What is cultural appropriation? It is essentially when individuals or brands adopt the elements of one culture by members of another culture, this is problematic, especially when a dominant culture appropriates it from a minority culture. Now, I welcome you to the fashion industry, which is filled with cultural appropriation. These elements that are adopted are usually used outside of their original cultural context, even when it goes against the values, as expressed by those from the originating culture. Where there is the calling out of cultural appropriation, there is chaos, but how come the industry and consumers are so quick to forget and overlook it?
This issue was brought up again when my friend mentioned how the Pretty Little Thing x Little Mix collaboration made her uncomfortable. It’s easy to understand why. Look at the Red Oriental High Neck Crop Top and the Red Oriental Wrap Detail Mini Skirt. Look, there is already a problem with labelling the clothes ‘oriental’. I don’t particularly want to get into the ramifications of orientalism and Edward Said’s book on it, but the clothing already suggests that there is an otherness, and for a certain price you can look like the others with these clothes. There is nothing wrong with wearing pieces from another culture, but when you alter it and mislabel it, then there are problems. It is evident that we’ve become numb to cultural appropriation again. Instead of calling it the Pretty Little Thing x Little Mix collaboration, you could also call it the Pretty Little Thing x Orientalism collaboration.
At the end of the day, some trends simply exist to commercialise and cheapen the heritage of other cultures. These designers and fashion houses need to understand the history behind the clothing that they adopt from other cultures. You cannot ignore the fact that there were ethical issues with filing patents without consent, acknowledgement or compensation, when adopting certain clothing from other cultures. Let’s not forget how Kim Kardashian initially thought it was okay to call her line of shape-wear, Kimono, which in completely unrelated to shape-wear to begin with. There is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, too. These fashion houses and designers are welcome to use these cultural symbols as way to pay homage to a specific culture.
But that’s not the case. They are used for aesthetic purposes instead. One example is Beyoncé in a desi garment for the Coldplay, ‘Hymn For The Weekend’, music video. There is no correlation for her to be in these garments and they were used for the sole purpose of aesthetics. The same goes for Iggy Azalea’s music video, ‘Bounce’, as she was in a traditional Indian dress in 2013. Again, for no other reason than aesthetics.
It is important that we do not continue to move on from these moments of cultural appropriation. The problem with blurring the line between appropriation and appreciation is that native cultures usually experienced suffering for wearing their own clothes and cultural accessories. Today, many minorities still face discrimination and abuse, yet fashion houses and brands continue to make culture a statement with non-natives not facing discrimination for it. For example, the dreadlocks used by Marc Jacobs and the Bantu Knots used by Chanel, illustrate this problem as black people are still discriminated for wearing these styles. They often won’t be hired or are prohibited from wearing their natural hair to school.
Perhaps the concept of cultural appropriation has not been forgotten in the fashion industry, instead it has been renamed as cultural appreciation, as the industry continues to ignore the issue. These are not simple one-off mistakes, a lot of thought and time goes into these campaigns and runway shows, meaning it had to go through several stages of approval. Those who are approving these ideas and designs are likely aware of the implications of turning cultures into accessories and trends. It’s simple, capital is king, especially in the fashion and beauty industry. There is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. With an industry that repeatedly appropriates rather than appreciates, they haven’t forgotten, they’re making too much profit to care.