Words: Liz Dom
According to a contributor on Quartz, Jenni Avins, getting dressed is a daily act of cultural appropriation.
As stated in the article, she takes huge amounts of pleasure and pride in donning fashion items inspired by various cultural groups.
Avins further comments that it’s necessary to tread carefully when appropriating culture in fashion but goes on to state that the idea of cultural appropriation being inherently problematic ought to be done away with entirely – “In the 21st century, cultural appropriation—like globalisation—is inevitable.”
As such, borrowing from a variety of cultures is not “inherently problematic” but becomes problematic when reasoning behind it is insincere or ignorantly derogatory.
Take Selena Gomez, for example, wearing a bindi, a Hindu symbol of auspicious significance during a televised performance of her track “Come and Get It” on The Ellen Degeneres Show in 2013. As no surprise, Hindu communities across the globe requested an apology of the star’s whimsically ignorant fashion statement and called upon research on the basics of the religion and culture, with a particular citizen claiming “It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed.”
More recently, in 2015, Kylie Jenner, youngest of the Kardashian clan, caused an uproar by posting a photograph to Instagram, flaunting cornrows with an accompanying hashtag #whitegirlsdoitbetter. Amandla Stenberg, Hunger Games star, countered with a thought-provoking vlog Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows, citing that Jenner’s appropriation of cornrows and posting the photograph, in itself, isn’t problematic, but capitalising on an oppressed culture’s style, without any intention of using her star and white power to quell myths and uplift, along with the insensitive hashtag, is hugely problematic as she’s using another’s culture for her own gain while perpetuating age-old stereotypes.
Sadly, cultural appropriation doesn’t start and end with celebrities, but is influenced largely by these figures, as well as fashion houses, whose ignorant ideologies trickle down to underground blogs from where a huge majority of fashionistas source their aesthetic ideas.
A recent case in point (as recent as 15 January 2016), brings forth the example of a friend on Facebook, proudly parading a new hairdo – white, extended cornrows weaved into her natural, caucasian hair. While this appropriation, in itself, is fairly innocent and could easily be brushed aside, her photograph exclaimed the following caption: “Cornrows: most effective contraceptive. No hormonal changes. Completely safe. Lasts 3-6 weeks. #newhairdontcare #grey #contraceptive”
This woman, an up-and-coming member of the South African art community, not only appropriates black culture, where men and women with cornrows are already forced to tone down their appearance because of cultural stereotypes deeming them “dangerous” or “unprofessional”, but snubs the hairstyle’s origin as well as those who wear it with one sweeping status update. Thus, not only is her appropriation insincere, it’s downright racist. Add 102 ‘Likes’ for insult to injury.
So, here we are. Because we allow it.
Picture this: An African-themed runway show where 8 out of the 90 looks featured women of colour. A bit far-fetched, no? Nope.
Valentino’s Spring/Summer 2016 offering was described in Vogue by its designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli as a message in “tolerance and the beauty that comes out of cross-cultural expression.”
Valentino’s Twitter account described the collection as “primitive, tribal, spiritual yet regal”. Re-read their description, if you must. I draw your attention to ‘yet regal’ – as if, without Valentino’s sophisticated touch, the collection or its cultural inspiration, would be anything but.
In South Africa, designers such a Marianne Fassler, a white, 60-something woman with red dread-locked hair, creates garments inspired by her surroundings, which, mostly consist out of Johannesburg cultural visuals.
While all good and well, one must take into consideration, that Fassler herself as well as her designs, primarily speaks to and is bought by a white, female, upper-class with the exception of a few minorities here and there.
As such, as much as Fassler adores Johannesburg and the cultural diversity that South Africa has to offer, she, as a white Afrikaans body, is cashing in on another’s culture; the very point Amandla Stenberg was trying to make in her viral vlog.
Cultural appropriation, in 2016, treads a fine line between inspired and offensive. As Avins stated, cultural appropriation is as natural as globalisation, simply because we live connected lifestyles but the time has come for fashion and fashionistas to admit and steer clear of ignorance. Until then, we live to micro-aggravate again.