Right now you might be thinking another article on cultural appropriation? Haven’t there been enough already? Short answer: no.
It’s 2017. I am still serving drinks to “Native Americans” on Halloween at work despite the current ongoing Standing Rock protests. I am still seeing authentic designs of various indigenous ethnicities being crudely rehashed “ethnic” and “tribal” for financial gain. I am still seeing black friends being reprimanded for their “dirty looking” hair whilst designers such as Marc Jacobs are kitting out white models with a near-identical hairstyle and profiting from it.
Jacobs’ response to this was a regular rebuttal of the cultural appropriation argument: ‘I don’t see colour or race – I see people.’ Now firstly, I want to make clear that I fervently disagree with a racial polarisation mentality. That being said, in the wake of colonisation there unfortunately remains remnants that have constructed themselves stealthily and transparently into a cultural hierarchy. This stratification has too often been sidestepped with the alibi of colour-blindness, “peace” and love.” These are noble aspirations but we must debate whether cultural offence for the sake of style is really the way to achieve them.
By reducing styles and pieces to fashion statements or costumes, the wearer – regardless of the manner of intention – is misrepresenting and disrespecting sacred cultural property. Pop culture is a regular offender of exactly this with artists such as Katy Perry donning gimmicky misconceptions of a variety of cultures and Taylor Swift’s 2015 ‘Wildest Dreams’ video portraying an idealised, romantic colonial Africa conveniently devoid of any black people. By selecting stylistic elements only when and where it fits them, they diminish important cultural values and history. The trouble is not so much that they don’t care, or don’t know any better; they don’t think. They don’t think because, despite the seemingly small nature of the problem at hand, it is part of an underlying broader system.
That is not to say that fashion can’t be fun or that other cultures shouldn’t be explored. Style should be a fun way to investigate and express identity; and sharing and learning about one another’s traditions, beliefs and rituals is a beautiful, wonderful thing. But cultural appropriation is neither of these things. Simply put, cultural appropriation is not paying respect where respect is due. To deny cultural appropriation as another form of discrimination, as Marc Jacobs did, may be libertarian for some but is reductive to the people to whom the culture actually belongs to. Although many oppressed voices may not take offence to the actions of Marc Jacobs, this should not grant a square go in the monopoly of fashion. Furthermore, brandishing those who do agree as being “over-sensitive” or “narrow-minded” is a diluted continuation of a colonial mentality built upon silencing and theft. Many people would argue that there are bigger things to worry about; but how can we tackle the broader issues if we can’t even tackle the aesthetic faces on the die of discrimination?
There is a fine, shaky line between appropriation and appreciation but, though few and far between, there are some examples of ‘genuine’ appreciation. The remedy lies in research and respect. Hermes partnered with Kolkata designer Sunita Kumar on a line of saris in 2011, allowing an exchange of artistic ideas to be acknowledged and engaged respectfully. More recently in 2015, to celebrate the Met Gala’s China: Through the Looking Glass exhibit, Rihanna shone in a luxurious and regal yellow cape gown designed by Chinese couturier Guo Pei. Angelina Jolie has visited Pakistan several times donning a hijab and a traditional Pakistani long-sleeved kurta as a means to respect the culture and their values. By paying homage to the traditions and origins of certain stylistic features, these style giants shed a little light onto the original cultures’ three-dimensional qualities instead of downsizing them into un-informed caricatures for the sake of vanity.
For us non-famous IRL, cultural appreciation can be done right when taking these things into consideration for situations of cultural exchange and by using our voices as a platform for the disadvantaged to be heard. Daishikis, henna, bindis, kimonos etcetera are all beautiful pieces, but they are so often worn insensitively. This is not an attack on those who unknowingly appropriate. It is likely that at some point we have all inadvertently appropriated a culture that is not ours. But innocence is still ignorance and romanticization may as well be patronization. Besides, it’s 2017: we need to wake up and we need to speak up. Real style is not just imitation but thoughtful creativity and compassionate reciprocity. Respect is real style and it is timeless.
Article by Arianne Crannie