The word ‘culture’ defines the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and art. Culture is very personal to a lot of people as it identifies who they are and where they come from. Understandably, for those who have been discriminated for their culture throughout history, their cultural aspects are particularly important and hold a lot of significance within their lives.
In the fashion industry, culture has influenced a lot of clothing pieces we see today. Culture encompasses how we see the world and naturally contribute to how we dress. Within certain cultures, clothing can be very symbolic and if this is misused in the fashion industry then it can cause a lot of hurt and offence. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the significance of cultural appropriation.
What is cultural appropriation?
Defined by Oxford Dictionaries in 2017, cultural appropriation is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”
When relating this to the fashion industry, cultural appropriation also known as ‘cultural misappropriation’ is the use of cultural elements within clothing by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation can be particularly controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures.
An example of this is the use of black culture hairstyles within the fashion industry. Throughout history, black people have faced great inequality from slavery to racial segregation, mass incarceration and legal injustices all still heavily relevant today. Black culture has been demonised and stereotyped through the years and individuals have faced severe criticism for how they look and dress. Therefore, when fashion brands have shown to adopt black culture for their benefit, many people are insulted by this as they may have experienced prejudice for the same looks.
Afro-textured hair is very prevalent in black culture and hairstyles such as braids, cornrows and afros have been traced back 5000 years in African culture to 3500 BC. However, many black people have experienced backlash for their natural hair. One example is Brittany Noble, a former news anchor at WJTV in Mississippi. After having her son, Brittany began wearing her natural afro-textured hair to work, in which she was fired and told her natural hair is “Unprofessional and the equivalent to throwing a baseball cap to go to the grocery store.” And “Mississippi viewers need to see a beauty queen.” Not only is this oppressing to the award-winning journalist but also indicates that black hair is not beautiful.
Unfortunately, stories like Brittany’s are not uncommon. When researching American segregation laws, cities like New Orleans, introduced the Tignon Laws. Tignon Laws enforced women of colour to cover their natural hair with a tignon regardless of whether they were free or enslaved to oppress their natural features. Considering the Tignon Laws went out of effect in the 1800’s, black women and men evidently still face discrimination for their hair today and highlights the bigger issue behind Cultural Appropriation. Therefore, when the fashion brand Comme des Garcons and influencer Kim Kardashian decided to represent themselves wearing their hair in cornrows they were seen to be offensive. Neither the Comme des Garcons models or Kim Kardashian identify as being black so using this hairstyle to their benefit, for a ‘look’ insults the millions of black people who have faced discrimination for their hair. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote, “Privileged people want to borrow the ‘cool’ of disenfranchised people of colour, but don’t have to face any of the discrimination that accompanies it”. To understand more about the history and importance of black hairstyles, the two websites listed below are an insightful read.
A second portrayal of cultural appropriation evident in today’s society is the use of Native American culture as fashion. Ancestors of Native Americans have lived in what is now known as the United States for thousands of years. However, the European colonisation of America beginning in 1492, saw the massacre of millions of Native Americans murdering 90-95% of its population. Discussed by Donald L. Fixico in his book ‘The Invasion of Indian Country in the Twentieth Century’, Native Americans were slaughtered for their skin, their language, their worlds views and beliefs.
A significant part of Native American’s culture is the headdress worn by certain members in its tribe. The headdress symbolises strength and bravery for each feather worn represents an instance when a chief, warrior or other influential tribe member committed an act of bravery. Typically, the headdresses would be worn by the most powerful and influential tribe members and therefore held as highly respected and admired. Today, Native Americans still face discrimination and inequality. Native American culture, therefore, is highly important to those who identify with it and misusing the headdress for purposes of fashion is highly offensive.
Controversy in the industry
In 2012, fashion brand Victoria’s Secret modelled Karlie Kloss in a dramatic feathered headdress. Understanding the symbolism behind the headdress this caused a huge backlash for the company and appropriately labelled as culturally inappropriate. Erny Zah, a spokesperson for the Navajo Nation stated, “Any mockery, whether it’s Halloween or Victoria’s Secret, they are spitting on us”. The fashion brand removed the outfit from the broadcast, however, faced criticism in 2017 for Cultural Appropriation with its “Normandic Adventure” segment.
Additionally, festivals often see the Native American headdress worn. Many people are unaware of the historic symbolism of the headdress and wear it as a ‘free-spirit’ accessory. To help reduce Cultural Appropriation in festivals, Bass Coast electronic music festival in British Columbia, Canada told festival-goers that headdresses (also known as War Bonnets) would not be permitted on site. “We understand why people are attracted to war bonnets,” they wrote on the festival’s Facebook page. “They have a magnificent aesthetic. But their spiritual, cultural and aesthetic significance cannot be separated. Bass Coast festival takes place on indigenous land and we respect the dignity of aboriginal people.” Incorporating regulations like these, encourages others to research the relevance of certain clothing and why it is offensive to wear them. Furthermore, educating people on cultural appropriation will inevitably stop the mocking and costuming of historic cultural clothing.
However, how do we distinguish the difference between appropriating someone’s culture and appreciating it?
Cultural appropriation vs. appreciation
Discussed by Greenheart, cultural appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally. Appropriation, on the other hand, is simply taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your interest. Therefore, to celebrate another person’s culture positively, we can learn from others and learn the importance behind certain elements and ultimately, educate those around us about the influence of culture. We can appreciate another culture through understanding the historical and influence of incorporated elements rather than using a single element to our benefit.
To conclude, I do believe we can show our cultural appreciation through fashion, however, this must be done appropriately and with great knowledge to its relevant culture.