Hennas are in. Native American headdresses are boho-chic. Cornrows are edgy. And bindis? Well, they’re your go-to fashion accessory for music festivals.
It’s the fashion trend that just won’t seem to fade. From high end magazines like Vogue to prominent pop culture figures, everyone seems to be partaking in cultural appropriation. Aspects of a culture that stem from deep historical and cultural significance are now being exploited in everything from music videos to runways.
Fashion and beauty practices are part of an individual’s culture, part of an entire group’s identity. But what happens when that aspect of a culture is taken by another group for the sole purpose of being “en vogue”? What happens when that aspect of a culture is twisted and bent to become something that is hailed by popular culture as “edgy,” “chic,” and worst of all, “exotic”?
These are the questions that cultural appropriation poses.
Cultural appropriation is defined by one culture, usually the culture holding dominant power, taking an aspect of another culture without understanding the significance of it. Oftentimes, the aspect that is being taken is one that is embedded with a history of stereotypes, slurs, and ridicule for the people of that particular culture. But, once it is held by the dominant culture, it is deemed ‘cool’ and ‘fashionable.’
High fashion magazines play a significant role in perpetuating cultural appropriation. For example, in the Vogue Australia April 2014 issue, white model Marina Nery was seen wearing clothing that stemmed from Aboriginal and Kenyan influences. The clothing of an entire culture was decreased in significance, and became another accessory. Another example is Numéro magazine, which used black face on model Ondria Hardin for an editorial entitled “African Queen.” Rather than hire a black model, the magazine chose a white woman, implying that ethnic diversity can be exploited at the will of white culture.
“Whenever I see people randomly wearing Palestinian print or style of jewelry, I get angry because they’re using my culture as a fashion statement. My culture is not a fashion statement. It’s not something that can be bought for $12.99 at Forever 21. I’m Palestinian and I’m Muslim, two of these things in my life are being exploited regularly by girls who think that it looks Tumblr to wear henna. My country has been torn to pieces and it’s seen by many as ‘nonexistent,’ and while all that is going on you’re going to tell me that my people’s struggles, my people’s culture is reduced to a clothing item worn by Kylie Jenner? That’s not okay with me,” said Nadia Aljojo, an LMU student and Free Palestine movement activist.
There is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. One should not be attacked for stepping outside of their own cultural experience to learn about another’s. This is essential in developing empathy and cross-cultural understanding. However, what cultural appropriation does is it takes the diverse and numerous elements that are codified within the fabrics, dresses, and accessories of a culture and extracts them from that context so that their significance is lost, reducing them to nothing more than accessories. But what needs to be understood is that a culture cannot be reduced to a novelty for the sake of being ‘fashionable.’