Cultural appropriation is a concept that people are still having a hard time grasping. I wrote a piece a while back on cultural appropriation when Miley Cyrus had that ridiculous VMA performance and people in the comments then have the same wailing cry that people do now when cultural appropriation is brought up — “It should be cultural appreciation; we’re all just human beings.” Which is true, but it also proves the varied nuances that exist because we are human beings.
We have an array of DNA and genes, and along with those, we also have varied cultures, backgrounds, and associations. Blurring the lines between cultures to make people feel comfortable and included only exacerbates the privilege that allows one to feel left out of a culture that does not belong to them in the first place. To complicate things further, cultures have creativities that are unique to them such as, but not limited to: languages, gestures, hairstyles, foods, and fashions. The fashion of culture is unique to that culture—see kimonos in Japan, beaded necklaces worn by the Maasai people, Saris worn by Indian people, etc. In America, fashion is often regarded as a way to embrace and express one’s individual styles, personalities, and a way to flaunt economic status and wealth.
For some other cultures, fashion exists beyond the scope of personal expressions and can be an indicator of clans/tribes, social status, rankings, eligibility of marriage, etc. Due to the ease of travel and the internet, people have more and easier access to other cultures than ever before, highlighting the importance of understanding the beauty of other cultures while simultaneously providing just enough information and not enough information for people to misunderstand other cultures through the lens of their own biases.
Learning about other cultures is not bad, but appropriating and profiting off of these cultures and exploiting them for capitalistic gain is bad. You would think that this conversation should be easily understood, especially after the million dollar 2012 copyright infringement lawsuit filed on behalf of the Navajo nation against Urban Outfitters for their egregious “Native American inspired” line that labeled the product lines “Navaho” (for women) and “Navajo” for men.
The Huffington Post recently reported that the well-known Nigerian line BFYNE accused Silvia Ulson of copying their 2017 “Sahara” collection after Ulson debuted her Miami Swim collection on July 12. The pictures provided by BFYNE’s media director John Adele show an undeniable resemblance right down to the cut and style of the dashiki pattern. Ulson paired off her designs with feather headdresses and face paint that was intended to honor her Brazilian indigenous heritage. However, if honoring your own traditional heritage, why not be inspired by the brilliant colors that the Indigenous Brazilian tribes wore. Ulson claimed she didn’t steal the designs and hasn’t made a public comment.
Fashion has always had a problem with appropriating from cultures without giving credit to the culture and without giving back to the cultures that “inspired” them. Wanna, a well-known culture and music critic, wrote an amazing piece called “Black Girls From The Hood Are The Real Trendsetters.” In the article, she talked about how she would see things she wore and the influence it had on the larger runways. More importantly, the same black girls who rocked the cornrows, delicately swirled baby-hair, gold rings, and long nails were not welcome in the same industry that tried to emulate what these women looked like.
Furthermore, the fashion industry thrives on unpaid internships that disproportionately favors the white, abled, and middle-class. Low-income people, disabled people, and people of color hardly ever get the chance to be on the inside of the fashion world that will profit off of them for photo shoots and fashion lines to show that they are more inclusive than they actually are. Appropriation is not diversity and it is surely not inclusion. The fashion industry must do better.
“We can have no significant understanding of any culture unless we know the silences that were intentionally created and guaranteed along with it.” — Gerald Sider via Michelle Alexander