Where Trend Meets Tradition: Cultural Appropriation

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Illustration by LeAnne Chan

As a prominent 21st century industry, the fashion realm is quickly becoming more and more global, more inclusive, and more representative of different cultures. But as more designers and other big names in the high fashion world—who are generally white—attempt to draw influence from cultures unfamiliar

to them, things go downhill. One of the most controversial issues that plagues the modern fashion industry is cultural appropriation. Designers (like Victoria’s Secret) that feature traditional Native American headdresses in their shows and models who pose wearing hairstyles that are unambiguously black in heritage are just some of the contributing factors. While the problem of cultural appropriation evades all aspect of modern society, the fashion industry is one of the biggest contributors, and it desperately needs to be more closely scrutinized.

So let’s scrutinize it.

Let’s start with the issue of photo shoots and runway themes that are obviously influenced by traditional cultures yet involve white models with features associated with people of color. By this I mean the Gigi Hadid afro shoot. And the recent Karlie Kloss geisha shoot. And the Ondria Hardin “African Queen” spread (yes, it was literally called “African Queen”). And so many others. The issue here isn’t at all that people are exploring and representing different cultures in large scale media such as Vogue, but rather that it seems ingrained in the mind of the Western world that those cultures can only be showcased if they revolve around whiteness.

One of the more prominent examples of this phenomenon is Marc Jacobs’s New York Fashion Week show. It featured primarily white models (Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, etc.) in colorful dreadlocks, a hairstyle with cultural roots in Africa. The show received plenty of (warranted) backlash from viewers, who criticized Jacobs for choosing to style white models in a black hairstyle. His response was far from an apology—in an Instagram comment, he said “funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair” and “I don’t see color or race,” all in the same breath. Aside from the fact that his statement is incredibly contradictory (if you don’t see color why are you singling out women of color with straightened hair?), he perpetuates the damaging idea of not seeing color. Color, whether you like it or not, does exist.

It all boils down to the industry, and society as a whole, valuing a culture over the actual people to whom the culture belongs. There’s no explanation as to why you would remove black culture from its people. The industry by and large is just infatuated with “exoticism” and yet fails to see people of color as examples of beauty. A show featuring black women wearing dreadlocks would do wonders for representation. Instead, designers go so far as to put dreads on Kendall Jenner in the name of diversity.

These decisions to pick and choose aesthetically appealing aspects of a culture make it obvious that they don’t care about the whole culture. Nothing—not even fashion—exists in a vacuum, and every action the individuals within the industry take has societal implications. In the words of the great Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility. Those with large public platforms have a responsibility to understand the consequences of their work and to promote true diversity.

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