Cultural Appropriation Or Appreciation: Where Can The Fashion Industry Draw A Line?

Isha Mayer , 05 Aug 2019

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Fashion can’t seem to learn from its mistakes. Back in February 2018, dozens of iterations of the balaclava walked the @gucci runway in Milan. Based on vintage DIY knit ski masks, no one clocked them at the time for having any racist connotations…or maybe they went unnoticed among the layers and layers of styling. Rihanna even wore one version just a couple months later at Coachella. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Last night though, a knit black turtleneck balaclava with red cut-out lips resembling blackface that wasn’t on the runway, caught twitter’s attention…and Gucci’s almost immediately. Within a few hours, they pulled the sweater from sale and issued an apology. All things considered, it’s probably clear now that these brands are severely lacking the cultural context and knowledge to avoid these same pitfalls. If these global brands are serious about their commitment to increasing corporate diversity, it needs to happen at all levels and departments, not just the creative teams. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ • #gucci #skimask #fashion #knitwear #blackface #blackhistorymonth #luxury #luxurybrand #europeanfashion #turtleneck #balaclava #diy #knittingpattern #vintageknitting #pinterest #pinterestfail #rihanna #milanfashionweek #mfw #mfwss18 #ss18 #dietprada

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Fashion design is a creative process. A lot of designers take inspiration from cultures while designing collections. However, there is a fine line between taking inspiration and disrespecting a culture. When the latter happens, that is when it sparks a massive debate on cultural appropriation. It can become an issue if the design is proved offensive to that certain community or culture. Off-late, many fashion houses have been in the news for all the wrong reasons, mainly for cultural misappropriation.

So, what is cultural appropriation in fashion?

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In @gucci ’s #pluriverse , we control our own identities. However, certain signifiers of identity are better left untouched. While various turban styles have been re-interpreted in fashion since the late 18th century, the four Dastaar that popped up on Gucci’s FW18 runway (on non-Sikh, mostly white models) was one that should have been left on the mood board.  There are many ways this disaster could have been averted: • 1: Hire Sikh models. Italy is home to the second largest population in Europe. It would have been a beautiful statement to see Sikhs proudly representing their religion on one of fashion’s most major runways. • 2: Do a fashion turban instead – Marc and Miuccia have shown gorgeous interpretations of 40’s/70's glamour that don’t read as sacred religious headwear. • 3: Just don’t do it.  While we’re not against looking to other cultures for inspiration, please remember the threat, assault, and persecution that these people face worldwide and the right they have to have to practice their beliefs in public. #sikh #dastaar #gucci #pluriverse #cyborg #turban #religion #culturalappropriation

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According to,

Cultural appropriation is the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture, including knowledge, practices, and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.

For instance, Gucci is one of the latest fashion brands to be called out for cultural appropriation when they had white models walk with turbans as headgears at the 2018/19 Milan Fashion Week. This caused a lot of backlashes. A turban is a sacred adornment worn by the Sikh community to represent their identity. Had the fashion house hired models from the Sikh community to showcase the designs, things would have probably turned out differently for them.

What other brands faced similar accusations?

Apart from Gucci, there are a lot of big names in the fashion industry that have made questionable errors in their designs. Back in 2011, an Australian label, Lisa Blue by designer Lisa Burke sparked outrage among Hindu nationalists in India. The swimsuit brand had an Indian-looking model sport a swimsuit with our Indian goddess, Lakshmi as a print on the front and rear of it. Lakshmi is the Goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity. This was seen as a highly disrespectful act by Hindu devotees as there was inappropriate usage of religious deities for commercial purposes.

Very recently, renowned designer Stella McCartney was criticized when she showcased Ankara prints on the runway. The Ankara print is traditional to the African community. People were upset as she used these prints without giving credit to the African designers, only had one African model represent it on the runway and also stole a traditional print to sell it as hers.

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@tradpassing 𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗠𝗲𝘅𝗶𝗰𝗮𝗻 𝗴𝗼𝘃𝗲𝗿𝗻𝗺𝗲𝗻𝘁 @culturamx 𝗵𝗮𝘀 𝗰𝗮𝗹𝗹𝗲𝗱 𝗼𝘂𝘁 𝗳𝗮𝘀𝗵𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗵𝗼𝘂𝘀𝗲 @carolinaherrera 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝘁𝗵𝗲 “𝗰𝘂𝗹𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗮𝗹 𝗮𝗽𝗽𝗿𝗼𝗽𝗿𝗶𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻” 𝗼𝗳 𝗶𝗻𝗱𝗶𝗴𝗲𝗻𝗼𝘂𝘀 𝗽𝗮𝘁𝘁𝗲𝗿𝗻𝘀 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝘁𝗲𝘅𝘁𝗶𝗹𝗲𝘀 𝗳𝗿𝗼𝗺 𝗠𝗲𝘅𝗶𝗰𝗼 𝗶𝗻 𝗶𝘁𝘀 𝗹𝗮𝘁𝗲𝘀𝘁 𝗰𝗼𝗹𝗹𝗲𝗰𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻. 𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗰𝘂𝗹𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗲 𝗺𝗶𝗻𝗶𝘀𝘁𝗿𝘆 𝘀𝗮𝗶𝗱 𝗶𝗻 𝗮 𝗹𝗲𝘁𝘁𝗲𝗿 𝗱𝗮𝘁𝗲𝗱 𝗝𝘂𝗻𝗲 𝟭𝟬 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗯𝗿𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗳𝗼𝘂𝗻𝗱𝗲𝗱 𝗯𝘆 𝗩𝗲𝗻𝗲𝘇𝘂𝗲𝗹𝗮-𝗯𝗼𝗿𝗻 𝗱𝗲𝘀𝗶𝗴𝗻𝗲𝗿 𝗛𝗲𝗿𝗿𝗲𝗿𝗮 𝗵𝗮𝗱 𝘂𝘀𝗲𝗱 𝗱𝗲𝘀𝗶𝗴𝗻𝘀 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵 𝗺𝗲𝗮𝗻𝗶𝗻𝗴𝘀 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝘄𝗲𝗿𝗲 𝗽𝗲𝗿𝘀𝗼𝗻𝗮𝗹 𝗼𝗿 𝘀𝗽𝗲𝗰𝗶𝗳𝗶𝗰 𝘁𝗼 𝘀𝗼𝗺𝗲 𝗳𝗮𝗺𝗶𝗹𝗶𝗲𝘀 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗺𝘂𝗻𝗶𝘁𝗶𝗲𝘀. 𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗿𝘂𝗹𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗽𝗮𝗿𝘁𝘆, 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗹𝗲𝗳𝘁𝗶𝘀𝘁 𝗡𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝗮𝗹 𝗥𝗲𝗴𝗲𝗻𝗲𝗿𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗠𝗼𝘃𝗲𝗺𝗲𝗻𝘁, 𝗵𝗮𝘀 𝗯𝗲𝗲𝗻 𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗻𝗻𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗹𝗲𝗴𝗶𝘀𝗹𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝘁𝗼 𝗽𝗿𝗼𝘁𝗲𝗰𝘁 𝗶𝗻𝗱𝗶𝗴𝗲𝗻𝗼𝘂𝘀 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗺𝘂𝗻𝗶𝘁𝗶𝗲𝘀 𝗳𝗿𝗼𝗺 𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗴𝗶𝗮𝗿𝗶𝘀𝗺 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗵𝗮𝘃𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗶𝗿 𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗸 𝘂𝘀𝗲𝗱 𝗯𝘆 𝗼𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗿𝘀 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵𝗼𝘂𝘁 𝗿𝗲𝗰𝗲𝗶𝘃𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗳𝗮𝗶𝗿 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗲𝗻𝘀𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻. 𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗹𝗲𝘁𝘁𝗲𝗿 𝘄𝗮𝘀 𝗮𝗱𝗱𝗿𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗲𝗱 𝘁𝗼 𝗛𝗲𝗿𝗿𝗲𝗿𝗮, 𝘄𝗵𝗼 𝗴𝗮𝘃𝗲 𝘂𝗽 𝗰𝗿𝗲𝗮𝘁𝗶𝘃𝗲 𝗱𝗶𝗿𝗲𝗰𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗼𝗳 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗡𝗲𝘄 𝗬𝗼𝗿𝗸-𝗯𝗮𝘀𝗲𝗱 𝗳𝗮𝘀𝗵𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗵𝗼𝘂𝘀𝗲 𝗹𝗮𝘀𝘁 𝘆𝗲𝗮𝗿, 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗮𝘁𝗶𝘃𝗲 𝗗𝗶𝗿𝗲𝗰𝘁𝗼𝗿 @wesgordon 𝗧𝘄𝗼 𝗼𝗳 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝘀𝗶𝘅 𝗴𝗮𝗿𝗺𝗲𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗳𝗿𝗼𝗺 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗥𝗲𝘀𝗼𝗿𝘁 𝟮𝟬𝟮𝟬 𝗖𝗼𝗹𝗹𝗲𝗰𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗳𝗲𝗮𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗲 𝗮 𝘁𝗿𝗮𝗱𝗶𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝗮𝗹 𝗳𝗹𝗼𝘄𝗲𝗿 𝗲𝗺𝗯𝗿𝗼𝗶𝗱𝗲𝗿𝘆 𝗸𝗻𝗼𝘄𝗻 𝗮𝘀 “𝗶𝘀𝘁𝗺𝗼 𝗱𝗲 𝗧𝗲𝗵𝘂𝗮𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗽𝗲𝗰” 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗮𝗻𝗼𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗿 𝘁𝘄𝗼 𝘂𝘀𝗲 𝗮 𝗰𝗼𝗹𝗼𝗿𝗳𝘂𝗹 “𝗦𝗮𝗹𝘁𝗶𝗹𝗹𝗼 𝗦𝗮𝗿𝗮𝗽𝗲” 𝘀𝘁𝗿𝗶𝗽𝗲 𝗽𝗮𝘁𝘁𝗲𝗿𝗻, 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗺𝗶𝗻𝗶𝘀𝘁𝗿𝘆 𝗻𝗼𝘁𝗲𝗱. 𝗦𝗵𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝘁𝗵𝗼𝘂𝗴𝗵𝘁𝘀 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗼𝗽𝗶𝗻𝗶𝗼𝗻𝘀 𝗶𝗻 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗺𝗲𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗯𝗲𝗹𝗼𝘄 𝗶𝗳 𝗶𝘁’𝘀 𝗮𝗽𝗽𝗿𝗲𝗰𝗶𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗼𝗿 𝗮𝗽𝗽𝗿𝗼𝗽𝗿𝗶𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻? 𝗦𝘂𝗽𝗽𝗼𝘀𝗲𝗱𝗹𝘆 𝗶𝗻𝘀𝗽𝗶𝗿𝗲𝗱 𝗯𝘆 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗠𝗲𝘅𝗶𝗰𝗮𝗻 𝗖𝘂𝗹𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗲.

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Similarly, Carolina Herrera blatantly copied patterns and designs for the Resort 2020 collection. The designs were specific to certain regions in Mexico and are only done by the native people living there. The Mexican government called the Creative Directot, Wes Gordon out immediately once her collection was out. The culture secretary of Mexico, Alejandra Frausto questioned the brand and asked what benefits the people from the Mexican community were going to receive after they reportedly used their designs. This gives us a hint on how designers don’t do thorough research about a culture before incorporating it in their designs.

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Check previous post how do you feel about GUCCI ?

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There were other instances where popular brands’ products had designs synonymous with blackface, a racist character created in the 1800s by white people to mock black people. The character has a black face with red exaggerated lips. Gucci had released a black turtleneck with a red-lined cutout for customer’s mouths. While the brand claimed it was inspired by vintage ski-masks, people thought it was inspired by blackface, sparking major outbreak on the internet. Gucci released a statement apologizing for their insensitivity and later added that the company would hire more people from diverse backgrounds. Similarly, Prada had displayed dolls in their store and Katy Perry’s shoe collection had designs that were reminiscent of blackface, which caused both brands to come under negative limelight.

Why is research more important than ‘inspiration’?

All these examples only point out how oblivious brands are when they are designing their collections. Also, if the same brand is called out for it more than once, are they really making any changes from within the company? As I said, designing is a creative process. However, every creative process involves in-depth research about a topic. Taking inspiration from a culture to represent its beauty and significance is very different from stealing it and calling it your own. However, the moment you start misinterpreting the word “inspiration” for imitating, you probably go down the wrong path of misappropriating a culture too.

How has social media played its part?

With news spreading on social media like wildfire, designers should be very careful about what they post or write. Most of the outbreaks started on Twitter and Instagram. Many people from different cultures who were hurt by what was showcased at such big fashion weeks, expressed their sentiments on social media. And, that’s how a lot of people are aware about it. Social media has also become a fast-paced source of information. People who probably weren’t aware about certain cultures now know about it and are able to identify cultural misappropriation.

What can the existing fashion brands do?

Solution | Image Source: Shutterstock
Solution | Image Source: Shutterstock

Apart from being more thoughtful and sensitive, if brands and designers are taking inspiration from a certain culture for their collection, here are a few essential things they could keep in mind.

  1. Carrying out extensive research on cultural elements is a must, right from its origin to its significance to its use. They can also find out why certain details like the color, print, fabric, print or texture have been used in a culture.
  2. Have a model from that particular culture represent it on the runway in order to showcase its beauty and significance.
  3. Hire artisans who are responsible or the sole innovators of these designs and give them due credit.
  4. Include or hire more diverse people from different backgrounds in all their teams to make sure their designs aren’t deemed as culturally misappropriate.

I hope designers become more conscious of people’s sentiments when designing and showcasing their collections. However, the major question still remains- where should designers draw the line between appropriating and appreciating a culture?

What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation in fashion and how do you think it can be curbed. Let us know in the comments below.

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