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BY SPENCYR ARONSON
Fashion X Culture Done Right
Cultural appropriation is a term we’ve all heard countless times. It is tossed around lightly throughout the discussion of any range of topics. However, the majority of people who use this term don’t understand its true significance and the weight it carries. Cultural appropriation can be defined as the act of ‘stealing’ or ‘copying’ ideas, values, stories, symbols, items or garments from other cultures without properly crediting the original source. This act often occurs when items or ideas are stolen from marginalized cultures purely for aesthetic reasons, without considering their possible underlying meaning.
The borrowing and stealing of ideas from different cultures is not a new occurrence, especially within the fashion industry. However, there are two different ways to use the ideas of other cultures: appropriation, and appreciation. Objectively defining the boundary between showing appreciation of a culture or blindly appropriating it is not easy, as a very fine line exists between the two. Ultimately, the difference between appreciation and appropriation comes down to intentions. At times, people's intentions are abundantly obvious, and at other times, the issue falls within a kind of gray area. Cultural appreciation is the respectful honoring and borrowing of elements from another culture, with a particular interest in sharing ideas and broadening one's individual beliefs.
Over time, cultural appropriation has become one of the most contentious issues within the fashion industry. An outpour of criticism has emerged all across social media regarding the unacceptable number of tone deaf brands and their actions. A multitude of minority cultures feel that their traditions are being seized by dominant groups, to the degree that it has become exploitative. This inappropriately crosses the boundary from appreciation to appropriation.
These boundaries have been crossed far too many times in recent years, including by numerous high-profile brands. In November 2020, fashion designer Isabel Marant was found to have commercially exploited several traditional Mexican indigenous designs in her collection. Cultural Minister Alejandra Frausto Guerrero wrote an open letter to Marant regarding her actions, and soon after the designer apologized after much backlash, admitting that she had indeed used Mexican Purepecha patterns without receiving permission or giving credit. A similar situation occurred in May 2019 when Gucci made headlines for selling an "Indy Full Turban," which was listed for sale at Nordstrom for $790. The blue item far too closely resembled the style of turbans worn by millions of Sikhs worldwide. Adding insult to injury, the item was marketed as a fashion accessory, while in reality the turban is a symbol of faith and religious tradition considered sacred by Sikhs. This product was contradictory to everything the turban represents, and ignored the history from which it came about altogether. This example in particular illustrates one of the main reasons why fashion brands still shamelessly appropriate values from minority cultures worldwide: it is done with hopes of immense financial profit. At almost $800 per turban, it is no surprise the brand tried to ignore the backlash they received. While Nordstrom eventually pulled the turban from its website and apologized, Gucci never commented on the incident.
Unfortunately, many people have tried to dismiss this ongoing issue, arguing that fashion is fundamentally based on inspiration. However, this inspiration is frequently taken advantage of, as shown through the several aforementioned instances of brands ignorantly mimicking meaningful traditions, in addition to countless other examples. If companies and designers wish to introduce aspects of a certain culture into their lines, it is crucial for them to put in the proper amounts of research, time and effort in order to sufficiently understand their historical context, and in turn impart this knowledge to public audiences.
For any consumers of the fashion industry, there are a number of things that can be done to help put an end to this long standing problem. First, always keep in mind that other people's heritage is not ever meant to be copied for aesthetic reasons. Secondly, if one wants to make use of cultural heritage, it’s important that one knows the meaning and context of the elements and treats them with appreciation and respect. Take the time to learn about and truly appreciate a culture before you borrow or adopt elements from any given heritage. Also, take time to understand your own culture before diving into others. In addition to paying close attention to your own actions, it's important to be mindful of the measures taken by brands, and to be intentional about how you spend your money. Support small businesses run by original members of a culture rather than buying mass-produced items from large corporations. Overall, acting as an advocate for cultural appreciation and diversity is integral to working towards solving this issue.
Fashion has always stemmed from culture. However, the celebration of diverse cultural values in the fashion industry can be done in a manner that is far more respectful and tasteful than it has been historically. Properly crediting the roots of inspiration is crucial if we are to honor and exhibit a comprehensive understanding of our original sources. Otherwise, our celebrations can quickly turn into appropriations, and it is fundamentally discriminatory to diminish any cultural heritages. It’s time we did the work in educating ourselves in order to celebrate the countless cultures all over the world in the right way.