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

27 Responses to “My point of view on cultural appropriation in fashion”
  1. K Fols says:

    The problem with cultural appropriation is that non-white people deserve privacy and respect of their culture. As a person of African descent, if I wear my hair in braids, it’s because of the special connection I have with my hair, the symbolism of my culture and the unique texture of my hair. It’s not something I do for fun on the weekends. Non-white people aren’t here for white society’s amusement. It’s very disrespectful. Purchasing a culture item for sale by a non-white person is very different from wearing blackface or braids. And when I look at tv and see Beyoncé wearing a blond wig, but I may not get a job for wearing my natural hair to the interview, there’s something severely wrong with the natural order of the universe. Being a white person is a freedom that I will never know in the currrent global landscape. But I would appreciate if white society left the African culture alone for a few thousand years and enjoy the standard of beauty that has been created for them to enjoy.

    • Aloïs Guinut says:

      I know I am just a white french girl. But many things you do for your beauty/style are not because you need to (unique texture of hair), but because you want to (have your hair the color of a unicorn, wear eye liner like a pin up, wear super high heels…). Yes it make more sense that you wear braids because of the unique texture of your hair and symbolism. Yet it does not mean the white girl next door can’t do it just for fun. Beauty is fun. And by braiding her hair, I think she shows admiration of your culture and is absolutely not disrespecting you.
      On the other side, that is complete and unfair discrimination that you may not get a job if your wear your natural hair and unfortunately this still exists.
      Yet, I think that if braids become something common no matter what color, you are, it can help that discrimination against this hairstyle disappears.
      I know I am a white person and therefore cannot fully understand from within. Yet, from where I stand, I think cultural inspiration is not bad and that if we shall stick with the standards of beauty that were set for us, the world would be very sad.
      I mean, I would not be wearing jeans today because they were meant for american workers!

      • Marleen G. says:

        “Lucky to be white” hmm… yeah. Let’s just stop right there. You’re a typical racist white female who doesn’t think culture appropriation is a real thing. Delete this whole post please.
        You need to log out. Change ya password, and don’t ever log in again. Goodnight white girl.

        • Aloïs Guinut says:

          I do not deny the existence of cultural appropriation. But I think that when the origin of the trend is known that’s not appropriation but inspiration. And things are not just plain evil or good. You can disagree. I hope you read the whole article and did not stop at “white girl”

        • Thibaud says:

          Fascist Spotted

  2. CB says:

    Thank you for this article; I agreed with you on many points and especially that there is no easy single answer! My perspective is that of an American-born person with Asian origins. I do not feel offended when non-Asians wear costumes from my parents’ country (Vietnam). When Asian costumes are worn by others, I feel that it helps my culture become more accepted and more widely appreciated. What offends me is racist behavior, but wearing something because you consider it beautiful, go ahead, why not?!? It is like fashion freedom of expression. Yes, back then these styles would have been made fun of, but that’s even more a good reason to let more people wear them and make those fashions less stigmatized.

  3. Manderley says:

    Je pense que le terme “appropriation” en ce qui concerne la mode est brutal, clivant et employé a dessein pour créer une polémique inappropriée.

    En effet, la mode n’a jamais cessé d’emprunter à des métiers, à des activités sportives, à des références culturelles:
    – métiers: le jean, le caban, la marinière, le trench, les clarks (desert boots), le duffle coat, le treillis, la veste officier, le spencer…
    – activités sportives: les bottes cavalières, les vestes de chasses, le polo…
    – références culturelles: le kilt (et donc toutes les jupes plissées), l’anorak (et toutes des doudounes ornées de fourrure autour de la capuche), le pull irlandais, les spartiates, les espadrilles, le tissu madras, les jupes/robes dites patineuses en tissu rigide (voir le tableau de Goya l’infante espagnole), l’indigo (culturellement japonais et africain), le paréo (polynésien), la couleur rouge en teinture (voir colonisation du Brésil par les portugais), les collections de Saint Laurent (russe, africaine, la robe Mondrian), la collection de bijoux “Touareg” par Hermès…
    Bref c’est une liste sans fin.
    Autres points:
    – le wax est un tissu hollandais utilisé principalement en Afrique
    – toujours en Afrique, les sapeurs empruntent exclusivement à la mode occidentale

    Pour ma part, je pense que le terme appropriation est plus adapté au pillage d’objets sacrés et d’œuvres d’art patrimoniales par les occidentaux et là encore la liste est sans fin et autrement plus polémique et douloureuse.

    • Aloïs Guinut says:

      Tout à fait d’accord sur ta réflexion sur le choix du mot!
      Par contre si la wax est fabriquée par les hollandais à la base, les motifs sont clairement africains (j’ai gaffé une fois à chateau-rouge parce que moi non plus je ne savais pas trop qui avait fait quoi et je me suis faite reprendre)

  4. Dérupe says:

    La réflexion est intéressante, je comprends que ça fasse débat. La mode occidentale s’est imposée au monde entier alors que ses éléments “ethniques” sont piqués à ces cultures différentes. Ce que je déplore, c’est que le mouvement vienne toujours de l’occident. Si un grand couturier africain nous imposait du wax (ou nous offrait cette inspiration gracieusement), ça coincerait beaucoup moins.
    La comparaison avec la croix n’est pas si bonne que ça. Encore une fois, les personnes qui ont désacralisé la croix sont issues de la culture chrétienne (et en plus, ça a quand même fait scandale). Comment réagirions-nous si une culture musulmane s’appropriait la croix et la déformerait à volonté ??

    Mis à part cela, je ne commente jamais, mais j’aime beaucoup vos articles d’inspirations. Merci pour ce partage de compétences !

    • Aloïs Guinut says:

      Le problème est également que les couturiers non occidentaux (hors Japon et Moyen-Orient), ne jouissent pour le moment que d’une publicité très limitée.
      Et n’hésitez pas à commenter. Le travail de blogueuse est solitaire et ça fait tellement plaisir d’avoir des signaux de l’autre côté de l’écran <3

  5. léontine says:

    Comme toujours Aloïs, je suis tellement mais tellement d’accord avec vous !

  6. vivien_noir says:

    This is interesting! Good to read a well researched and funded article on this Topic. I admit I couldn’t get behind the reason of all the swivet myself, so it’s good to read about the reasons.

    Is it possible it is also linked to optical stereotypes? Like, african clothing is only recognized as “african”, if it has traditional wax print? If it was the often to be seen mix of second Hand Shirts and Pants (with bright Patterns), maybe we wouldn’t draw the conclusion “this is african”?
    For instance, when I see a Girl wearing a Turban-style headband These days, I don’t automatically see her Quote or copy a Turban – it could be a nod to 1920ies headdresses (which themselves Quote Turbans, yes) or – depending on the fabric – could be plain headgear like so many other Hoods and Bonnets?

    Hm… I also get the Feeling People nowadays are super-uber-sensitive to this Topic and feel offended way more easily.
    The debate vaguely reminds me of discussions we had in the Goth community when Dressing “Goth” was on trend way back in the earlier 2000s. While one part was happy to get cheaper, better-made clothes, the other half felt offended and “copied”.

  7. Another thing that occurred to me right now — I think that the whole cultural appropriation debate has a lot to do with white guilt. Guilt about mocking other cultures, about seeing them as savage and less human, about displaying people from those cultures like an exotic animal. All this is still embarrassingly recent. And this is why it is white people that seem to be getting offended about something or other getting appropriated, whereas the people from those other cultures generally shrug and go on with their life.

  8. I remember browsing through an native American forum and reading their opinions about cultural appropriation. It was really interesting to see that apart from obvious no-nos (feather headdresses and other religious items), they talked about how buying their handmade products supported their communities. For example moccasins — the native Americans on the forum felt that everyone is welcome to wear them, as long as they are buying ones made by actual native American people and not products made in China. As native American communities tend to be heavily economically disadvantaged, so it is a positive thing if they can support themselves while practicing their traditional handwork.

    When I was in Peru I saw the indigenous people living on the floating islands of the Titicaca lake. If it were not for tourism, they would be forced to leave their islands to live in one of the neighbouring cities. However the money from tourists enabled them to maintain their traditional lifestyle. They made and sold beautiful products including shawls and jewelry, items that were traditional but not religious. So my point is that when I bought directly from them, they were able to control what part of their culture they shared with tourists like me. When I buy “exotic” products from stand of cultural festivals, the sellers are usually eager to talk about the items and tell me about them, how they should be used, etc. A stand in an event like that from an actual Hindu Indian will carry fashion bindis, pretty fabrics, jewelry, they will happily make a henna tattoo on your hands and tell you how to properly drape a saree; and they will not sell items that have a religious significance like the Mangalsutra or Puja items or rudraksha beads. Mabe they have some of those at the back for actual expat Indians who need to stock up on Puja items, but they won’t sell it to tourists.

  9. Anita says:

    A few years ago there was a media uproar about an American football team named the Fighting Sioux (after a Native American tribe). The media said it was “offensive” to the Native American communities, especially that particular tribe. In my college class, one student actually belonged to the Sioux tribe, and my teacher asked for his opinion. He said it was flattering that the team was named after him and he didn’t want it changed, neither did many of his friends of the tribe.
    I am of Irish heritage, and the fact that almost all of American celebrates or acknowledges St. Patrick’s day makes me even more proud of my Irish ancestors. They may have been “white Europeans”, but they were a highly persecuted group of people 🙁
    I think Onkuri was spot on. I’ve dressed up as from another culture or age, but the intent is never disrespectful, it’s awe and wonder at the differences in cultures and civilizations, traditions and history. I don’t believe quoting fashion is mockery.
    However, I disagree with Allison. I don’t believe it is appropriate to use sacred symbols as fashion for ANY group. I would think it highly disrespectful of a Quran used as a household decoration (for a non Muslim) as I would to see a tabernacle of my own faith used as a bread box. Doesn’t matter how “powerful” or not the group is.

    • Allison says:

      I agree using sacred symbols irreverently is problematic no matter what. But I would never say never because art often pushes boundaries that we feel are taboo and I’m not into censorship either. There is no easy single answer. I was trying to explain in short form the perspective of the article I linked to, not stating my own opinion. It is a complex topic and it can be hard to find the line of reason. As mentioned it can also be paternalistic to decide something is offensive without the persons in question saying for themselves that they feel that way. Overall, ” use your best judgement and try something else if you have doubts” is always a good approach.

  10. Onkuri says:

    I think a large feeling proportion of the hurt caused by cultural appropriation in dress is if the ‘appropriatee’ feels they are (or have been) oppressed. And that feeling disappears with confidence in their culture.

    In India, we still wear our Indian traditional clothes a lot, and very proudly. Of course, these have changed over the centuries, with the influence of trade, conquest, migration, etc, but whatever form they are in today, they are worn with pride and even combined with western clothes.

    So if we see a foreigner walking around in Indian clothes, everyone typically appreciates the fact that s/he tried to blend in — no one is going to be offended, or think that the tourist is trying to caricature Indians. Even if the woman is wearing a bindi, no one would mind, because they bindi itself has no connotations and is just for decoration. Now if a foreigner were wearing particular caste marks (like those worn by orthodox Brahmins), or if a foreign woman had vermillion in her hair parting (meaning she is married), people would definitely jump to conclusions — that they have converted to Hinduism or that the woman is married to an Indian man. These are not negative conclusions, but just that they actually do have particular meanings unlike bindis and mehendi on the hands which are both just decoration.

    Of course, some tourists are blithely unaware of local nuances. Like, they will buy very blingy clothes from cheap tourist areas, and then think they are ‘dressing Indian’, and not notice that no Indian person is wearing clothes like that. Or a man wearing a kurta which is obviously cut and shaped for a woman. Or a woman displaying too much of a regular blouse instead of covering most of it with her sari (that would be equivalent to flashing granny panties, because blouses which are meant to be displayed are usually cut daringly and embellished — unlike regular blouses). Things like that.

    And yes, it is difficult to land in the middle of a new culture and catch all its fashion nuances, so when we see tourists doing things like that, most people are not offended; they just think “Crazy tourist!!”

    • Aloïs Guinut says:

      This is very interesting Onkuri, I did not know bindis were only decorative.
      I also think your quote ” I think a large feeling proportion of the hurt caused by cultural appropriation in dress is if the ‘appropriatee’ feels they are (or have been) oppressed. And that feeling disappears with confidence in their culture.” is so very true!

  11. Allison says:

    This article had one of the best explanations of cultural appropriation that I have seen. It is about talking about “geek culture” at first but don’t be sidetracked because it discusses the concept in general really clearly. It was the article that made me “get” it.

    My main take away message is that the problem stems when a group in power (usually white and western) use culturally specific symbols (often that have significant meaning within the culture) from a less powerful group as exotic decoration for their own enjoyment but with no real connection (or remuneration) to the origin culture. It is an exploitative action even when done more passively as a consumer. Using sacred symbols as cute fashion inspiration from a marginalised group is very different than doing so to an extremely powerful one (e.g. Catholic church). Inspiration vs exploitation is a fine line when the cultural power divide is also at play.

    • Aloïs Guinut says:

      True. But I also think people in media are overreacting to some situations. Vanessa Huydgens has been criticized for wearing bindis (that do not even look like the ones indian women wear)… but if you read Onkuri’s comment, you’ll see that, as an indian woman, she is ok with the fact that western women wear bindis and also quotes that they are just decoration. I think some of this “scandals” of cultural appropriation are created not by the community itself but by what you call the “group of power”. It is also a sort of cultural appropriation to speak for others and make conclusion about what they shall be oppressed about.
      As Onkuri says, when the group becomes confident enough, the oppression in the appropriation disappears.
      Maybe we, western, see other culture than ours less strong than they are.

      • Thibaud says:

        Devinette : Savez-vous pourquoi les Chinois ne se plaignent jamais d’appropriation culturelle ?

        Parce que ce qu’ils se font de l’argent en vendant leurs vêtements au lieu de pleurnicher.

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