The Fashion Industry: Appreciation or Appropriation?


Zara Osako looks at the problematic relationship between race, culture and fashion

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By Zara Osako

Recently, both society and the individual have undergone a much overdue self-reflection and one industry in particular has, rightly, had the finger pointed at it - the fashion industry. The fashion industry as we know it to be has spent decades thriving off of inspiration from other countries and cultures, from textiles, designs and even production; so much so that the lines between inspiration and appropriation have eventually become blurred. Western societies are also notorious for cultural appropriation; for taking aspects from another culture and branding them as their own discoveries and achievements. And when these two mentalities meet, the origins of the latest fashion trends can become misrepresented.

Every day we find ourselves in an increasingly globalised world, and so it is natural and understandable that fashion has also taken this course, branching out and finding inspiration in other cultures; it keeps it new, exciting and unpredictable. It’s what I love about it. However, sometimes designers and the industry take it a step too far, treading into territory that has deep cultural significance. And once they channel these designs and motifs into their own collections, Western buyers are often naively unaware of the gravitas of their clothing choices.

As well as this, the industry actively exploits many cultural fashions for their own profit, while at the same time failing to diversify their companies in any other way. For me, this is when inspiration and appreciation become appropriation. You cannot pick and choose which parts of a culture you want, simply for your own benefit. You cannot continue to base your collections on other cultures, while still employing a predominately white workforce. You cannot keep discriminating against people of colour while continuing to take from their culture. It contributes to a power imbalance that western societies have spent centuries forcing on the rest of the world; whilst they profit, other countries remain suppressed and exploited. This oppression is consistent throughout the whole production; not only seen in their marketing, but also in their manufacturing processes which commonly outsource to ‘developing’ countries, with many production processes arguably engaging in a form of ‘modern day slavery’; but this is another discussion.

Cultural appropriation comes in many forms, but one strong example is when fashion houses disregard the cultural significance of a garment, instead choosing to turn it into the next fleeting trend. East-Asian countries like China and Japan often unwillingly find themselves victims of this. Oriental patterns and motifs have been fashion targets for decades, across both high-end and high-street fashion, and, in my opinion, are becoming more and more disrespectful every season. Western fashion has captured oriental garments, like the kimono and the qipao, and diminished them into a night-out outfit. Many adapted designs have been criticised for sexualising and fetishizing oriental garments by making them short, tight and revealing, subsequently feeding into a wider discourse that East-Asian women have been victim to from western society. This was particularly perpetuated in a clothing collaboration between Little Mix and Pretty Little Thing which showcased many garments clearly suited to nights out and clubbing ‘inspired’ by the traditional Chinese qipao dress, a strong symbol of female emancipation within the culture. This disrespect is also reinforced through Halloween costumes, as every year we dread the influx of ‘Native Americans’, ‘Japanese samurais’ (also ignorantly branded as ‘ninjas’), ‘Bollywood dancers’ and ‘Geishas’, all usually with the prefix ‘sexy’ put before them.

Additionally, brands habitually exploit cultural properties for aesthetic purposes, while failing to acknowledge that the owners of these features have been historically or even currently discriminated against for displaying them. Usually this discrimination is committed by western or European societies, which are now the ones profiting from the culturally appropriative garments. For example, in Marc Jacob’s 2016 SS show, he accessorised his predominately white modelled collection with dreadlocks, a hairstyle that has its roots in black cultures. In contrast, in wider society, black wearers of dreadlocks are frequently discriminated against for their supposedly “unprofessional” appearance, as widely seen in workplaces and schools. While it is used as an aesthetic for one group of people, it is a harsh and unfair reality for another; it furthers the cultural power imbalance as white wearers can utilise and dispose of it as they wish without any repercussions, whilst it has a much deeper significance for black wearers of the hairstyle, such as Rastafarians. This insensitivity was also perpetuated amongst Gucci who, in 2019, shamelessly lined their pockets by selling turbans, a meaningful religious symbol for Sikhs who have historically faced extreme discrimination, as part of their AW collection.

Cultural appropriation in fashion is not new by any means, but we are becoming more hyper-aware of it, with recent world events shedding light on the pivotal role the fashion industry plays in racism and racial discrimination. As an industry, it is responsible for shaping and influencing many of our normalised societal ideals, most of which centre around the white woman; it is one of the biggest and most influential industries within the western world. But now is its’ time to actively change its’ responsibilities; a time to express gratitude to the cultures that they are inspired by, to display racial diversity amongst their models and workers, to show respect to the garments that they are reconstructing; to simply stop using culturally significant garments as fleeting trends.

If fashion really does reflect society, then what does this say about culture we’ve created? And as the consumer, it is our moral responsibility to keep calling the industry out when we see racial injustices and examples of appropriation: vote with your wallet.