With the number of different cultures and influences involved in fashion, cultural appropriation has become an evident issue within the fashion industry. It seems to be an ongoing issue as the number of stolen cultural traditions and identities is beginning to become more notable. Luxury brands such as Gucci, Chanel, and Marc Jacobs have been controversial as they’ve implemented elements from other cultures into their own without giving credit. Even top celebrities have been accused of cultural appropriation for applying their makeup to a certain style or even using certain hairstyles such as dreadlocks. Not only does cultural appropriation make people look bad, but it also represents the fashion industry in a careless way.
Nowadays, most luxury brands’ work is just a reference to something that has already been made. There’s no problem with referencing somebody’s work and then adding your own twist to it, the problem is when the credit isn’t given. In other words, this can be described as cultural appropriation which is when something is taken from a culture that isn’t yours.
Cultural appropriation is a big problem, especially in fashion as designers believe it is fine to make certain styles and characteristics. The main reason cultural appropriation is perceived as offensive is that many of the elements from these cultures, mainly minorities, are taken out of context without knowing or respecting the origins of the culture. This issue occurs very often but seems to be very common during fashion week. For fashion week, brands showcase their newest collections in front of a live audience. Designers usually apply a theme to their shows which tends to be related to the location in which fashion week is taking place at. In 2017, designer Marc Jacobs received tons of backlash when he had his models styled with dreadlocks.
According to The Independent, a British online newspaper, Jacobs received a negative reaction from the crowd because of styling “dreadlocks on mainly white models” (Independent). Jacobs then responded by stating “all who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race or skin color wearing their hair in any particular style or manner – funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair” (Independent). Even though Jacobs didn’t have any bad intentions, he still had to apologize due to the amount of backfire he was receiving. The issue with designers like to Jacobs is they don’t realize they’re taking elements from different cultures. Also, the majority of designers end up disrespectfully representing the culture by not representing it correctly. For example, Jacobs’ use of dreadlocks on white women wrongfully represents where dreadlocks come from since they originate from the black community. Designers must realize that there is a line drawn between being inspired and appropriating people’s culture
Very similar to how luxury brands get bashed on the media over cultural appropriation, celebrities receive the same sort of criticism. According to The Wrap, Victoria’s Secret model, Karlie Kloss was attacked on the media for wearing “a leopard print bikini and a floor-length, Native American headdress” (The Wrap). As she was walking down the runway the word “Thanksgiving” was flashing in the background, which is what caused there to be some controversy. Karlie Kloss and Victoria’s Secret were forced to both publicly apologize for anyone they offended and to remove the outfit from the recorded broadcast.
In this case, this is a perfect example of cultural appropriation within fashion. Even though Victoria’s Secret thought it was a good idea to have the word “Thanksgiving” flashing in the back while a model is wearing an enormous Native American headdress, people saw it as offending Native Americans rather than paying respect to the culture. According to New York magazine, The Cut, a group of Native American individuals expressed their opinions stating, “Besides the daily harm of these ongoing microaggressions for Native folks, the sexualization of Native women continues to be an ignored and continuing epidemic” (The Cut).
On their Facebook page, which is “Native Appropriations”, they followed this statement with data based on the number of native women raped each year by non-native men. Now even though Victoria’s Secret was not aware of the issues regarding the sexualization of Native women, this doesn’t take away from how much of a foolish act it was. Not only were they not aware of the controversy, but they didn’t respectfully portray the looks of a Native woman. Styling a white model, who looks nothing like Native women, in a short bra and underwear is definitely not how Native women are perceived. The main issue that seems to involve many other fashion designers is that they envision cultures as fashion accessories rather than appreciating them for what they are.
Cultural appropriation can come from any culture, but the culture of African-Americans is stolen very frequently in fashion nowadays. Inside the “Journal of Youth Studies” authors Vern Kenneth Baxter and Pete Marina, who are both professors for departments of sociology at the University of New Orleans, elaborate on the appropriation of styles that originate from African-American subcultures. Baxter and Marina express that these styles such as sagging black pants, baggy t-shirts, flashy gold teeth, facial tattoos, and braided hairstyles are “an ambiguous cocktail of resistance and acceptance of hegemonic authority and reveal the contradictory fashion and behavioral codes of contending status orders within which identities are enacted” (94).
These styles are used so much to the point where people do not even know where they originated from. For example, people believe “sagging jeans” are meant to be a fashion statement, but it really originated in prison because “inmates are not allowed belts” (Baxter and Marina 99). According to HuffPost’s article titled “10 Times Black Culture Was Appropriated in 2015”, the popular French magazine “Elle U.K.” stated that the baby hair trend was “inspired by Givenchy and Katy Perry” (HuffPost).
In this case, the baby hair trend is actually being appropriated from the African-American culture as it began when black mothers would “slick down their edges with a brush and a jar of black gel” (HuffPost). Many celebrities claim they’re responsible for bringing back a trend even though that’s not the proper way to use a culture’s influence. The problem with this is that black women are shamed and do not receive praise for their features even though top celebrities, such as Kylie Jenner, receive adoration when they use these black features. Not only are top celebrities and corporations claiming credit for recycling styles from different cultures, but they’re also representing the fashion industry in a bad way as cultural appropriation doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.
Another big issue within cultural appropriation in the fashion industry is designers using logos from different companies around the world. Bootleggers are also responsible for this by making money off of other designs and cultures such as in countries where high-fashion clothing is not available. According to the journal “Cultural Anthropology (Wiley-Blackwell)”, written by Drexel University professor Brent Luvaas, small brands are “using international corporate trademarks as their raw material” (Luvaas 128). This is usually done by small companies that are looking to make a name for themselves by making bootleg versions of corporate companies. For example, an Indonesian brand by the name of Eat / 347 stamps their own branding over other corporate trademarks to “appropriate them, remix them, satirize them, they want their customers—largely urban, educated, middle-class young people like themselves—to know that they took their designs from somewhere else” (Luvaas 128).
Small clothing brands who do this can get sued for not having the right to use a corporate company logo, but in this case, there is a different meaning behind Eat / 347’s use of these logos. This Indonesian brand is stamping its own trademark on Nike’s t-shirts because it “rejects the debased position of manual laborer assigned to the Indonesian workforce by a regime of immaterial production controlled largely by post-industrial Western nations” (Luvaas 130).
This approach of calling out corporations for not paying a large amount of money to the people from these foreign countries who go through hard labor is very interesting. In this case, an appropriation is a form of protest from Indonesian and other foreign laborers who put in so much work for such a profitable company while they receive almost nothing in return for making the product come to life. While foreign laborers are working in hard conditions for excruciating amounts of time, in order to print t-shirts for brands from the United States, the people back in America are only selling it and taking the majority of the money.
Popular designers such as Chicago fashion designer Virgil Abloh, creative director for Louis Vuitton and owner of the luxury brand OFF-WHITE, have been accused of stealing designs from other countries’ architectural artwork and adding their own twist to it. Diet Prada, which is an anonymous popular fashion Instagram account and fashion blog whose purpose is to call out luxury brands for knocking off past designs, has called out Virgil on many occasions.
According to Diet Prada, Virgil’s trademarks came from “a 1965 design for Glasgow Airport by Kinnear, Calvert, and Associates, the U.K. design group is credited for creating the model for modern road signage throughout the world” (Diet Prada). The trademarks are diagonal lines and arrows pointing in four different directions representing road signage across the world.
As a matter of fact, Virgil basically ripped off the logo by not even adding any additional details to the trademarks and just leaving them as is. In addition, no credit was given to the original designers nor did he publicly state where he gained the inspiration for his trademarks from. Not only does this show literal appropriation but it represents how unoriginal and lazy designers have become now. The fact that a designer, such as Virgil, can earn so much profit off of a design based on the architecture of a Scottish airport is not right. Especially when the original group of designers isn’t even compensated in any sort of way even though their design plays a crucial part in the brand’s success.
The misrepresentation of cultures in fashion is not only offensive but it’s also misinforming people about what the true meaning behind the culture is. Minorities such as African-Americans and Native Americans are among some of the cultures that are appropriated the most in fashion. Some of fashion’s biggest international retailers, such as H&M, have wrongfully represented both culture and religion in multiple cases. According to The Daily News, at the beginning of 2018 H&M received an insane amount of backlash after “featuring a photo of a black boy wearing a ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’ hoodie” (Daily News). This sparked outrage in the media as it was absolutely shocking to think that someone would think it is perfectly fine to dress a young African-American child in a hoodie that contains a racial slur that has been used to describe minorities.
This is a perfect example of a large corporation not only blatantly disrespecting the culture of African-Americans, but also thinking of only for themselves. African-Americans already face enough discrimination and stereotypes in the United States as they’re not represented properly when fashion corporations decide to take elements from their culture. Cultures are to be respected for their features and not to be seen as accessories because occasionally people end up following trends which make matters even worse by having millions of others following their footsteps.
In another article, written by the American blog and website Huffington Post, it’s disrespectful when white people culturally appropriate African-American styles because “these are black historical styles, and they haven’t earned the right to wear them” (HuffPost).
These styles represent so much more than just fashion, they represent the identity of oppression and history that black people had to go through in order to be accepted by society. In addition, this also represents a double standard as white people get praised for displaying black features, while black people are often called “ghetto and threatening”.
Arewa, Olufunmilayo B. “Love, Hate, and Culture Wars.” Phi Kappa Phi Forum, vol. 97, no. 1, Spring 2017, pp. 26–29.
Cisneros, Ariane Hentsch. “Understanding through Appropriation in Interreligious Dialogue on Ethics.” Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 39, no. 2, June 2011, pp. 246–259.
Gaertner, Jess. “Cultural Appropriation: 10 Times Celebs & Brands Took Things Too Far.” Cosmopolitan, Cosmopolitan, 28 June 2017, www.cosmopolitan.co.za/style/cultural-appropriation-fashion/.
Thompson, Craig J., and Diana L. Haytko. “Speaking of Fashion: Consumers’ Uses of Fashion Discourses and the Appropriation of Countervailing Cultural Meanings.”Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 24, no. 1, June 1997, pp. 15–42.
Welk, Brian. “15 Celebrities Who Have Been Accused of ‘Cultural Appropriation,’ From Katy Perry to Zac Efron (Photos).” The Wrap, 10 July 2018, www.thewrap.com/celebrities-who-have-been-accused-of-cultural-appropriation-photos/.
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