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The Problem Of Cultural Appropriation In Fashion Industry

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There is a fine line that separates cultural appropriation from appreciation. In the fashion industry, this has been a controversial issue for a while now between models and the message that they are sending, on the runway and on magazines, by wearing cultural symbols as fashion items. The media has brought this issue into the light and shown a wide variety of views that society has on this topic; however, this is not a new occurrence, this subject dates back to the history of colonization, imperialism and white supremacy. First came the Europeans during the Enlightenment ages, then the Americans, and these colonial powers not only exchanged natural resources but also cultural resources. The fashion industry and big names in it have been called out for taking inspirations from certain cultures and using them as a fashion statement, not taking into account their value to certain civilizations. This upsets individuals who feel like the fashion industry is stereotyping their nations and customs. There should be no excuses for designers to steal from cultures and profit from those designs when there is no meaningful background incorporated.

Cultural Appropriation is a topic that has spiraled the fashion world for some time now and has caused major commotion. According to the Cambridge dictionary culture appropriation is “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect their culture (Brucculieri).” This issue can be defined as taking an item that has significance to one’s culture or heritage and essentially stealing its ideas for a different purpose. It can vary from wearing something as simple as a hair piece with an exotic dress that is well known in certain cultures, and using them as costumes instead of taking into account their relevance to a society. I-D Magazine interviewed individuals in the fashion, photography, art, and music industry, and got their opinions on what culture appropriation is. A Chinese photographer said, “When I see artists diving into Chinese culture and kind of using it in a way where I ask, does this have anything to do with your narrative, or is this merely an accessory, a trend to your work (i-D).” He describes how culture appropriation is when he questions whether fashion pieces are intended to highlight a civilization’s background or if it has no deep meaning and is solely used as a fashion statement. The moment that fashion takes particular items from a society and removes its ethnic significance, is when the debate on culture appropriation comes into play.

The difference that divides cultural appropriation and appreciation is a very narrow distinction, and a simple piece of clothing that may seem harmless can cause chaos and pass that thin line. Both culture appreciation and appropriation come from the idea of gathering inspiration from a certain society and expanding on that concept; however, appreciation usually involves working with individuals from that culture and contributing to them, while appropriation is mostly involved with high fashion brands stereotyping and labeling the society that they target. In an interview with I-D Vice, World renown model, Winnie Harlow opens up about her view on cultural appreciation and appropriation, she says “It’s one thing for someone to wear braids and go, I created this. When obviously it’s a style that originated in Africa. It’s another thing for people to copy my skin. (Weinstock).” As a prominent figure in the modeling and fashion industry, Harlow is very familiar with this matter since it is an issue that is gaining more awareness from both the public, and individuals in the industry that she works in. She explained how appropriation and appreciation are very different but can be easily mistaken with one another. Harlow uses the comparison of people copying certain styles which has to do with appreciation for the culture and how that differs from copying a specific attribute of a person and calling it their own, which has to do with appropriation. These two topics can easily be confused with one another and as this issue widens, the fashion industry has to set the bar from what can be considered offensive to someone’s culture and what can be considered as embracing their background.

Well known names in the Fashion industry are embracing the idea of using trademarks from societies as fashion, and essentially spreading the message to their audience across the globe that this “trend” of cultural appropriation can be seen as respectable. Fashion does have a cultural appropriation problem, it may not be a designer’s intention to offend anyone, but sometimes art can have many different meanings to different people depending on an individuals past and culture. A huge question that well known fashion designers are asked is if certain styles are simply embracing different heritages through accessories and clothes or offending their heritages by not taking into account the cultural background that item may come with. Designers may see a bright colored top with a certain pattern as inspiration for a fashion piece; however, the case sometimes might be that the top may have a meaningful history behind it to a certain civilization. In a TEDx Talk, Monica Bota-Moisin challenges the fashion industries behavior regarding Cultural appropriation in fashion pieces. After seeing Adele wear a blouse with a traditional Romanian pattern to advertise for Tom Ford, she asks herself “How was it possible to commercialize a design that is so similar to an element of identity to a community and put a brand label on it” (Boța-Moisin). Bota-Moisin is projecting her concern on how brands can simply turn an attribute from a civilization which may have historical and moral background, and turn it into a fashion statement. This question that she communicates to the audience, is exactly what makes up the issue of Cultural Appropriation.

The power of the media, enables the quick spreading of socially unacceptable events in the fashion business and these events can cause detrimental effects to certain individuals and hurt a brands reputation. There have been multiple cases where world renowned models and companies have offended the public because of their fashion choices and the message they are sending to their audience across the globe. These occurrences can vary from magazines to fashion shows and even clothing sold in stores. The Victoria’s Secret annual fashion show brings people from all over the world and the models display high fashion clothing items while walking down the runway. In 2012, American model, Karlie Kloss was featured in the Victoria’s secret fashion show and wore leopard print lingerie with fringe details, along with turquoise jewelry and a war bonnet (Brugeras). Native American communities were not pleased when they saw her dressed up like that and felt like Kloss and the designers were disrespecting their culture and civilization. They used stereotypical native American accessories but showed no relations to the background of these cultures and simply used them as a fashion piece. The design removed all of the sentimental and historical value that come with those pieces and turned it into lingerie and accessories to be broadcasted for the whole world to see. This is only one of the several cases of cultural appropriation that occur in fashion industry.

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Other events similar to the Victoria’s Secret show scandal have occurred to numerous prominent names in industry. During the 2015 Met Gala, another major annual fashion event that is broadcasted and watched all over the globe, commotion started over celebrities and what they wore. The theme was the influence that China had on Western fashion, featuring looks from prestigious brands such as Alexander McQueen, Chanel, and Christian Dior. Many individuals were upset because “celebrities dressed in oriental-inspired outfits that nodded to Asian culture but many people took issue with the fact that hardly any guests chose to wear garments made by Chinese designers” (Young). They were wearing traditional Chinese patters and passed that off as oriental but did not truly connect with the culture. This brought attention to the public eye because society did not see this as embracing their civilization, but instead as offending Chinese backgrounds. The Met Gala is made for displaying unique and beautiful fashion; therefore, influential celebrities promoting this behavior is not right message that they should be sending to society.

Social media has also played a big role in raising awareness for this topic and calling out models and celebrities when they cross the line. In 2014, Victoria’s Secret angel, Alessandra Ambrosio posted a picture on Instagram of her wearing a Native American feathered headdress and captioned it “becoming more inspired for @Coachella with this amazing Native American head piece #feathers.” Coachella is a world known annual music festival in California that several famous individuals are seen at and people tend to dress up as a way of expressing themselves through fashion. Many fans criticized Ambrosio’s post and mentioned how it was offensive to the Native American culture and one commenter wrote “’If you had any knowledge of the culture, you would know how disrespectful this is” (Teen Vogue Staff). That headdress has a symbolic meaning to millions of Native Americans and she is broadcasting it as an accessory to a music festival, which clearly offends their society. Although this wasn’t published on the cover of a magazine or broadcasted on a worldwide show, it still had the same effect on individuals which goes to show that no matter the gravity of the situation, cultural appropriation is not something that should be tolerated.

Huge names in the fashion business continue to face accusations of cultural appropriation due to their questionable fashion choices displayed to the public. This leaves designers with a hard task to execute a design that shows beauty through diversity but also wont offend any individuals or civilizations by doing so. Giving credit to cultures that their design is based on can make all the difference. Not only would individuals in that society feel respected since there would be a more personal meaning to the designs, but it will also be saving a lot of energy and avoiding backlash from those individuals. By digging deeper into the historical background of the society and applying it to the fashion piece, this would give it a more profound meaning which would not only unfold the culture’s history but also highlight the profound beauty in the design. In an interview with ABC, Mr. Denham illustrates how to avoid being accused of cultural appropriation. Denham says, “For it not to be cultural appropriation, there has to be recognition, respect, reward or recompense. You have to ask yourself which people benefited from this product — did someone receive an income from it’ (Khopkar). He describes the important aspects that play a role in validating whether a design can be considered as culture appropriation and that it is not only important to reference and respect the society that a designer is inspired by, but to also view the outcome of the whole situation. If a designer is stealing an idea that originated in another culture and is profiting from that design without any recognition to the society that inspired them, there is a problem. However, if they give credit to the culture or find a way to give the design a deeper meaning than just fabric and accessories, they are saving themselves from a lot of hate and backlash. By taking precautions and thinking deeply about the several details that play a role in establishing a design, culture appropriation accusations can be prevented.

How an individual chooses to view these issues can change the whole perspective on cultural appropriation and shift it to appreciation. Taking inspiration from cultures and incorporating them in designs may be seen as a part of the artistic and innovative element of fashion. Stylist and editor of an Australian high fashion publication, Megha Kapoor, says ‘Borrowing from other cultures is inherently a part of the creative process’ (Khopkar). The beauty of art and fashion is that the meaning can change based on the point of view. While one person might see an Arabic dress on the cover of Vogue as cultural appropriation and offensive, another individual might view that as embracing the beauty of the Arabic culture. Although using elements from different cultures in fashion can be seen as supporting that society, there has to be a way that connects back to the civilization in a meaningful way because cultures should not just be seen as fashion statements. Just because designers might find a way to make a societies symbol a beautiful design, does not make it right to steal a part of that society and make a profit from simply displaying the symbol.

As cultural appropriation continues to occur in the fashion world and among several individuals, the number of cases will only grow and thus bring awareness of this societal issue. Simply because influential models and world renowned designers make it seem socially acceptable, does not make it tolerable in society. This issue affects members of certain cultures who are being offended by the fashion industry by using their historical background and degrading its meaning. Although they might sound alike, appreciation and appropriation of a culture are polar opposites, separated by a fine line, that once passed can lead to chaos. Individuals must remember to appreciate art and culture and not appropriate them, when it comes to fashion.

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The Problem Of Cultural Appropriation In Fashion Industry. (2021, August 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from
“The Problem Of Cultural Appropriation In Fashion Industry.” Edubirdie, 17 Aug. 2021,
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