Appreciation vs Appropriation

By Hayley White

Reading time: 10 minutes

From the Chinese kimono to the Indian bindi, every culture has a traditional dress framed around their identity. As the world becomes more multicultural, commercialised fashion has attempted to imitate the costumes of certain cultures by creating similar styles designed to be accessible to everyone. Fashion styles and designs are thrown together in an attempt at diversification, innovation and cultural inclusivity, particularly in places like America and the United Kingdom that are melting pots of culture – but it is not always seen as inclusive; rather, it can be seen as stealing.

Cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, elements, practices, or ideas of one people or society by members of another, more typically dominant, people or society. In fashion, it tends to mean that Western cultures and/or people have taken ideas from minority cultures and turned them into a fashionable trend or fad. Often that idea is one that the minority cultures have been shunned or mocked for in the past. As more cultures come together, people are finding ways to incorporate

By Hayley White

Reading time: 10 minutes

From the Chinese kimono to the Indian bindi, every culture has a traditional dress framed around their identity. As the world becomes more multicultural, commercialised fashion has attempted to imitate the costumes of certain cultures by creating similar styles designed to be accessible to everyone. Fashion styles and designs are thrown together in an attempt at diversification, innovation and cultural inclusivity, particularly in places like America and the United Kingdom that are melting pots of culture – but it is not always seen as inclusive; rather, it can be seen as stealing.

Cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, elements, practices, or ideas of one people or society by members of another, more typically dominant, people or society. In fashion, it tends to mean that Western cultures and/or people have taken ideas from minority cultures and turned them into a fashionable trend or fad. Often that idea is one that the minority cultures have been shunned or mocked for in the past. As more cultures come together, people are finding ways to incorporate these new practices into their lives. At the base of this inclusivity, is imitation. The question pops up then that imitation is the highest form of flattery, right? Unfortunately, imitation can quickly cross over into appropriation.

News channels and social media platforms make it very easy for designers, fashion labels, and celebrities to suffer public criticism for what they promote, design and wear – and that lands them in some sticky situations.

New Zealand designers are no strangers to cultural appropriation. Dame Trelise Cooper had only two big controversies in her forty-year career, but that, perhaps is two too many. In 2011, Cooper hosted a fashion show in which ten of her models had the skin around their eyes stretched back by clear tape and accentuated by makeup to look more Asian. Despite “unreservedly” apologising for any offence taken, she made a similar blunder only three years afterwards.

In 2014, Cooper again came under fire when her models walked the catwalk wearing traditional Native American war bonnets or headdresses, claiming they were a “fun thing” she came across in America and Ibiza. What was most interesting about these two occurrences, was that for every person who acknowledged that she was stealing from a culture, there was another who defended her actions. One person even went so far to say that it was only a fashion show and not a political statement and that everyone needed to calm down. This was not the first or last time Indigenous American headdresses have been worn in a fashion show. In 2012, Victoria’s Secret lingerie had a similar showcase of headdresses and Chanel threw their own in, in 2013.

I do not have enough fingers on my hands to count the number of times I have seen celebrities fall prey to ‘cancel culture’ because they wore a piece of clothing or their hair in a way that was linked to a specific culture. Prime suspects for allegedly appropriating fashions are the Kardashians; I swear I see them offend people every other week. In 2018, Kim Kardashian sparked controversy when she wore cornrows, an integral hairstyle of the African American culture. This was controversial because Kim Kardashian was praised for wearing the style, when in reality, African American women struggle with the stigma they face for wearing it, and are labelled unkempt, unprofessional, or that the hairstyle is a distraction. Katy Perry also faced criticism for wearing various performance outfits copied from the Japanese geisha, Egyptian Cleopatra, and African American braids. Although Perry was possibly trying to honour the Japanese culture, she inadvertently achieved the opposite by mashing her geisha outfit with a Chinese-style kimono. It was a careless move on her part, lumping together two distinct cultures, which Grays (2016) says was perpetuating stereotypes of reducing all Asians to one culture. Katy Perry was immensely apologetic once she realised what her actions meant, but the issues still remain.

Katy Perry performing Unconditionally at the American Music Awards
Photo source: Youtube.com

Fast fashion brands also continue to appropriate symbols and cultural fashions from all around the world, regardless of the backlash they face. Widespread brand SHEIN messed up big time by selling kurta-styled pyjama sets and dresses (a kurta is a loose, collarless, East Asian shirt). SHEIN also tried to sell Muslim prayer mats as “frilled Greek carpets” and swastika necklaces. SHEIN did make the argument that they were referencing their swastika necklaces back to the Hindu swastika symbols for wellbeing, prosperity, and good luck. In spite of all that, and their claim that they created a multicultural board of representatives to help them avoid issues in the future, they continue to make mistakes. Whether conscious of it or not, they are commodifying cultures into fads or trends and that is essentially the driving force keeping cultural appropriation alive.

Sadly, many celebrities and fashion brands are simply not cognisant of the culture they are trying so hard to recreate. At the core of appropriation is the thought that we can just wear things from other cultures without first understanding and acknowledging that culture.

Another example of cultural appropriation is the practice of wearing other cultures’ traditional clothing as dress-up costumes. In my opinion, thinking of anyone’s culture in the context of a costume to be worn for fun and games is wrong on all levels. Going to a dress up party as a hula girl or a Native American is a common form of everyday appropriation, caused by a lack of education and respect for other cultures.

Some argue that appropriation is an inevitable action (Jenkins, Purushotma, Weigel, Clinton, Robinson, 2009; Rogers, 2006 as cited in Han, 2019) and I can see how someone could come to that conclusion in a multicultural society like ours, but I disagree. Appropriation can so easily be avoided and turned instead into an appreciation for the culture instead.

Appreciation involves understanding; for example, Adele posted an Instagram photo of her wearing a Jamaican flag bikini and Bantu knots (Bantu knots are a specific hairstyle relevant to Jamaican culture), for Notting Hill Festival. The annual festival is an important two-day Caribbean carnival event that has taken place in the Notting Hill area of Kensington, London every August since the ‘60s. The event gives oppressed Black communities space to celebrate their culture and express themselves. Having lived her entire life in London, Adele is well aware of its significance and as such, her sartorial statement was one of support and appreciation of the culture, rather than an appropriation of it.

Appreciating a culture doesn’t mean you shouldn’t participate in it, and when you live in a multicultural society such as the United Kingdom, and even here in New Zealand, it’s pretty much impossible to not partake. Kiwis celebrate Diwali, the Chinese New Year, and Māori festivals like Matariki. Getting your henna done at Diwali or carrying a Chinese lantern at the New Year festivals are an appreciation and acknowledgement of these cultures and should be honoured. Celebrating diverse cultures is a safe and fun way to co-exist and learn from each other. It is only when we do these things with disrespect or ignorance that they become problematic. Learning about culture and exploring its roots is central to cultural appreciation … and it’s so easy to do.

Hands with Henna
Photo: Vitality Lyubezhanin, Unsplash

Sources: 1. The Blurred Lines of Cultural Appropriation 2. Moving from cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation. Art Education

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