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Fashion and Cultural Appropriation: The Do’s and Don’ts

The fashion industry is filled with problems. From the labour issues in the supply chain to the severe lack of sustainability that is damaging our planet. The toxic nature of this industry is bursting at the seams. But now there is a new hot topic taking centre stage – cultural appropriation.

However, this lack of cultural sensitivity is nothing new. With the rise of the internet, conversations concerning what is acceptable and what is not are far more prominent these days. Yet, the fashion industry still can’t seem to get it right.

What is cultural appropriation?

There is no doubt that the fashion industry has an issue when it comes to cultural sensitivity. And cultural appropriation is one of fashion’s latest offences. But what is it?

It is when a more privileged culture takes styles and traditions from a minority group without giving the respect or credit deserved. People adorn themselves with symbols and designs from another culture and wear them as a costume. In other words, the more powerful take the aspects they deem as ‘trendy’ and ‘cool’ and turn them into everyday accessories.

Cultural appropriation simply shows a great deal of insensitivity. And what’s worse is that big brands are taking advantage of these cultural styles without a care in the world. But then why would they care? Brands aren’t concerned about us mere mortals and our boycotting threats. What they care about is the out of touch celebrity who will promote their latest design all over Instagram. Ultimately, they are exploiting a culture with the goal of making money whilst tricking us all into believing they’re diverse and inclusive.

For example, in 2019, Italian fashion house Gucci faced backlash after releasing a blue turban. Their ‘Indy Full Turban’ was very similar to the style of those worn by Sikhs – an article of faith that represents equality to most. Only now, it is being sold for a whopping $790 with a complete disregard for what it stands for. By appropriating this article and failing to acknowledge the discrimination that Sikhs face on a daily basis, Gucci have single-handedly evidenced the ignorance within the fashion industry.

The problem with cultural appropriation

So, you’re probably wondering why cultural appropriation is such a big problem.

First of all, it is just one way that non-dominant cultures are still being oppressed. These communities have been through so much. Not only have they had their livelihoods and land taken from them but now their identities are being taken too. In other words, the heritage of minorities is being exploited as dominant cultures continue to claim ownership for stuff that isn’t theirs.

In addition to this, cultural appropriation is encouraging the imbalance of power that minority cultures experience. Many brands are failing to give credit to those who they have taken inspiration from. This ultimately separates the product from its roots and reduces its meaning.

Furthermore, marginalised people are criticised for displaying their own culture. However, most other people are free to use and wear these elements with little to no consequences. What’s fair about that?

It can also add to the stereotypes of the culture. We are no strangers to this, especially when Halloween comes knocking on our door. People waltz around in their sombreros or geisha costumes with no regard for the implications. It reduces the cultural significance of these outfits to a novelty costume, further disadvantaging the culture.

The right and wrong

When it comes to cultural appropriation not all is bad. If done properly, it can lead to a wonderful exchange of culture.

So how do brands show their appreciation for culture without overstepping the line and offending those at the very heart of it in the process?

What not to do

One Indigenous designer warns brands against the appropriation of sacred artefacts – such as feathered head dresses – as accessories. Designers must get involved by communicating with the community and understand the historical context and spiritual references behind the object. Through collaborating with communities, brands can gain consciousness of inappropriate elements and avoid the use of them.

It could also be argued that the issue here isn’t actually appropriation. The real issue is the lack of diversity of the models on the runway. This is leading to the misrepresentation that we see so much of. For example, a Chinese born stylist claims it’s not enough to have two Asian girls in a 35-look show. And brands certainly shouldn’t be trying to make a white person look Asian. Just use Asian models if that’s your ‘aesthetic’, it really is that simple.

What to do

It’s important to give credit and compensation to the people involved. Leading sources of inspiration need to be highlighted instead of giving credit to celebrities, designers and photographers who have absolutely no connection to the culture.

Take Canada Goose for example. They celebrate the Inuit culture very respectfully with Project Atigi. This project is a collection of handmade parkas, made by Inuit designers, with the proceeds from the sale of the clothes going to the four regions of Inuit Nunangat to help support the people and place.

Furthermore, a South-African designer points out that it is OK to take elements of cultural design. However, it’s important that brands are inspired and don’t simply copy. They must add a unique feature and make it their own without disrespecting the original significance of the element. This is otherwise known as cultural appreciation.

The role of fashion brands

Brands need to start being more mindful when borrowing from other cultures. And us as consumers need to keep calling them out on it to bring a greater awareness.

Some brands, such as Chanel, have already started to act by implementing diversity councils. This encourages well-rounded and thought out clothing from a team of people with a diverse background.

Brands can finally start to face these issues head on and reduce the issues of appropriation thanks to their newfound perspective.

A new approach

There’s no questioning that determining when cultural appropriation is OK is a tricky thing. So tricky that we’ve deemed it as a bad thing just so that we can avoid it altogether. And although there are clearly some major issues when it comes to fashion and cultural appropriation, it’s important that it isn’t dismissed completely.

Well-intentioned cultural appropriation can be a good thing. After all, different cultures and the diversity of influences is what helps to drive and evolve the fashion industry into one that thrives.

Both fashion brands and consumers must co-exist in a way that is both mindful of the culture of others whilst also being creatively open.

The exchange of traditions and styles is crucial for creating a progressive and multicultural society. A society that is accepting of everyone and is able to celebrate the differences between one another. By shining a light on lesser known cultures, we are able to open our minds and create greater inclusivity.

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