Recently in modern culture there has been a surge of celebrities, fashion brands and even high school teenagers called out and criticised for the phenomenon that is ‘cultural appropriation’. But who decides the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation? Who determines what becomes cultural theft?
Racism appears to be reflected in the way that dress is understood. Non-white women have been historically oppressed and their fashion and icons of identity have played a part in this. Black women, for instance, have had natural hairstyles stigmatised and deemed unprofessional by many businesses and corporations, creating a struggle for those women to get jobs. It promotes the ideology that natural hair and protective styles for hair, such as dreadlocks, are unkempt.
However, this stigmatization appears to be reduced and removed when white women wear the same hairstyles. White women continue to wear styles such as dreadlocks and get praised for how good they look. However, when black celebrities like Zendaya adorn such locks, she received negative comments suggesting that she appeared as though she hadn’t showered and that she looked like she smelt of weed. This again reinforces the ideology that natural hair and protective styles are unkempt and unprofessional.
The idea of cultural appropriation itself is an issue that is deeply rooted, but remains an issue that should not be ignored.
Traditional wear continues to be something that is used by the fashion industry to sell and to drive a profit. Gucci was criticised for putting turbans on white models, which many Sikhs condemned as a sign of disrespect. In 2017, Victoria’s Secret was also criticised for putting a Native American-style headdress on one of their models. This seems to promote the idea that traditional and cultural wear is no more than a commodity for brands to use.
The trend appears to show that cultural appreciation turns into cultural appropriation when it is done for profit and when sources are not given the appropriate credit and compensation. Traditional, cultural and sacred objects should not be used as a casual accessory. However, many countries appreciate outsiders and foreigners adorning their traditional attire. In Japan, it is widely considered a good and respectful thing to do for foreigners to try traditional attire if they are offered it by a native Japanese person. On other occasions, such as a Bangladeshi wedding, it would be considered respectful to wear a saree or other South Asian attire when attending, as it shows that you’ve made an effort to respect the culture.
The controversy surrounding cultural appropriation seems to appear mainly when those from outside the culture attempt to take credit for traditions within a given culture. This has been a trend amongst reality TV stars, such as the Kardashians, with Kim attempting to say she created cornrows, rebranding them as ‘box braids’. This toxic ideology of people taking credit for things that don’t belong to them or their culture, and instead of appreciating them trying to commercialise them, is what I believe marks the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation.
With so many people being discriminated against and bullied for dressing a particular way or having a particular hairstyle, it becomes worrying when others who are not minorities are able to do the same but without suffering the usual consequences.