From Culture to Commodity: White Theft in Fashion

Olivia Donohue

Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner walked the Marc Jacobs runway during New York Fashion Week, sporting metallic jackets, colorful prints and rainbow dreadlocks. Arms wrapped around each other, smiling, cameras clicked: We had a new face of cultural appropriation.

It’s not just celebrities and high fashion designers that are guilty of cultural appropriation. Huge popular retailers have also been accused of using cultures that do not belong to them to make money.

But recently, with social awareness coming into vogue, more and more celebrities are advocating for change. Though the emergence of discourse on the topic has been beneficial, is dialogue all that’s needed?

“I think because we have a larger white population, they may not necessarily understand what cultural appropriation is,” said Anying Guo, a sophomore studying journalism. “I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions on campus, and I know that people just want to wear what they want and that’s fine and all, but I think that there’s a distinct lack of understanding about how much a piece of clothing can mean to a certain culture.”

Laura Jung, an anthropology doctoral candidate at American University and lecturer of cross cultural communications, defines cultural appropriation as taking symbols, rituals and practices from a culture “without attributing the design or the art piece to the culture from where it comes … [or] recognition to that culture and the history of that culture.” These signs and symbols are then used for another’s entertainment or profit.

While the fashion industry is seeing more diversity, this doesn’t necessarily translate to less cultural appropriation. According to the Fashion Spot, of the models at New York Fashion Week, 32 percent were people of color. In comparison, during the 1990s, nearly all models were white.

While representation of people of color has slowly improved, instances of cultural appropriation among popular retailers are on the rise. However, with the help of social media, we are beginning to see a new dialogue and social criticism.

“I haven’t witnessed any conversations in public forums about cultural appropriation in fashion, but like all issues to be discussed on a predominantly-white campus, there needs to be room for marginalized and affected people to speak,” said Shelby Moring, a sophomore studying Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies in an email interview. “Thus, our white peers must respect this and use these conversations as learning experiences by not speaking over the communities affected by cultural appropriation in the fashion industry.”

While cultural appropriation is becoming more talked about in mainstream media, it’s importance is still overshadowed by popular, white celebrities’ brazen exploitation of people of color. For example, at the 2013 American Music Awards, Katy Perry opened the awards dressed as a Geisha.

“As a Japanese-American woman, I see cultural appropriation of my Japanese culture all the time,” said Naomi Tamura, a junior studying international relations. “Non-Japanese people putting chopsticks in their buns, or even wearing a kimono because … they saw someone wearing one in Vogue.”

When Kylie Jenner wore cornrows in an Instagram post, Amandla Stenberg, a black actress, criticized Jenner’s appropriation of Black style, sparking a twitter feud between the two. In response, Stenberg uploaded a Youtube video, “Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows,” detailing a brief history of white appropriation of black hairstyles. The video has more than two million views and was spread around social media outlets for months.

“Dialogue is helpful, but ultimately I think action is needed,” Jung said.

Without action, the industry is going to continue to freely exploit non-white culture so long as it turns a profit.

This year, Valentino debuted cornrows on white models. Givenchy’s 2015 fall show used models with slicked down and styled baby hairs.

In 2011, the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for using “Navajo” to define several clothing items like the “Navajo hipster panty” and “Navajo print fabric wrapped flask.” The Navajo Nation recently lost the suit. Multiple attempts were made to reach out to all businesses and organizations listed in this article, but none responded.

“And I think a lot of problems within the fashion industry is taking what you like out of a culture and applying it and mixing it into a new hybrid,” said Guo. “It no longer becomes a symbol of respect to those various cultures and it becomes more of a tool to express your own aesthetic.”

Cultural appropriation is nothing new. Rock n’ roll music is saturated by white artists and is usually considered to be made by and for white people. This false history completely overlooks Sister Rosetta Tharpe and a long line of black artists who became the precursors to rock n’ roll by combining gospel with unique electric guitar sounds. Yet, white artists were (and are) are far more commercially successful than black artists.

This appropriation, Jung says, ties explicitly to colonialism and the legacy of slavery: it’s “the idea that black bodies and black features were meant as sources of income for non-blacks [and] –– particularly in the context of colonization –– for wealthy slave owners,” Jung said.

Cultural structures of our country that allow exploitation of black bodies have existed since it was first colonized.

In their article, “The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation,” Everyday Feminism writer Jarune Uwujaren says that many Westerners are used to taking others’ cultures.

“We tend to think of this as cultural exchange when really, it’s no more an exchange than pressuring your neighbors to adopt your ideals while stealing their family heirlooms,” Uqujaren said. Uwujaren is a prominent progressive activist and writer and was unable to comment for this story.

Members of the fashion community are not immune to this mentality.

“Everything is an advancement of borrowing from another culture,” said Marketing Professor Michael Carberry. “Fashion designers are creative people. If you or I were a creative designer, we would look to examples, we try to be original, we try to be creative too. You’re trying to look forward; what’s hot, what’s not — you might look back thousands and thousands of years”

This is where cultural appropriation is confused with cultural appreciation. In reality these things are very different. Cultural appreciation is more than attributing credit where credit is due; it is fully understanding the cultural significance while acknowledging the social impact of one’s actions.

“Cultural appreciation is appreciating rock n’ roll, but understanding that Elvis didn’t invent rock n’ roll,” Jung said.

How, then, are we to combat this practice that has been normalized in this country for so long? The first place to think about is where the money goes. For years, retailers have monetized minority culture for fashion without paying financial or symbolic credit to a trend’s cultural origin.

We all imagine that stereotype of fat cats sitting around the boardroom, planning which cultures they would like to exploit to sell t-shirts to 18-year-olds. Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple. In response to the question of what gets put on the clothing racks at Urban Outfitters, it’s entirely dependent on the consumers.

“If you don’t like what Urban Outfitters has or any other retailer you just at the end of the day don’t buy,” said Carberry.

It’s up to the people to decide whether or not culturally appropriative clothing becomes popular or not.

“There are trend setters that set the trends and, typically at colleges, they’re opinion leaders,” Carberry said. “There are guys and gals that are respected for their opinions, for their activities, for their interests and folks take a look at what they’re wearing and what they say and they’ll follow.”

Colleges also have an impact in responding to issues of cultural appropriation.

“You’re the ones who decide,” said Carberry. “You and your friends and your peers and the people throughout the United States your age group, you’re the ones that pick.”

But does bringing awareness to cultural appropriation through outlets like social media or discussions among friends and family stop the normalization of this practice?

“How many times have social media users called out designers for mimicking cornrows or locs?” said Moring. “It’s not that the communities affected aren’t speaking out or doing their part. Our demands must be met and that starts with the people in power shutting up and listening.”