Fashion Politics: Appropriation

Fashion Politics: Appropriation



In the spirit of the Halloween season, when debates about cultural appropriation abound, we’re considering the issue of borrowing, homage, and appropriation in fashion. Our new blogger, Esther Yu shares her thoughts. We’d be happy to hear yours in the comments.

The world of fashion is saturated at every level with some form of cultural borrowing, whether it happens on the runway at NYFW or in the dressing room of an Urban Outfitters. Since no style happens in a vacuum, designers are inevitably inspired by external influences like cultural traditions. And the relentless capitalist cycle of fashion houses means an unending search for new ways to inflect familiar fashions. Thus “tribal,” “eastern,” and other flavors of cultural “spicing” show up on the runways in waves from year to year. In some cases, these exoticizing tendencies are subtle, like Ralph Lauren putting mandarin collars on evening gowns. In other cases, they are egregious: Katy Perry in yellow-face, parodying a geisha.

The line between what some term cultural appreciation and others call cultural appropriation is sometimes thin in the world of high fashion. If fashion is art, as some argue, perhaps it’s wrong to place limits on its “taste” (this depends, of course, on your view of art’s autonomy from politics). Some have pushed back against the use of terms like “cultural appropriation,” which are sometimes seen as attempts to police what (white) mainstream culture consumers can and cannot do. This is far from the case: there is no immovably right or wrong way to approach cultural inspiration in fashion, since global capitalism has promised the instantaneous, largely effortless movement of images from most parts of the world. It would be unrealistic and undesirable to push for a ban on taking inspiration from other cultures, which is both inevitable and also potentially positive. Talking about cultural appropriation is not ultimately about arbitration and condemnation, but about intentionality and careful consideration. It is a way to think about the uneven power structures (often race- and culture-based) that shape not only the realm of fashion, but of all political and cultural forms of expression.

It is therefore important to try and think about what it means to culturally appropriate within the world of fashion—which includes not just the rarified world of couture but also daily practice. To put it bluntly, borrowing becomes appropriation when it also (lazily) imports stereotypes and predetermined meanings. Returning to our earlier brief example: when a designer uses a shape from another sartorial tradition (the mandarin collar) but transforms it into something new, this happens on a design level and not necessarily a conceptual or ideological level. Ralph Lauren’s design does not inherently include a commentary on Chinese culture, though critics can read this back into the design if they wish. On the other end of the spectrum, Katy Perry dressing like a geisha creates a parody of an entire subset of culture that she does not understand. This may seem harmless, but it is not. It is not just a costume. It turns a tradition into a joke, and it does the worst, laziest kind of cultural work: assuming that many complex moving parts of a society, which are also historically specific, can be rolled into one image to sell something entirely unrelated. In doing so, Perry’s actions are a claim to knowledge she doesn’t have, and they make use of stereotypes (submissiveness, willing sexual promiscuity, doll-like qualities) that have real, damaging consequences for other women. As a performer, Perry has the power to put on this “costume” and use its stereotypes to market her music. But she also has the privilege of taking the “costume” off—while those who lived in that context, and who suffered the consequences of uneven systems of power, cannot.


Please no, Katy Perry – via Tumblr

All this brings me to the one night when clothing becomes a seeming free-for-all: Halloween. Cultural appropriation gaffes crop up every year without fail. The conversation about it is thus far from over. Whether it’s Duke University students throwing an “Asian” costume party with rice paddy hats, or Julianne Hough dressing up in blackface (!!), this kind of thing still happens all the time. Most of the time, these costumes are offensive not because, for example, Asian people own the exclusive rights to wearing conical hats, but because rice paddy hats are not a cutesy accessory. They are tied to a history of labor—and, for example, the specific history of Asian labor that allowed American capitalists to exploit Chinese “coolies” while denying them basic rights. When someone puts on this hat for fun, they are making a political statement, whether they understand it or not. Similarly, Julianne Hough’s blackface costume of Suzanne/”Crazy Eyes” from Orange is the New Black was basically a clusterfuck of troubling appropriation. By turning this character into a costume that anyone could casually put on, Hough elided the broad concepts mental illness in prisons, the treatment of lower class black women who don’t have access to advocacy, and blackface minstrelsy—not to mention the whole point of the show, which is to illuminate the stories, pain, and love of people not usually considered or remembered by society as a whole.


Bhoka notes: Wait, who the fuck is Julianne Hough and why is she relevant? via E! Online

To be fair, most people recognized Hough’s costume immediately as an egregious mistake. Her appropriation of black identity is an extreme, and extremely visible, example. The vast majority of those who dress up on Halloween (who dress themselves at all, for that matter) seem fairly conscious of a line that should not be crossed. What I advocate for, however, is a more careful consideration of the meaning of clothing and style in general, one that takes into account uneven relations of power. This thought process is a kind of privilege that one might lean into: the power to reflect more deeply on what one is projecting out into the world, and how. When you pick your Halloween costume this year, don’t turn someone else’s culture into what is at best a lazy copy and, at worse, an offensive joke. Fashion is a powerful code that can communicate identity and stance. Let that identity be rooted in the thoughtful and meaningful, rather than something snatched from someone else.

ShoppingListExamples of fashion that are inspired by culture instead of misappropriating it.






Intro Photo via Nirrimi Hakanson

Esther Yu | Author
| Editor
LadySyrupp | Shopping List
Bhoka | Graphics


This is offensive to French people, via Flickr

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