Let’s Talk About Cultural Appropriation and The Fashion Industry

… and how to avoid it

Cultural Appropriation goes beyond what a lot of people think. Rodney William in his book called Apropriação Cultural brings a definition: “Cultural Appropriation is a tool of oppression which allows a dominant group to take the power of a minority culture, emptying the meaning of their production, customs, traditions and other elements.” It means that cultural appropriation can only happen against a subaltern culture, and usurp the elements of cultural resistance, distorting not just the cultural sense but also political. Our capitalist society where everything becomes a product, for example, back in 2015/16 when the braids became a trend, it originated from Afro culture and disregarded the cultural and historical reasoning behind them. It’s about ancestry, but the industry erased the black element and made it a fashion element for white people. 

Cultural Appropriation isn’t easy to define or to understand, it’s way more complex than we can see, and honestly, only the marginalized cultures know how it feels. Many fashion brands have used cultural elements from minority cultures to promote their collection, they have used cultural appropriation as a “business strategy” and because of this, many fashion brands have faced accusations of Cultural Appropriation in the last years. 

2012: Victoria’s Secret was accused of Cultural Appropriation when one of the models wore a Native American headdress on the runway. The headdress that’s sacred for Native Americans caused outrage in the indigenous community, resulting in a lawsuit.

2015: Isabel Marant was criticized in 2015 for designing a dress similar to a traditional blouse that has been made for centuries by the Mixe people, an Indigenous community in Mexico. The embroidery was made 600 years before for a community in Oaxaca.

2019: The controversy involving the Kim Kardashians shapewear that was launched with the name Kimono, resulted in action from the Japanese government that sent authorities to the USA for a debate about it, because Kimono is part of Japanese culture and used informal occasions, such as weddings.

2020: Carolina Herrera was accused of using in her collection, Resort 2020, elements that belonged to the indigenous in Mexico. The art used in this collection was a reflection of how indigenous people visualized the world. 

Huda Beauty

2021: Mexico accused Zara of Cultural Appropriation for using patterns that belong to indigenous groups. 

These are just a few examples. The number of Cultural Appropriation cases doesn’t stop rising, and to talk about this issue, Nádia Mattos, creative and stylist, spoke to The Femme.

How do you see and feel about cultural appropriation in the fashion industry?

I believe cultural appropriation in fashion dates back in the day with the bourgeois and royal families. Privileged, rich, and white families with the financial capacity to travel and trade goods from undeveloped countries with fresh different cultures have always been in their daily life (imported fabrics, special dyes, tableware, exotic plants, and foods, etc) which were considered a sign of power and wealth. The more exotic and eccentric the better. 

The difference to the fashion industry now is that we’re all way more educated and that kind of appropriative behavior is a sign of stupidity and ignorance. It’s ok to feel inspired by the wonderful cultures around the globe but that inspiration should come from a place of respect and self-awareness where you KNOW you can’t just appropriate that to your own benefit. 

Why do you think fashion designers, such as Isabel Marant, take benefits from it when they could do something else?

Like I said before It’s normal to feel inspired by other cultures. I mean the world is full of beauty and richness and I believe those factors make some creatives/designers lose their minds. They are focused on presenting new, fresh and “innovative” content and that only happens because the fashion industry is built in such a competitive, fast-moving “game” so consumers don’t get easily tired or bored.. Accordingly, designers and creatives get dazzled by the opportunity to glow (and grow!) by presenting new content constantly that sometimes comes from cultural appropriation, unfortunately.

Do you think capitalism is one of the main, or the major reason, for designers/high brands practicing cultural appropriation? Why?

Yes! The fashion industry like any other industry is built to “feed” us new content all the time so we keep buying and buying stuff we don’t need. It is my belief that we’re all kinda brainwashed to the idea that being cool is a synonym to having the latest trends and to match that fake necessity. Designers keep looking for different ways to keep presenting us with new stuff (here is when the cultural appropriation takes place). It is a very unhealthy, unpractical repetitive cycle for us and for the environment! 

Educate yourself and be aware of malicious propaganda around you.

What do you think can be done to change the action—cultural appropriation—from high brands? 

The answer to that problem is the same to all problems we’re facing when it comes to pollution and ending resources: STOP BUYING SHIT YOU DON’T NEED! It’s our duty to stop this crazy capitalist rhythm. We still have a chance for a better future if we start now. Changing doesn’t mean a drastic behavior switch but changing small consuming habits. Buy less but buy better (try to support locally sourced brands instead of buying from an international brand with shitty values).

For those that have a slightly privileged life considering everything that is happening around the globe right now: Use that to rethink your habits, there are a lot of small things you can change in your life that will have a big impact on all of us.

Cultural appropriation can result in drastic consequences, culturally, politically, and economically. African, Japanese, Native American, Mexican and Indian fashion have been a major source of inspiration for designers but all the money their collections have received and all the attention are just for them. Local designers rarely receive the spotlight the artisans receive. The fashion industry did and do it with no shame for financial gains. Certain brands might not be interested in avoiding Cultural Appropriation practices but you can be interested. Here are a few tips on what you can do:

  • Give credit and/or recognize the origin of what you buy;
  • Learn from the members of the culture and not from people “inspired by the culture”;
  • If you appreciate the culture, support small business owned by real people from that culture instead of high brands; 
  • Educate yourself;
  • Avoid pretending that you’re from that culture just because you appreciate it . 

And remember, the line between appreciation and appropriation is really thin. Appreciation has compensation while appropriation is synonymous with oppression. If you feel like you missed the mark, you need to apologize and change your behavior. 

Photo Credit: Kevin Tachman

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, here is everything you need to know about Britney’s Conservatorship

Tags: culturalappropriation, culture, fashion, industry

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Victoria Antonieta
Victoria Antonieta, internationalist, writer, traveler, big time TikTok dancer and sugar freak.
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