Over the last few months, the term ‘cultural appropriation’ has appeared increasingly more often on my Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds. They accompany other words and images that convey an incredibly strong sentiment of rage. The people behind these posts are angry. But some of their followers or ‘friends’ just don’t get 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?”
Now, on the surface these types of comments and questions are not necessarily ill-willed. However, they do show that this issue of cultural appropriation needs clarifying. Here, I attempt to demystify and explain.
The fashion industry could not survive without diversity. For centuries, it has been common practice for designers to borrow elements of style, whether it be the use of colour, patterns and motifs, embellishments, the way a piece of apparel is cut or accessorised, from a variety of different countries and cultures across the world. A mix and match of geographical influences can lead to innovative design in clothes and footwear. Yet more importantly, the acceptance, appreciation, and adoption of fashion from other areas, particularly those that are lesser developed, in my view, has the power to promote a sense of togetherness 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 slightly 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 on a European stage because it was pretty. In the past, black people have been exhibited in human zoos and mockery was the intent.
I’m always shocked and disgusted and saddened when I learn about the suffrage of my ancestors as the victims of a torturous, colonial history. But 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 I believe that people from under-represented groups were riled up because of the lack of diversity in the cast. For 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 the customs and traditions regarding dress and appearance that originally belonged to a marginalised and oppressed ethnic group lead to their humiliation, bullying and taunting in the playground, workplace, or on display in human zoos, should that same clothing or hairstyle be adorned by someone of a dominant race, it is offensive that suddenly it’s considered the height of fashion. The ‘look’ becomes desirable. On fair skin, it’s seen to be cool. And this perception-play is extremely problematic for both self-esteem and wealth distribution.
For example, in primary school, as a black girl wearing my hair in braids, I would often be teased. People would come up to my hair to touch it and make me and my personal space feel violated. As a white girl wearing 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.
As alluded to, the Wild Africa collection presumably will have yielded millions in revenue for the Italian fashion house too, 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 Maasai community? Where are their economic gains? A further problem with cultural appropriation means credit is seldom given where credit is due.
That was certainly the case again the following year in the Marc Jacobs S/S 17 fashion show. Similarly, he sparked huge amounts of controversy for using mainly white models wearing 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.