Fashion + Diversity

Cultural Appropriation: Diversity in Fashion isn’t a Trend

Diversity shouldn’t be a fashion trend; the fashion industry needs to be diverse. Fashion lacks diversity in many ways. Maybe one brand limits its clothing to ‘one size fits all’ (even though we all know it doesn’t). Or perhaps the marketing for a new collection underrepresents ethnic minority groups or has an offensive campaign that exhibits cultural appropriation. On a regular basis, we can see the exclusivity of fashion. Yet we all wear clothes. So there shouldn’t be barriers preventing any individual from wearing what they want when they want.

This said, in recent years the fashion industry has slowly moved towards more diversity in models, marketing and its attempt to represent all people. For example, some brands are starting to explore gender-fluid clothing lines. This includes high-end and high street brands such as Balenciaga and ASOS’ Collusion making their clothing more accessible to all. But it still begs the question, why are most websites still separating their clothes between ‘women’ and ‘men’?

It shouldn’t be that examples of brands moving towards diversity are all that we can see in terms of making the fashion industry inclusive. If we had truly achieved a diverse industry then there would be no need for further conversation on the topic, besides celebrating the positives.

Cultural celebration or cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation put simply is the violation or inappropriate adoption of customs or ideas from a group of people. And in the fashion industry, the appropriation of cultural traditions in clothing and accessories has become a problem when it comes to festival wear.

We all love to put on a bit of glitter when it comes to dressing up for festivals. But is it really okay to wear a bindi at Coachella? The answer is no. Yet high profile celebrities such as Vanessa Hudgens, Kendall Jenner, and Ellie Goulding have all been caught out for the appropriation of Hindu culture in the past.

This works against the progression of diversity in fashion as Rajan Zedd, the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, explains: ‘The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition […] It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed.’

What not to do at fashion week

This idea of appropriating culture for profit does not simply involve the wearing of bindis by festival-goers. Some brands use the vague idea of diversity as a trend without recognising and appreciating the traditions behind certain cultures. And by doing so the brand influences their consumers into throwing around traditions for their own financial gain.

And it doesn’t stop there. On runways, the cultural appropriation in fashion branches into makeup, accessories and hair, causing various controversies in recent years. Earlier this year, models were given cornrow wigs to wear in the Commes Des Garçons show supposedly inspired by an “Egyptian Prince” look at Paris Fashion Week. This blatant misappropriation was briefly addressed and far too quickly moved on from, as with many previous runway scandals. Another unforgettable example being the predominantly white models sporting dreadlocks in the 2016 Marc Jacobs show at New York Fashion Week.

What needs to change in the future?

However, dwelling on past mistakes overlooks the steps that have already been taken towards making fashion more diverse. One obvious way to find diversity in fashion is through the impact of social media. For example, we can see positives in the role that Instagram plays in amplifying voices sometimes overlooked.

Instagram increases the profile of plus-size models and allows small independent brands to grow more than ever before. Social media also forces brands to take accountability by giving a voice to everyone. The more we speak out, the closer we get to diversity in the future of fashion.

Undeniably, before we can call the fashion industry diverse there is work to be done. But with monumental movements such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion the world is changing, and fashion with it. Although we should continue to call out examples of cultural appropriation in fashion, we should not focus on the negatives. Instead, we should readjust our focus on celebrating culture appropriately, with the appropriate groups of people. Then we can actively move away from the exploitation of race, religion and culture in fashion.

By Kate Cunnington

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