Cultural appropriation is always bad, right? Guys?

The words “cultural appropriation” hardly inspire a warm and fuzzy feeling in the hearts and minds of the general public. Accusations of appropriation tend to inspire people to rabid defense of their style choices as an individual or criticism of such people for ignoring a history that they have never been affected by and thus have no right to participate in. In a previous blog post I enumerated the various ways in which cultural appropriation of fashion can go horribly, horribly wrong, with centuries of artistic design linked to the history of a country of a culture reduced to a number of lazy stereotypes by people who can claim no link to the culture in question, do not support artists from the country that they are mimicking, and essentially turning what might be a tribute to beautiful fashion into a costume and a mockery.

It would be easy to assume, given the constant arguments over what constitutes appropriation and who is allowed to cross which racial lines that borrowing from other cultures is always appropriation, and that appropriation is always bad. As an article recently published in the Huffington Post remarks, in light of the constant blunders made by the fashion industry with regards to drawing inspiration from other cultures, “it seems like the only safe option might be to send out models every season in blue jeans and sneakers”. But such a world is not only implausible in terms of what guidelines the ever changing fashion industry would be willing to listen to (obviously), it is also boring, bland, and doesn’t take advantage of the beautiful diversity of colors and forms that have developed over the course of history. Such beauty is worth, and deserves to be recognized and paid tribute to. So how is it possible for designers to draw inspiration from beautiful fashion without falling into one of the many pitfalls of cultural appropriation? As described in the same article, a good place to start, and one already being taken on by Oskar Metsavaht, a Brazilian designer who has created a collection based on one of the country’s native tribes, is to pay them for the privilege of using their designs, draw attention to the collection’s origins by naming it after the tribe, and publicizing the social issues, such as logging, that are being faced by tribe members.

There are a number of criticisms that come even with this “sustainable” version of cultural appropriation. One could argue that funding projects that help the members of a certain culture in return for the use of their designs is, in effect, “buying culture”, which fails to give the designer claim to that culture, since it is still not part of his own history, and may set up an unfortunate power dynamic where native peoples sell the rights to their designs in order to receive funding for social projects that they need to advance. This does not even address the people that buy items from such a line, who are even less connected to the people from whom the clothing designs originated. Clothing provides a bit more of a grey line than other areas of fashion in this matter, but it seems reasonable to assume that even if a famous hair stylist, for instance, funded a community project in return for being taught the intricacies and potential social and historical meanings of traditionally black hairstyles, that stylist would not be free to then start putting cornrows on all their white clients and be free from all accusations of cultural appropriation.

Despite these critiques, paying people for the privilege of using their designs for inspiration in the world of high fashion may be a good place to start in sharing the beautiful diversity of fashion that exists in the world while attempting to pay proper tribute to the culture from which it came.

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“…Valentino’s most recent ‘Africa-inspired’ show where…the mostly-white models all sported cornrows, apparently without irony”


An example of Metsavaht’s collection



One thought on “Cultural appropriation is always bad, right? Guys?

  1. Paying people to use their culture’s clothing traditions as inspiration for mainstream fashion as inspiration is an interesting proposition. It could, in certain instances, ameliorate the inequity and potential cultural violation caused by borrowing elements from marginalized or “non-mainstream” cultures. However, I agree with the author’s concern that it could lead marginalized groups of people to sell off their cultural elements for their aesthetic value simply to make ends meet but thereby sacrificing the integrity and sanctity of those elements. That being said, I think that cultures influencing and borrowing from one another is part of the natural interaction between groups of people, and from cultural mixtures can be produced beautiful new things. The delicate solution that comes to my mind would be for cultures who feel the need to appropriate to only use others’ cultures elements as inspiration, but not to outright steal entire items of clothing or accessories. For example, if an American clothing designer were inspired by Japanese kimonos, they could take the wrap-and-sash idea and adapt into their design for a top or dress without taking anything else, such as sleeves or length or prints for fabric. There would be no way to regulate or ensure this, but through vigilant public criticism of designers who don’t respect this boundary, perhaps a social standard would be set and violating such a boundary would become unacceptable.


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