Cultural appropriation occurs when members of a dominant culture adopt or ‘borrow’ aspects from a marginalised culture. Adoption can include forms of apparel and adornment, social behaviour, art, music and religion. However, adoption of these aspects can become decidedly offensive when done so without a sense of respect and humility.
The majority of people who come from marginalised cultures do not feel uncomfortable or insulted when others wish to engage in aspects of their culture. In fact, it is quite the opposite – speaking from personal experience, they genuinely enjoy it! My dad is Indian and my mum is white: mixed Irish and Hungarian. When we attend Indian weddings my mum wears a sari and a bindi, as do I. She also participates in the pre-wedding custom of having mehndi intricately painted on her hands. Appreciating and partaking in a culture that is different to your own, under suitable conditions, can be a wonderful, valuable and comfortable experience for both the participant and the majority party. When adopting a cultural aspect with reverence and consent, participating in an aesthetic tradition is appropriate.
My anecdote reflects that cultural appropriation tends not to be problematic in terms of what is being done, but rather how it is being done. When members of white society detach the native cultural, historical and/or religious significance from an aspect of a marginalised culture, the marginalised people become reduced to degrading and therefore damaging stereotypes. Exploiting cultural aspects of a historically and presently less privileged group in order to appear fashionable, or dare I say ‘sexy’, is an exercise in white privilege and forms a trajectory that can lead towards racist attitudes.
In the name of fashion, a great deal of ‘borrowing’ from marginalised cultures has recently occurred in the mass media and consumer market. The theme of the 2015 Met Gala was ‘China’, yet Chinese designers were few and far between. More worryingly, the sexualisation of the traditional Chinese qipao, which can be seen on models Irina Shayk and Karolina Kurkova, propagates the stereotype that Chinese women are subservient, passive and willing to be scantily clad in order to satisfy the sexual desires of men. It reduces a sophisticated item of Chinese apparel to the Western perception that Chinese women are ‘exotic’ and can therefore be perceived as sexually desirable due to their otherness. In another highly questionable attempt to engage with Chinese culture, Lady Gaga donned a Kimono-style dress – an item of clothing that traditionally originates from Japan. Asian Culture is not interchangeable, and here, there is even a confusion of two countries that have been at war… not only once, but twice.
The cheap and cheerful brand ‘Missguided’ certainly appears to be misguided in regards to cultural appropriation. The fashion line advertises a trend with a rather dubious title – that of ‘Multicultural Mayhem’. It is likely that the designers and advertisers believe that they are amalgamating and embracing a variety of cultures in a positive manner. It is likely that they do not wish to cause offense. However, incorporating aspects of marginalised cultures to create ‘fashionable’ clothing reduces such cultures to commodities and therefore strips them of their original cultural significance.
You cannot and should not ‘borrow’ a person’s culture, race, or religion in the name of fashion or simply for ‘fun’. Mocking a person’s life, repurposing traditional dress for self-expression and fetishising aspects of a marginalised culture perpetuates negative stereotypes. It is categorically wrong. So please, if you are going to engage in an aspect of a different culture to your own, avoid appropriation and appreciate appropriately!