complex: At the core of cultural appropriation are unequal power dynamics and a violent historical context.” 

For many years, appropriation has been linked to dominant cultures, western ones specifically, taking elements from oppressed cultures; usually getting praise for doing so. Let’s take for example, Kim Kardashian-West, who at the beginning of March 2020, faced a backlash for appropriating black culture by wearing Fulani braids. The Fulani braid originates from West Africa and has been a popular choice for African descent women through the centuries.

“How does she keep getting away with it?” One person replied to the images of Kardashian-West on Twitter. 

Another user said: “You are not black.”

Kardashian-West later refuted the claims that she was appropriating a culture that wasn’t her own: 

“I didn’t see the backlash. I actually did that look because North (her daughter) said she wanted braids, and asked if I would do them with her.”

The media is quick to praise western celebrities, who are caucasian, like Kardashian-West as ‘groundbreaking,’ for her choice of hairstyle, marking her as the trendsetter. On the flip-side, Western natives and people of colour are greeted with criticism for embracing their traditional styles. 

In 2015, actress and racial equality activist, Zendaya Colemen, stepped onto the Oscars red carpet with her hair naturally braided. Giuliana Rancic, host of the critic show, The Fashion Police, commented on that the then 18-year-old actress’ hairstyle made Coleman look like she “smells of patchouli oil. Or, weed.”

Zendaya took to Instagram to address the tone deaf comments made by Rancic: “There is already harsh criticism of African-American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge people off the curl of their hair.”

While this braid, like those of the wigs worn in the Comme des Garçons show, is met with critique for the people of their culture, Western and European natives continue to be praised for the style. 

This issue isn’t limited to red carpets and runways, however: in the summer of 2018, Cow Vintage in Manchester filled their store railings with native Indian garments and labelled them “festival attire”. A browse on the popular online fast fashion store, PrettyLittleThing, based in Manchester, will show you a hundred results of ‘oriental’ partywear, ‘oriental’ meaning it belongs to the Eastern culture. These items are then worn by club-goers on a Saturday night, unaware or ignorant to the symbolism of Eastern clothing. 

The counter argument has always been, “I like it, so why can’t I wear it?” It’s important to understand the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. We have never been more free to express ourselves creatively than we are in the 21st Century. The act of appreciation is seeking to understand the culture and to respect the milestones that said culture has travelled, and the people who own it. Doing this is called ‘cross-culturing’. Cross culturing is the concept of recognising the difference amongst nations, backgrounds and ethnicities. It is something to be celebrated. 

In 2016, Gucci was accused of appropriation when their models walked the fashion week runways wearing Sikh-style headpieces, named ‘Indy Full Turban’. The dastaar, which is known to the culture, is a very religious symbol for Sikh people and is considered a unique part of their identity. Furthermore: the Italian fashion house listed the turban for an online price of $790. 

The Sikh community were offended, of course. No credit was given for the inspiration and later, Gucci and Nordstrom apologised for the insensitivity and pulled the design from the collection. Turbans, a symbolic article of the faith, steeped in cultural and religious significance, often make Sihk’s the target of hate-fueled comments, attacks and bullying. The lesson here: Gucci, a $12,000,000 company, will nonetheless make profit off the design without understanding its deep significance. 

At the time, the Sikh Coalition responded to the collection piece, with a post on Facebook in regards to the design: “When companies like Gucci appropriate articles of faith, like the turban they’re trying to capitalize on, they do not take into consideration the discrimination that Sikh’s face whilst adhering to the tenets of their faith.”

Naomi Hodgson, 21, a third-year Manchester fashion, buying and merchandising student, took the time to state her views in regards to cultural appropriation, something she is familiar with. 

“I do not look at white people and think, “you look ‘stupid’ or ‘take them braids out.’ However, I think, they do get a better reception than I would, if I wore my hair naturally,” she said. 

Hodgson, of Caribbean descent, enlightened aAh! Magazine in regards to her time at secondary school, 

“I was told that my hair wasn’t ‘suitable’ for school, if I wore it naturally,” natural hair for Hodgson is naturally curly, a ‘fro. She tells me that she would usually braid it so it was manageable and also kept healthy. 

“I wasn’t trying to go against any school rules or bring attention to myself in any way- I was trying to wear my hair comfortably. Other girls at school would wear their hair naturally, or even braid it, and there wouldn’t be a problem.”

Unfortunately, this is when Hodgson decided it was best for her to compromise her natural hair: “By Year 9, I started to experiment with straightening my hair, to sadly ‘fit in’. It was so unhealthy and really damaged the texture of my hair. Shortly after, I began using hair extensions.”

Sadly, this is not uncommon for students. Cultural assimilation is the act of ‘toning down’ one’s self, in order to fit in. This is different from cultural appropriation. Black pupils are often discriminated against in schools, for the texture of their hair and choosing to style it in a healthy way for themselves. Emma Dabiri, author of Don’t Touch My Hair, recently created a petition for the ban against hair discrimination.

It goes to say, are we mistaking appropriation for a lack of respect? Dreadlocks are mainly affiliated with African culture but can also be traced back to India, Greece and also many other cultures, no matter the race. In addition, if wearing your hair a certain way or wearing a garment you particularly like is cultural appropriation, what else can fall under the appropriation category? 

Tea, one of England’s most popular drinks, actually originated in Southwest China. It was popularised in England during the 1660s. Coffee? That originated in Ethiopia. It’s hard to distinguish cultures because we have cross-cultured so many aspects of our own. Is the term ‘cultural appropriation’ now used so much that pinpointing an exact example of it happening becomes a blur? There are limits with cultural appropriation because it is linked to oppression and power – not just exchanges, like tea and coffee. 

Kenneth Wilkinson, Manchester Metropolitan University fashion professor, has undertaken extensive research into cultural appropriation in the fashion industry. 

“I would define cultural appropriation in the context of fashion as the uncredited use of cultural styles, motifs, elements, or designs by commercial parties who are culturally distant from the sources,” states Wilkinson. 

“After I had looked at nearly 50,000 images, it became apparent that the same selection criteria could capture examples that could be defined as either or both appropriation or appreciation. Any definition of appropriation/appreciation depends very much on the perceptions, ideologies, intentions, sensitivities, and ethnicities of the observing parties.”

He continued, “In other words, identifying what is objectively appropriate – or appreciating – is difficult, because it is usually a highly subjective, ethnically sensitive matter.” 

Wilkinson acknowledges that cultural appropriation is a matter of perception. He explains:

“Those who are ideologically primed to seek and feel grievance at the site of what they consider to be their cultural property being used by members of other cultures will see cultural appropriation as very real and persistent. Those who approach the subject neutrally are forced to conclude, however, that identification of cultural appropriation is highly problematic: what is appropriation to one is appreciation to another.”

So what’s the responsibility of the creator when it comes to fashion appreciation or cultural appropriation?

“My answer can only be subjective. It is my belief that creators should be free to utilise any material, regardless of its source, but if companies stand to make profits as a result of incorporating culturally meaningful style elements, then the least they can do is provide their consumers with accurate information regarding the origin of those elements and by so doing, give credit where it is due (while acknowledging their own unoriginality, which is rightfully humbling but honourable). That is, companies should be transparent concerning their use of traditional design elements in their products.” 

Collectively, we can explore cultures without exploiting them for our own use. Through examining our own culture and others respectively, we can reflect on what is important to us. This can help us morally respect other cultures – and learn where to draw the line. Think: what would offend you if someone from another culture used it to their advantage? We can learn to appreciate other cultures by listening. By researching and listening to the stories of other cultures, the good and the limitations, a broader understanding of context can be achieved.

The the lack of diversity within fashion houses is much deeper than the models. Models are the faces of the brands, so it’s great that more people are talking about diversity after seeing the campaign, the runway or magazine covers. However, there is a lack of diversity in fashion across all levels of workforce: from entry level to product concentration. If diversity was introduced front and back stage, smarter choices would be made in regards to other cultures.

About the author / 

Leah Crompton

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