Why Cultural Appropriation Should Be Included in the Ethical Fashion Narrative

What is cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation in recent years has become a hotly debated topic in pop culture; one side arguing that its ‘politically incorrect’ to take an aspect of someone's culture without proper background knowledge and making it fashionable, while the other arguing that these are just clothes and that we have more important issues to deal with. While both sides of the debate have some aspects that are understandable, the latter proliferates a view that is ignorant of and disregards the experience of ethnic minority populations. With the surge of social activity in the era of 'conscious living', it's easy to be lured by buzzword phrases and forget just how much historically-rooted social issues persist today. Ultimately, saying that we have 'more important' issues to deal with does not mean that social movements aiming to challenge cultural appropriation should be left on the periphery.

The fashion industry has come under fire on numerous accounts of appropriating ethnic cultures. Most recently Gucci's show as a part of Milan fashion week received backlash from the Sikh community as white models wore turbans as hats on the runway. This was highly offensive as tweeted by the Sikh Coalition that "turbans are sacred articles of faith and not a mere fashion accessory." High street brands such as Bershka, H&M and Urban Outfitters have also perpetuated culture appropriation by selling pieces that are offensive to many groups of ethnic minorities, for example by putting random Chinese or Japanese characters on clothing just for the 'aesthetic'. The people that side with the idea that culture appropriation is not an issue don't understand the idea of their culture being reduced to a mere aesthetic. Being reduced to an aesthetic shows no sense of appreciation or respect to our cultures and it further negates the representation of ethnic minority populations. Moreover, cultural appropriation shows the hypocrisy of the West and how they have undermined and belittled ethnic cultures ever since the study of Orientalism emerged in the era of colonialism. Orientalist studies fetishised us to fit colonialist narratives of white supremacy and today ethnic symbols are by parallel being exploited as 'trends' in the name of profitability. To say that cultural appropriation doesn't matter endangers our path towards a progressive society, fails to acknowledge how harmful stereotypes are and is highly offensive to ethnic minorities when sacred garments such as the hijab or the turban are reduced to a fashion accessory. Furthermore, disregarding culture appropriation as a problem makes it acceptable for people to fetishise certain groups of people yet, in reality, many ethnic minorities are discriminated against and are unable to create their own representations due to historical and ongoing inequalities.

However, the anger and dissatisfaction I feel with how my culture is represented in the fashion industry is often looked over and labelled as being 'oversensitive'. Some have even gone as far as asking, why am I ungrateful for the so-called 'appreciation' of Asian/ African cultures? Or saying that we find you and your culture beautiful now you should be grateful, implying the notion that it is an honour to be finally considered beautiful by the West. There is a massive difference between appreciating or admiring a culture and taking something from a culture and donning it because you think it is cool or hip. How can new generations of Asians or Blacks love themselves if they're represented by a superficial understanding of what it means to be an African, Latino or an Asian, while also having to live up to European beauty standards? With the rise of conscious consumerism, it is important to see the negative impact of wearing something 'trendy' if it simultaneously disrespects a group of people as these individual choices perpetuate simplistic and offensive representations and make them the cultural norm.

Love and solidarity,

Michaela x


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