Fashion continues to face a problem with cultural appropriation, as designers and magazines “borrow” elements from other cultures, resulting in products and imagery that are often insensitive, ill-informed, and offensive. The Internet has served as the cultural appropriation police for years, calling out celebrities, street style stars, magazines, models, and designers for their tone-deaf appropriation that varies from Native American headdresses at Coachella to hairstyles rooted in black culture.
“There’s a history of pulling from other cultures as a resource for design inspiration, but not actually wanting to build an intimate relationship with these people who are the source of this inspiration, not really counting them as equals,” said Kimberly Jenkins, a professor and curator at Parsons The New School for Design. “It’s going to be difficult to untie ourselves from that whole legacy.”
In response to fashion’s widespread appropriation problem, the United Nations may soon make it illegal.
Negotiations are taking place this week as representatives of 189 countries are meeting in Geneva as part of a committee within the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Indigenous groups worldwide have been asking the UN to create sanctions against the appropriation of indigenous language and design since 2001.
A tricky issue for the UN will no doubt be that cultural appropriation has no specific, legal boundaries, thus it may be difficult to enforce any new legislation. The borders of cultural appropriation are not well-defined—for instance, when does paying homage to or drawing inspiration from a culture one admires become blatant misappropriation of a culture’s history and values? Still, the Cambridge Dictionary says it is “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” “Respect” is a key word in this dilemma, because it’s precisely what may differentiate appreciation from appropriation, the latter being something that disregards the value and history of another culture and uses it to western (mostly American and European) advantage.
Sure, many have taken steps forward without the threat of legal repercussions, but just as many simply don’t care. Take, for example, Coachella’s 2015 initiative to ban the Native headdresses that, for years, were the highlight of its street style images. That was a good move. But just last month, fashion editor Anna Dello Russo decided to sport one such headdress to Dior’s Resort 2018 show in L.A., and splashed photos of the “look” all over Instagram. That was not a good move.
The nuances of cultural appropriation continue to stir confusion and controversy. Just recently, Vogue faced backlash after it published an editorial in its diversity issue featuring Karlie Kloss as a geisha, with many classifying the shoot as a portrayal of “yellowface.” But a helpful reminder is that when any disenfranchised culture is used by a privileged one, it perpetuates cultural and social inequality. Perhaps a solution is to invite all cultures to seat at the fashion table with the proper respect and value they deserve. If not, a UN fine might do the trick.
With that in mind, fashion shouldn’t forget its many blunders—after all, if you don’t learn from the past, you’re doomed to repeat it. Here, we examine some of the most notable instances of cultural appropriation from the past five years.