Cultural appropriation: When fashion becomes offensive

Fashion designers keep borrowing from other cultures blindly at times & present those things as fashion for which a culture has been oppressed

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter

Ananya Sharma

Recently a mother invited her little daughter’s friends to a Japanese themed tea party and posted this picture on her blog. Somehow it was not taken in a friendly way and the Mom was accused of racism and cultural appropriation until a Japanese commentator came to her rescue and explained how it was not cultural appropriation or racism but just a friendly gesture.

When Black actress Zendaya sported dreadlocks at the red carpet during Oscars, people criticised her saying that she looked dirty and smelled of ‘patchouli and weed’. Zendaya shot back exposing the duality of perceptions in society by saying “...People want to be around for the positives and the things that we(Blacks) bring as far as culture, but they don't want to be around when we have problems or when we're getting shot in the streets."

Her statement shed some light on the double standards prevalent in society as far as ‘sharing’ or ‘getting inspired’ by a different culture is concerned.

The primary purpose of culture has always been identification. Although, cultural exchange is a unifying experience, and cultures thrive by sharing and connecting with each other, but culture serves a greater purpose than just connection between one community and another. It contains, nurtures and represents a long history, traditions and experiences of a particular society.

Cultural appropriation is relatively a new term, which has recently come to the fore relating to “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’’(Cambridge University definition). Although the definition explains the term fairly accurately, there is much more depth and complexity to the concept that many of us seem to either not understand or overlook.

The most visible form in which people appropriate a certain culture is through clothing and fashion, and this practice in fashion often stirs controversy by touching upon some politically sensitive issues. Usually a dominant community or race borrows from the culture of a marginalised group, often with very little knowledge of the history, experience and process behind it.

For example, American celebrity, Kylie Jenner, has been accused of appropriating black culture in the form of dreadlocks and yaki ponytails, among others. Actress Amandla Stenberg even commented on her ‘looks’ by saying, “When you appropriate black features and culture but fail to use your position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards your wigs instead of police brutality or racism."

But then, there are instances such as the invite for the Japanese tea party, where people have no intention of appropriating a culture, but they are misunderstood.

That extreme sensitivity is again an outcome of complex socio-political connections between two cultures and that is where cultural appropriation becomes a vague term.

Sure, people from different cultural background can interact with each other, and most cultures have been intermingling for centuries. However, when celebrities like Kylie Jenner, and others like Madonna, Katy Perry etc. ‘borrow’ from a culture to make a statement, they should rather be careful about not being at times offensive to the race and the experiences they have suffered for years.

Marc Jacobs has used Bantu knots and dreadlocks, both traditional black hairstyles, at his fashion shows before. Selena Gomez, Madonna, Pharrell, Beyoncé and many other influencers have been accused of appropriating different cultures, and although some of them have apologised, like Pharrell Williams, many others decided to ignore the issue.

The main reason why it hurts people and communities is because it downplays historical oppression. In many institutions even today, blacks are forced to assimilate in order to be accepted. A vast number of schools and offices do not allow people to sport dreadlocks, braids, afros or their natural hair. Young students are expelled and workers fired just because their hair is different from the rest.

When models and actresses and designers of the dominant race include those things in their clothing and style, they are applauded by people for doing what the oppressed is punished for. The deeper issue lies in the fact that young girls and boys of colour grow up listening that their natural hair must be straightened in order to be accepted, or their skins lightened to be beautiful, and with that they end up losing their identity, and feeling a sense of alienation. Their idea of themselves as a part of a race gets distorted, and they end up with a deep wound in their sense of identity, while other races pass off their culture as fashion and get praised for it.

Each culture is developed through experiences and stories, and this lends the culture its sanctity and importance. Converting these traditions into Halloween costumes or festival fashion trivialises their importance, while providing no material benefit to the race that first created them.

Wearing a lehenga and bindi in an Indian wedding or covering your head while visiting a mosque shows appreciation for a culture. Such practices symbolise respect and admiration for a culture. Whereas borrowing from a culture without knowledge of its heritage would mean appropriating it when the same practices have often resulted in many races being relegated as uneducated and uncivil, or called ignorant and backward for refusing to assimilate.

Many of us have been guilty of appropriating certain cultures, not just celebrities and superstars. The debate however boils down to the fact that appropriating a culture is always a choice, not a societal convention. It is important that we register that feelings of a few privileged races cannot supersede justice for the oppressed, and if cultures are to be shared, it must take place in a respectful manner.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines