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Fashion cultural appropriation or appreciation: the difference.

Updated: May 22, 2023

Fashion is a reflection of our times and with modern society becoming more and more multicultural, sometimes the lines can be blurred as not everyone fully understands the significance of certain cultural symbols.

Many fashion designers have often ‘borrowed’ from other cultures and tried to pass it as their own inventions or simply used cultural references as a prop. This has often caused public outrage and many brands have been called out or even ‘cancelled’ for causing offence. We at THE FASHION BLUEPRINT would want you to avoid any scandals and bad press, so we set out to look more into the differences between cultural appropriation and appreciation.

THE FASHION BLUEPRINT Fashion cultural appropriation Marc Jacobs dreadlocks models fashion show

Marc Jacobs

What is cultural appropriation?

Fashion and identity are inseparable. Since the beginning of times, fashion has been used as a means of self-expression and cultural distinction. It’s natural to associate a sari with Indian culture, a hijab with Islam, Ankara prints with West Africa – these are not merely fashion statements, but more cultural symbols which represent a set of people, their heritage, lifestyle, traditions, etc.

Cultural appropriation happens when cultural practices, fashion, spiritual traditions, hair, speaking styles or any other cultural elements are taken and commercialised, without reference or credit to those who have made it what it is. Think of all the marketing companies that have used the phrase 'On Fleek' without ever referencing Kayla Newman, the black American girl who coined it. Cultural appropriation is picking and choosing which parts of a culture you want to participate in but having the privilege to get by without the everyday discrimination, stereotypes and microaggressions.

Some well-known examples from the fashion industry would be Kim Kardashian trying to trademark the word Kimono for her shapewear brand in 2019 just because it had her name in it, or Marc Jacobs’ showcasing non-Rastafarian models with false dreadlocks in 2017 (then clapping back at his critics with the typical “I dOn’T SeE CoLOur”), or Gucci using Sikh turbans as a fashion statement with no reference to the religion or inclusion of Sikh models.

The questions that are raised from this are:

  • Why was Kim so comfortable in taking a word from a different language and trying to legally make it her own?

  • Why did Marc Jacobs think he could use Rastafarian hair as a prop?

  • Why couldn’t Gucci hire actual Sikh models for the runway?

Why cultural appropriation is wrong

People of colour have been marginalised for centuries so they have often created their own separate societies where they are free to express themselves without judgement from the dominant groups. This is why it is disrespectful when someone else suddenly takes what they have been mocked for and passes it on as something cool and innovative, like they created it themselves.

Cultural appropriation comes from a place of privilege so it is actually seen as a modern type of colonisation. We haven’t achieved equality in society yet so taking from a different culture without including them in the process is exploitative.

Cultural symbols shouldn’t be used as a fashion trend or fun prop to be utilised and then discarded once it’s not cool anymore. For the people whose culture it belongs to, that will still be their identity and they will still need representation.

How to show cultural appreciation without causing offence

High fashion was made to be inspiring and push the boundaries of creativity, however this should not come at the expense of anyone’s cultural identity.

The main difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is that the former is a disrespectful rip off whereas the latter offers respect, credit and financial support to the culture it aims to showcase.

“You can’t just do whatever you want. When it’s sacred, when it's religious, you have to be careful. It’s not just an object; it’s not just a thing.” – Dries Van Noten

The best way to show appreciation is by simply creating opportunities for communities which are so unique but yet so often dismissed, ridiculed and marginalised. For example, if you want to showcase a hijab collection then hire actual Muslim women as your models, if you have a Sari-inspired design then you could shoot your campaign in India or if you’re showing Ankara prints then hire black models to wear it.

Some examples:

Our top tips on how to show cultural appreciation without causing offence:

  • Love the people as much as you love the culture

  • Do your research

  • Hire the culture you want to showcase

  • Don't just copy and paste, there's a way to draw inspiration without mimicking

  • If you’ve made a genuine mistake, apologise and offer compensation

We only touched on some points but there are many more layers to culture, diversity and inclusion and there is still a huge need for a more ethical fashion industry. As a consulting agency, we can support your brand in creating inclusive marketing campaigns and working environments which support diverse communities. To find out more, visit our services tab.

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Written by Giovanna Vieira Co, 2020


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