My point of view on cultural appropriation in fashion
Yesterday, as it was Halloween, I read articles warning about costumes that would be considered as cultural appropriation.
This was not the first time I’ve heard about the topic, yet I still have issues making my mind about it.
What I thought at first
I must admit I am spontaneously like “ok, if you want to dress as geisha, as a russian doll or as an native american, I do not see the problem. You could have dressed as 16th century’s french aristocrat, as a caveman or as an air hostess, it would have been the same for me”. What is the point of a costume if not be someone you are not? I genuinely see no offense in dressing up as someone from a different culture.”
But then I though that maybe I did not get it because I, as a white slim european woman, belonged to the cultural oppressors?
I tried to transpose the situation
For instance, at first glance, I did not see a problem if someone blackfaced himself for a Kanye West costume, because let’s face it, Kanye West IS black and I would totally orangeface myself if I was going for a Giorgio Armani costume (the man not the brand) (or a Donald Trump costume for what matters) (oh no, worst idea EVER), so that is the same, right?
Some argue that, the reason you can’t do it is because, in the past, black actors where not hired in Hollywood. Instead white actors using blackface makeup and perpetrating the most vile clichés about black people were used to embody them. Ok, but that was long ago right? Now, black people seem to be widely acknowledged: Queen B rules the world (along with a whole lot of girls), Obama has been elected president, Kanye… Wait, wait, ok, it is a fact that black people are still very much discriminated, that in France, most of my non white friends have experienced racism… so, it can’t be denied we do not actually are equals worldwide on many levels.
So what if we were talking about a white population that have been oppressed in the past and is not anymore. Like the jews. That’d be more than totally innacurate to dress up as a jewish person, even more if, along traditional outfits, you would use things such as makeup, right? Therefore I totally get the point when it comes to costumes that are offensive because of a reference in the past.
I think that when the costume refers to a specific personality, there could be an exception, but then it shall also be ok, for a non white person to dress up as a white person without getting laughed at (could Beyoncé have dressed up as Hillary Clinton like Katy Perry did? I doubt it).
Therefore I’d say it is ok to dress up as someone from a culture you are not as long as it is not offensive. That is why religion and belief often are touchy topics. So just think.
Cultural inspiration in fashion
This debate also extends to fashion. And this was really bugging me. I mean. What would fashion be if, since centuries, there had be no cultural inspiration?
Cultural inspiration exists since men travel. Which is no proof it is a good thing. In french history, in the mid 19e century there was a fascination for orientalism for instance. Even earlier, we stole Renaissance style from the italians (a very exotic destination back then). And in the seventies, Saint Laurent got inspired by Northern European style.
As fashion as always been a mix up of inspiration, why not keep it this way?
Inspiration has to be quoted, otherwise this is appropriation
One of the main critic is that cultural roots for the inspiration are not quoted. Therefore, this would qualify as appropriation instead as inspiration. I disagree. When Burberry made wax print the core of it collection in 2011 I recall that most articles talking about this mentioned his “African inspiration”. And even in the street, I have the feeling most people everyone identifies this print as a part of the african culture. Maybe I overestimate people’s knowledge? But if they do not know, they also have no idea of the origin of their blue jean, so what is the big deal? Same goes for kimonos, braids, bindies, henna tattoos…
Ethnic trends are only acknowledged when worn by white folks
The problem would actually be that, if I, as white woman, wear african print with boxer’s braids, this would be considered fashionable. But if a black woman does the same, this would be considered not trying to integrate to western culture. Therefore, I understand that black people are nowadays bugged that the fashion statements they have been making for years are only being acknowledged as “the thing to do” now that some famous white people along with the fashion industry use them.
Some would argue that our western style had been stolen since years… Indeed. Not only for its style, but because this was the only style that was considered worthy of respect. Why do so many black women wear wigs to hide their natural hair? Why do so many asian have eye surgery? Maybe because their hair and eyes were declared “non fashionable” by medias and industry.
Fashion inspiration means admiration
But all in one, I think that, when done with respect, “stealing” fashion is admiration for one’s culture and that it is a good thing.
Think before getting dressed
I am not saying that it is ok to borrow any piece of outfit in any culture.
Some may hurt. Mainly when they are linked to painful history or religious beliefs.
Think if you were a muslim woman, would you be happy that the special tattoos you only do for weddings are now on every girls hand? Or as an Hindi woman, what would you think, if the bindi that has so much meaning to you was worn as a mere fashion accessory.
Nevertheless, I’d say that it is possible to get inspired by those beautiful traditions without being too literal. Therefore, it sounds ok for me to wear a bindi-like-fake-diamond-attire. Because this is not the real thing.
After all, this has been many year since Dolce and Gabbana is doing business on the catholic cross trend and this does not create any debate anymore.
Turning cultural assets in occidental money
Because, the final aim of fashion brands is to sell you stuffs right? And wouldn’t it have been better if the countries, where those cultural assets come from would have been able to make money with it instead of occidental companies?
Truth is, if those assets had not been occidentalized by western brands, most of us would never have dared wearing them.
I recently went to an african tailor to have myself a wax dress made. It was sewn on demand in Africa. Probably I would not have thought of this if I had not seen it on magazines. And it is not only because I cannot afford the Burberry but because I was happy to get the authentic thing.
Let’s time tell us how things evolve. Maybe this all will turn into something positive?
Maybe we will see some african, south american or chinese brands make their way into occidental closets?
Japanese brands made it in the eighties, russian brands since a few years. Wait and see?
Share your thoughts with me