Ankara designs (left), appropriation (right)

By Damaris Reyes

From Stella McCartney to Marc Jacobs and the affordable fashion chains like Zara and H&M, the fashion industry is plagued with accusations of cultural appropriation. The line between artistic and cultural expression is increasingly blurred for both renowned and fast fashion brand. The debate on cultural appropriation seems to never end and the fashion industry faces a challenge on whether to continue to turn a blind eye to the claims or  make a conscious change on their approach towards other cultures.

Cultural appropriation takes place when a person or an industry from mainstream culture uses elements and symbolism from cultures formerly colonized or historically marginalized without giving the proper credit to the culture involved. In the case of the fashion industry, it is used to obtain a profit that won’t benefit members of the culture and adopting such elements can be considered a form of oppression from their people and seen as if their culture is reduced to a simple caricature by the dominant culture.

According to Richard A. Rogers, Rogers, “From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation”, there is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural assimilation. In the case of cultural assimilation, the minority will not take the elements the of the majority, but rather will conform as a way to integrate and be accepted in the society, like for example straightening or dyeing your hair blond.

In many occasions when the fashion industry takes inspiration from a culture, there is a tendency to omit or not give credit to it. When renowned fashion brands, which dominates the market, presents traditional elements on their fashion shows, they are applauded as it seems to be a gesture of integration. However, these companies are making a profit of a culture that was previously an object of oppression. Designers also face backlash because they usually do not use models of color in those specific fashion shows. For example, Stella McCartney used Ankara designs in her a fashion show, which is a widely used clothing style in the African continent (pictured above).

The collection of the English designer resembles the dresses worn by Cameroonian women called “Kaba. Originally, the “Kaba” is a large bag with openings for the head and arms. It was created in Cameroon by missionary’s wives around 1948 and this garment later evolved into the traditional dress of the Sawa people.

    Marc Jacobs’ campaign at the New York Fashion Week 2018 is another example of this, during his parade closing the event last year, white models wore colorful dreadlocks in multiple pastel colors, which he claimed that his inspiration came from Lana Wachowski, a white film director that wears dreadlocks.

      Jacobs’ words after being called out only aggravated the issue, in his Twitter account he said:

“And all who cry “cultural appropriation” or whatever nonsense about any race or skin color  wearing their hair in a particular style or manner – funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair. I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race- I see people. I’m sorry to read that so many people are so narrow minded…Love is the answer. Appreciation of all and inspiration from anywhere is a beautiful thing. Think about it.” Many people criticized him because he missed the whole point of the criticism.

Marc Jacobs NYFW presentation

bellahadid and kendalljenner backstage at our Spring '17 show ⭐️ #MJSS17
@bellahadid and @kendalljenner backstage at our Spring ’17 show ⭐️ #MJSS17

One of the issues with these fashion shows is that it makes it fashionable and trending when a white person wears them but if it’s a black person wearing it they get looked down upon by western society. They are seen as ghetto, as being dirty, or deviant affecting their work and social life. Well-meaning appropriation can sometimes be a good thing. The problem is proclaiming to be innovators, ignoring the historical past of people whose cultural values they enjoy.