Nowadays, it seems like not a day goes by without cultural appropriation hitting the headlines.
If it isn’t a fashion designer’s mishap with a new line it’s a group of students’ ill-judged party theme.
And while some people claim calls of cultural appropriation is “political correctness gone too far”, for many others, it’s very real and very serious.
So what is the difference between appreciation and appropriation?
In recent years, there has been a spate of high profile cases of well-respected celebrities getting it wrong.
For example, in 2019 Gucci was famously criticised for putting turbans on white models for one of its fashion shows.
Many Sikhs condemned the move as a huge sign of disrespect, pointing out that the turban is a symbol of faith not a fashion accessory.
Dear @gucci, the Sikh Turban is not a hot new accessory for white models but an article of faith for practising Sikhs. Your models have used Turbans as ‘hats’ whereas practising Sikhs tie them neatly fold-by-fold. Using fake Sikhs/Turbans is worse than selling fake Gucci products pic.twitter.com/gCzKPd9LGd— Harjinder Singh Kukreja (@SinghLions)February 22, 2018
In 2017, Victoria’s Secret came under fire for putting a native American style headdress on one of their models, and luxury fashion label Chanel was criticised for “stealing” Aboriginal culture when it revealed a £1,100 boomerang as part of its S/S17 collection.
A similar furore came about in 2016 after Marc Jacobs used dreadlocks on mainly white models - the designer responded: “[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 later apologised.
— i-D (@i_D)August 8, 2017
But this is the argument many people use to defend themselves as they lament that they can no longer wear hoop earrings, put their hair in braids, wear headdresses, henna or bindis as fashion statements - Beyoncé, Selena Gomez and Katy Perry have all got into trouble for wearing henna, bindis and dressing up as a geisha respectively.
But herein lies the problem: it’s when culturally significant items are appropriated for fashion rather than as a celebration of that culture.
This is why there was so much backlash to the University of Bristol students who threw a “Night of the Raj”-themed party, but it’s acceptable to wear a sari if you’re going to an Indian wedding.
When it comes to cultural appropriation, it’s not really a black-and-white issue, and according to Dr Royce Mahawatte, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Central St Martins, trying to “draw a line” is problematic in itself: “It creates a victim complex in people who have not accepted that [...] British and American exceptionalism is over and that white supremacy in culture is being robustly challenged – especially in an age of social media,” he explained to The Independent.
“Actually, there is no ‘line’ really, nobody is stopping designers from doing anything – cultural appropriation stories are now a part of the fashion media cycle.
“If a group of Bristol students want to pretend that they are the British Raj for one night, without knowing or caring (it is hard to work out which) how India came under British rule, and actually how dress played a part in the oppression of Indian people, then I would think that the present must really be a terrifying place for these students to be living in.”
Of course this isn’t to say that only Germans and Austrians can ever wear Lederhosen and British people are consigned to dressing like Morris dancers, but there is a gradual realisation that there is a need for more sensitivity around race.
“Racism is reflected in the way that dress is understood,” Dr Mahawatte says. “Non-white women have been historically oppressed and their fashions and markers of identity have played a part in this.
“Racism is structural here, black people have their employment rights limited by employers drawing on white raced standards of beauty as a tool of subjugation. Though we may laugh along with girls in Dirndls serving Jägerbombs, German traditional costume was never used to oppress Germanic people through institutional prejudice.”
To everyone causing so much negativity: I mean no disrespect to the Chinese culture. I’m simply showing my appreciation to their culture. I’m not deleting my post because I’ve done nothing but show my love for the culture. It’s a fucking dress. And it’s beautiful.— Keziah (@daumkeziah)April 28, 2018
This is why a teenager recently prompted a debate around “casual racism” after she wore a traditional Chinese dress for her prom.
“The underlying issue here is that the fashion industry and western ideas of dressing up and fancy dress are functions of our colonial and imperial pasts – there is no getting away from it,” Dr Mahawatte explains.
“From the way that clothes are manufactured and consumed, to the way that they are promoted and even experienced, fashion continues in theme and image what violent colonialism started.
“Our mainstream culture does not really know how to handle this and in an age of digital media - we have a perfect storm.”
Dr Mahawatte believes that structural racism is advanced by dress, and we still have a lot to work on in this area.
“Rather than drawing a line we can look at the innovation that young designers, image makers and fashion writers, many of whom are non-white are bringing to the scene,” he says. “If individuals want to wear clothes that knowingly hark back to colonial oppression, no-one will stop them but they might expect to be asked about what they were thinking.”