cultural appropriation · runway fashion

Appropriating Culture on the Runway

Photo by Aveda Corporation (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

Fierce runway walks, famous designers and the latest in high fashion?  Yes, please!  But the trend of stealing aspects from others’ cultures in pursuit of “couture”?  Not so haute.      

Cultural appropriation has been present in the fashion world throughout history and has recently been prominent in runway shows.  It is defined by Everyday Feminism as, “when members of a dominant culture adopt parts of another culture from people that they’ve also systematically oppressed.”

Marc Jacobs, an American fashion designer, came under fire after his 2016 New York Fashion Week show.  Jacobs’ models, a majority of whom were caucasian, wore their hair styled in dreadlocks.  Needless to say, people were not very pleased.

Wondering why?  Well, let’s talk about it.

As a Huffington Post article explained,

It erases history and context, it tries to find an equivalency in black women straightening their hair after centuries of trying to assimilate while told their natural hair is ugly and unprofessional to white women rocking du-rags, cornrows, and bantu knots because it looks ‘cool.’

In other words, it is not okay for anyone to turn pieces of others’ cultures into a fad while simultaneously denouncing the use of it by its originators.

Another show faced criticism for its use of insensitive looks on the runway in 2015.  Givenchy models strutted their stuff in dark colors, chic fabrics and chunky jewelry.

The  problem, though, was once again with the models’ hairstyle, which heavily incorporated the look of baby hairs.  This seems innocent enough, until designer Ricardo Tisci shared the inspiration for the line: “Chola Victorian.”

Here’s the issue: The word “chola” has been used commonly as a derogatory term against Mexican immigrants, according to a Refinery 29 article.  The baby hairs look is also a hairstyle commonly associated with Latina women.  

So while styling models’ baby hair is not in itself a problematic act, Tisci made it one by saying it derived from another culture.  The reasoning behind the style, used on models who were again almost all white, perpetuates the idea that it is acceptable to steal from other cultures while ignoring the history and oppression they have faced.

What can we take away from this?  Essentially, the lesson here is to be smart when it comes to other people’s cultures.  It’s fine (even encouraged!) to appreciate and learn about other heritages.

However, it becomes a problem when others’ looks and customs become fun trends for a dominant culture and remain a negative stereotype for the original owners.

Next time, let’s make sure to keep culture out of couture.


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