Calling out cultural appropriation has been a growing trend within the past decade—it’s time to figure out what it exactly means and what is legitimately considered offensive.
To make this easier, I will focus mostly on understanding cultural appropriation in context to the fashion industry.
What is cultural appropriation?
Here’s the definition published by the Oxford University Press:
A term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.
Cultural appropriation is the by-product of being politically correct. Now, here’s a definition of political correctness:
The avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.
In theory, both of these terms are positive principles for Western nations to abide by. No culture should be exploited or offensively portrayed.
Chanel’s Boomerang, a Recent Example of Cultural Appropriation
Chanel recently re-introduced a boomerang into its sport accessories line and apparently people are offended by the way Chanel has included a boomerang in the line, because it’s an appropriation of Australian aboriginal culture.
The Technicalities of Cultural Appropriation
Immigration and travel have made an impact in shaping a nation’s ever-changing identity—naturally, a cultural exchanges will happen.
If we think about it, everything came from somewhere. I’ll give a few examples.
- Ikat print—Southeast Asia, South America, Middle East “and beyond” according to Apartment Therapy (basically everywhere except North America)
- Indigo—Wikipedia says somewhere in Asia, but NPR says West Africa…?
- Chopsticks—I hope I don’t have to explain this, but here’s a history of chopsticks in case you’re interested.
- Champagne—Another thing I really shouldn’t have to explain
- A bunch of other stuff white people like
Also, apparently braids are also culturally appropriated by white people, but I’m pretty sure every nation has incorporated braids in their own way for hundreds of years…
Identifying which acts of cultural appropriation deserve the “wag of the finger” is where it gets tricky.
An editorial that features a model posing in an authentic headdress from a Native American tribe—especially without giving any context or highlighting the culture—is not respectful.
… A college girl who wants to dress as Disney’s Pocahontas for a Halloween party only deserves an eye-roll or a shrug. I highly doubt that Drunk Pocahontas is trying to assuage her Western dominance.
If these people want to be serious with abiding by cultural appropriation, they should be more politically correct about everything, not just about how we dress. For example, they shouldn’t eat pasta, since that’s cultural appropriation of Italy.
They shouldn’t eat anything, really, unless it comes from their own ethnic background—and how backward of a suggestion is that in an interconnected, globalized world?
We live in an the age of globalization where everyone can be exposed to different cultures without even leaving their own home.
We engage in cultural appropriation everyday.
We need to be respectful of other cultures.
In a perfect world, if brands wanted to use elements from another nation’s dress, they would seek permission or create thoughtful collections about other cultures. It would be cool to have a tasteful collection inspired by Native American tribal prints. Maybe not exact replicas.
As for the consumer, it’s one thing to wear a piece of clothing that is inspired by Bollywood or a vintage kimono. It’s another thing entirely to apply makeup to look like another ethnicity by brushing on brown paint or drawing hooded eyelids.
It’s not to say that fashion hasn’t had a number of culturally insensitive moments. There was the upside-down crucifix, the Star of David… If you spend some time on Google, you’ll find what you need to know.
… But there’s no need to crucify someone in a Disney costume.
Let’s be real.
This entire dialogue about cultural appropriation is nonsense, because cultural appropriation is just an excuse for people not to examine more important issues happening in the world.
It would be cool if those same people crying out “cultural appropriation” cared more about what’s happening in their own communities, their own countries, or even their own industries. The same people calling out others for cultural appropriation probably oppose reasonable immigration policies, but we won’t talk about that today, so you can read this Salon article about the relationship between white, Western privilege and cultural appropriation.
If anything, instead of Chanel’s boomerang, people should be more concerned about how the fashion industry pollutes the earth in every stage of its production or how unseen hands and hearts are abused in garment factories, but apparently that’s not upsetting to these people who are too preoccupied with commenting “cultural appropriation” in ALL CAPS on Instagram.
Of all the things to be offended by, does it really matter if a luxury fashion house wants to put its logo on some overpriced sporting goods?