Cultural Appropriation: The Do’s, Dont’s and Definitions

If you’ve been keeping up with all the fashion madness over the last few years you’re bound to have heard the term ‘cultural appropriation’. You might have seen pictures from Coachella with influencers sporting dreadlocks and cornrows, liked and commented on their posts, and not realised the consequences. Wherever you look, it’s basically a topic that has everyone split which is hard to ignore. No one really seems to fully understand it—big time fashion designers, celebrities and even us average Joes.

Cultural appropriation is defined as ‘the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect their culture’. And while that seems simple enough, in our social media globalised society, the lines between trying to be ‘on trend’ and something that is obviously offensive can be blurry.

Image: Joel Ryan/ Invision/ AP

In recent years, there have been numerous high-profile cases of well-known and respected brands in the industry getting it, well, wrong. Early this year, Gucci was criticised for styling turbans on their models who were not Seik. Many ethnicities declared the move as a huge sign of disrespect, stating that the turban is a symbol of faith and not an accessory. A similar controversy came about back in 2016 after Marc Jacobs used dreadlocks on mainly white models, where the designer stated: “To all who cry cultural appropriation or whatever nonsense about any race or skin colour wearing their hair in any particular style or manner- funny how you don’t criticise women of colour for straightening their hair”. He did later apologise for the debacle and statement he issued realising just how big the issue actually was in the world.

Image: Backgrid

In terms of trends, costumes and fashion, cultural appropriation makes certain styles seem cool and edgy for some, but too ethnic for people for others. Standards of professionalism in many business places actually ban African American women from wearing their natural hair in cornrows, dreadlocks or an afro, making them chose between appearing as they naturally would (as people suggest), or succeeding in their workplace. But influencers such as Kylie Jenner, are somehow praised when they choose to wear cornrows or dreadlocks. This doesn’t sound so fair does it?

The world shared a collective gasp when it was revealed what exactly Chanel’s newest item was a $2000 boomerang featuring their signature logo. People immediately saw the issue with the disgusting appropriation of Aboriginal culture. An Indigenous project officer, Nathan Sentence, of the Australian Museum spoke out about the issue, pointing out that the $2000 boomerang cost almost 10% of the average annual income of Indigenous Australians. Regardless, what can be described as worldwide outrage, the boomerang remained on their website listed under ‘Other Accessories’ amongst Chanel tennis racquets and surfboards.

Image: Twitter

Celebrities have the fan base and influence to really make a change with this growing issue. Some who rely heavily on their fanbases, often do apologise for ignorantly flashing dreadlocks or native headdresses as fashion, and some do the opposite of the right thing. One of them being Jeffree Star, who proudly shared on Instagram him playing, holding, throwing and hoping his ‘other accessory’ would return to him as advertised. As Chanel went on and operated their brand unaffected by the backlash, designers often do go on unscathed, seemingly existing above this level of scrutiny, to only later issuing a simple, sentence, eyeroll apology over social media.

It’s important to pay homage to artistry and ideas, and ultimately acknowledge their origins. Cultural appropriation was at the heart of Met Gala in 2015 when the announced theme was “China: Through the Looking Glass”. This extravagant event for the fashion industry where many expected to be a bombarding overflow for accidental racism. Instead the red carpet showcased some of the most admirable examples of cultural appropriation done right. Rihanna navigated the theme with her bold robe by Guo Pei, a Beijing-based Chinese couturier. The ‘imperial yellow’ worn was a shade reserved for the emperors of ancient Chinese dynasties.

Image: Getty

It’s a minefield out there on whether you are respecting or ripping off a culture but just know that it would be wrong to say that engaging with other people’s cultures is always out of line. There is always a time and a place. Henna has been problematic but getting it done at a special event where you are surrounded by people of the culture, you’re using it as a means to relate them in that environment where nobody can make profit off you wearing or flaunting it. This is appreciating someone’s culture, not mimicking it at Coachella. Angelina Jolie is always visting Pakistan to support the communities, where she is surrounded by women in hijabs, so wearing one herself as a means to fit in and show respect toward the culture.  Being in the appropriate environment, refusing to participate in known traditions can be shown as disrespect and insulting.

The tip to positively reflect cultural appropriation, like Rhi-Rhi did so elegantly at the Met, is to treat a cultural exchange like any other creative collaboration — you must give credit and consider royalties.


Written by: Darcey Weaven