Over the last few months, the term ‘cultural appropriation’ appears more and more on my Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds, often within posts conveying upset and rage. The people behind them are aggravated. But some of their followers and ‘friends’ just don’t get why, and what they’re going on about exactly.
“I hear it has something to do with race”.
“What’s wrong with wearing a bindi, or liking a pic of a girl with her hair in braids?”
On the surface these types of comments and questions are not necessarily ill-willed. However, they do illustrate that the issue of cultural appropriation needs clarifying. Here I attempt to explain.
The fashion industry could not survive without diversity. For centuries, it’s been common practice for designers to borrow elements of style, whether it be colour, patterns and motifs, embellishments, cut, accessories etc. from a variety of different countries and cultures across the world. This mix and match of geographical influences leads to innovative design in clothes and footwear. And the acceptance, appreciation and adoption of fashion from other areas, particularly places that are lesser developed, promotes a sense of togetherness and inclusivity that’s truly beautiful.
When I first saw an image of Valentino’s Wild Africa campaign (above), I was stunned. The beading, bone necklaces and prints are typical of the Maasai people of Kenya but in this case had been re-interpreted and now popularised in the West – I loved it. Although Kenya is not my homeland, it’s very close to my patrilineage in the bordering nation of Uganda and rarely had I seen something of either location being showcased in the UK or Europe because it was pretty. In the past, black people have been exhibited in human zoos in London, Paris and Berlin, to be mocked.
I’m always shocked, disgusted and saddened when I learn about the suffrage of my ancestors, tortured under colonial empires. However, despite what would seem like progress in the 2016 Valentino show, widespread fury still ensued. In some part, this is due to the collection’s offensive descriptors, words such as ‘primitive’, for example. However, mostly, people from under-represented groups were riled up because of the lack of diversity in the cast. Considering it was an African-inspired show, the models chosen to parade the catwalk were predominantly white, and therein lies the first component of what constitutes cultural appropriation.
When someone of a minority background wears traditional dress or does their hair in a way that’s distinctive of their culture, this can lead to them being humiliated, jeered at in the streets, bullied in the playground, workplace, or circa the 1800s, on display in human zoos. However, if that same piece of clothing or hairstyle is adorned by someone of a dominant race, it’s perceived to be the height of fashion. The ‘look’ becomes desirable. On fair skin, it’s seen to be cool.
This is why cultural misappropriation is offensive. It’s damaging to the self-esteem of marginalised, ethnic people, and as I explore later, wealth distribution too.
First, in primary school, as a black girl wearing my hair in braids, I would often be teased. People would come up to me to touch it and make me and my personal space feel violated. As a white girl with cornrow today, you’d be dubbed fashion-forward, unique and cool. Black style is accepted on white people in mainstream culture. They’ll plait your hair in Topshop. Even the Kardashians are doing it.
Secondly, the Wild Africa collection presumably will have yielded millions in revenue for the Italian fashion house, but what about those people from where the designs and inspiration were sourced? What portion of Valentino’s income should have been attributed to the originators in the Kenyan Maasai community? Where are their economic gains? A further issue with cultural misappropriation means credit is seldom given where credit is due.
Such was the case again the following year in the Marc Jacobs S/S 17 fashion show. Jacobs’ sparked controversy for using mainly white models with dreadlocks to sell his clothes. His defence was that he did not “see colour or race”. But that is precisely the point. People of colour want to be visible on the catwalk, in campaigns, at the bank and in the archives in years to come remembered as talented creators.
So while I absolutely love and cannot get enough of this new Westernised pride and appreciation for African apparel, Afro-Caribbean hairstyles, and other cultural influences from faraway places around the globe, let us model them too, make money from our own culture, and be acknowledged as your inspiration (that has, for a long time, taken abuse) behind it all.