Case Study (Final): Cultural Appropriation

In the fashion world, trends are so quick to come and go just like the changing of seasons. Designers push up their game looking for whatever is new and exciting, so that audiences comes back again and again. This field is the first one to cross the boundaries of societal norms and self-expression. Fashion has influenced us enormously, but sometimes it can be misguiding. In the process of crossing the boundaries and selling the products, designers are easily using fashion as a vehicle for racism. What happens when we start taking bits and pieces from another’s culture and traditional dress to boost up our outfit? My ignorant friend, you are then engaging in cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is ‘the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture.’ (Frew, 2015).

The actual problem comes up when somebody uses somethings from a less dominant culture in a way that the members from that culture find offensive and undesirable. The worst part is that the marginalised group can’t voice out, they got no say even while their heritage is deployed for fun or fashion by people in a greater privileged position and it’s done with total ignorance rather than knowledge of the culture.

The internet loves to talk about cultural appropriation, specifically the impact of white cultures appropriating aspects of marginalised ones as symbols of “cool.” 

The issue here is power. The dominant or normal culture is free to appropriate whatever they like, but the marginalised group and minority are left with significant cultural forms of expressions. In this case by a celebrity – Rihanna at a Masjid in Abu Dhabi. I am unsure if Rihanna cares or even thought about the cultural weight of her photos, or the implications of her actions. This is cultural appropriation where Rihanna is donning a “hijab” which signifies of Muslim culture and its value of modesty, although she’s not a Muslim or have any beliefs of Islam. She imposed her personal twist on the Muslim female garment by adding on a red lipstick and posing with fitting jumpsuit in a seductive way, basically she’s eroticising Islamic culture in a way that is disliked. Where does the fine line between creating “art” and being disrespectful fall within cultural appropriation? Does Western glamorisation of the hijab empower Muslim women or exploit them?

‘Marginalised groups don’t have the power to decide if they’d prefer to stick with their customs or try on the dominant culture’s traditions just for fun’ (Johnson, 2015).

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Mostly marginalised group will adopt aspects of the dominant culture in order to fit in, not stand out. Black women have faced so many criticism and therefore are uncomfortable to leave their hair in its natural form. Women are being told by employers that their hair looks “Unprofessional”. (Sini, 2016) According to Huffington Post 2016 reports, some employers even say that they must spend money and time to make it more like “white hair”

Doesn’t this seem to come back to imbalance in power? The black women didn’t choose to adopt this element in their life for fun or even out of choice, but because they want to avoid discrimination by the greater group. Everything, just comes back to 3 points: Cultural power, modern and historic.

Another example is common, a white lady wearing a Native American feathered headdress also known as war bonnets to a festival from Coachella for aesthetic reasons or for this case at Victoria’s Secret Fashion show held in 2012. It was considered cultural appropriation because it’s a person wearing a culture that just isn’t theirs (Dorsey, 2016). People need to understand that Native American and their culture are still alive and well.

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After the fashion show from Victoria’s Secret, it didn’t take long for the people to hit the internet, people went up to the Victoria’s Secrets Facebook Page to take out their anger over the runway look of Karlie Kloss.

Commenter posted:
“As a Native Women, I want to share how disappointed I am in your lack of Cultural respect of traditional sacred items and our women in general. Native women have the highest rate of sexual related murder on the continent. Thank you for further promotion of this violent act against our women!!” (Wachell, 2012)

“I think the difference is if you’re wearing it to be fun or fashionable. But if you’re wearing it by correct protocol, then of course it’s fine,”(Yellowtail,2016)

Outrage didn’t just stay at a Facebook page but it quickly spread through the Native American community.

After all the comments from Native Americans and Non-native alike, Victoria Secret went onto Facebook and Twitter to apologise.

“We are sorry that the Native American headdress replica used in our recent fashion show has upset individuals. We sincerely apologise as we absolutely had no intention to offend anyone. Out of respect, we will not be including the outfit in any broadcast, marketing materials nor in any other way.” (Victoria Secret, 2012)

Also Karlie Kloss came onto twitter to express her side:

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The ultimate question will definitely pop up. “Will it ever be right if a person who is not a Native American to wear a war bonnet/feather headdress? Maybe yes, but not for this case as it hyper-sexualised fashion, perpetuated narrow depictions and understanding of another culture. The outfit worn by the model was said to make a mockery of the Native American women and the culture as well.

3 years ago in 2015, wearing a headdress/ war bonnet has been banned at Montreal’s Osheaga’s Arts and Music festival to show respect for another culture (Noyes, 2015). It’s excellent that festivals such as music festivals and Halloween celebrations have started to ban the feathered headdresses. To stop anyone from wearing the Native American’s headdress, people need education.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.03.53 PMScreen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.03.58 PM.pngThis is nowhere like the case of White American wearing a tunic fringe shirt with a headdress, mocking the native people their predecessor almost experienced genocide.

American teenager Keziah Daum who has no Chinese roots, was criticised a lot by her native US people on her image sharing. There is one absurd example of cultural appropriation that I know of, at least she didn’t try to do such, she didn’t walk around acting and tip toeing to mock the foot binding culture which Chinese women had to do in the old times to be considered beautiful and to be able to get married in a decent family.

She even explained herself that she only posted her photos from prom wearing a traditional Chinese qipao, or cheongsam for her friends to see and didn’t mean to offend anyone.

“I posted photos for my friends to see. I never imagined it would go so far. I am sorry if anyone was offended. That was never my intention. I am grateful I was able to wear such a beautiful dress.” (Daum, 2018)

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When she posted the vintage prom dress photo if herself on her social media account like twitter and Instagram, she was targeted with thousands and thousands of tweets accusing her of appropriating the culture, but not because of its tight fit or thigh high slit. Asian Americans seized on Daum’s dress saying it’s cultural appropriation and its exploitation and disrespectful. Above is a tweet made by Jeremy Lam, there were more than 40k retweets, around 180k likes and around 60k of comments on this social media platform alone which said “My culture is not your goddamn prom dress”

After criticism of student Keziah Daum’s Twitter post showing her wearing the traditional qipao, Chinese commenters call it cultural appreciation, not appropriation. (South China Morning Post, 2018)

Many people in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong backed her up and totally thought that her choice of prom dress which was a traditional dress was a win win for Chinese culture. Following are some comments made by these people under her twitter prom image.

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Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 10.07.18 PM.pngTo ensure you are not appropriating a culture, we all can follow the 3 S’s introduced by Susan Scafidi a law professor in a Fordham University: Source, Similarity and Significance. Has the ‘source” community directly asked you to share some bit of their culture and does it have a history of exploiting something before? You than need to see how similar is the original with the appropriated element, a straight rejection or just a nod to a silhouette. Finally, you need to find out the cultural significance of the item, is it an image or object, is it something related to the religion that needs respect? This still isn’t 100% guaranteed, you still need to be open minded, don’t be afraid of learning about another culture. All we need to be is respectful. I believe we all would be in a better and peaceful place if we all cared for one another genuinely and equally for who we are and not for what we can benefit from them.

Signing off,
Khan Sultana Nazish


ARTIE GALLINA, A. (n.d.). The Reality of Cultural Appropriation. [online] man of the hour. Available at: http://www.manofthehourmag.com/culture/the-reality-of-cultural-appropriation

Chen, A. (2018). An American woman wearing a Chinese dress is not cultural appropriation | Anna Chen. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/04/american-woman-qipao-china-cultural-appropriation-minorities-usa-dress

Frew, C 2015, Othering, blackface, appropriation and #blacklives matter.

Johnson, M 2015, What’s wrong with cultural appropriation? Everyday Feminism http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/

Lubitz, R. (2016). Is it ever OK for a white person to wear a feather headdress?. [online] Mic.com. Available at: https://mic.com/articles/151503/is-it-ever-ok-for-a-white-person-to-wear-a-feather-headdress#.8nGwt8YbH

Massey, A. (2016). The Cultural Appropriation of Natural Hair. [online] HuffPost. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-cultural-appropriation-of-natural-hair_us_57cf2cb3e4b0273330ab127e?utm_hp_ref=cultural-appropriation [Accessed 1 Jun. 2018].

Noyes, J. (2015). Canadian music festival Osheaga the latest to ban Native American headdresses. [online] Daily Life. Available at: http://www.dailylife.com.au/dl-people/dl-entertainment/canadian-music-festival-osheaga-the-latest-to-ban-native-american-headdresses-20150715-gicmc5.html [Accessed 10 Jul. 2018].

Sini, R. (2016). ‘Wear a weave at work – your afro hair is unprofessional’. [online] BBC News. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-36279845 [Accessed 1 Jun. 2018].

SHARMA, J. (2017). When does cultural inspiration become appropriation in the fashion world?. [online] South China Morning Post. Available at: http://www.scmp.com/magazines/style/fashion-beauty/article/2118609/when-does-cultural-inspiration-become-appropriation

Vixen, V. (2012). Victoria’s Secret Apologizes, Pulls Offensive Native American Outfit from Fashion Show. [online] Vibe. Available at: https://www.vibe.com/2012/11/victorias-secret-apologizes-pulls-offensive-native-american-outfit-from-fashion-show/

Wischhover, C. (2012). Victoria’s Secret Apologizes for Karlie Kloss’s Racy Native American Runway Outfit. [online] Fashionista. Available at: https://fashionista.com/2012/11/victorias-secret-apologizes-for-karlie-klosss-racy-native-american-runway-outfit-pulls-it-from-the-broadcast


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