Fashion's Obsession with Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation happens where there is a power imbalance between different cultures. Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society”.

Cultural appropriation in the fashion industry is an ongoing problem which is largely unchallenged. When it happens, the world kicks up a fuss, but after a day or two, it’s forgotten – and so the cycle begins! It’s important to recognise that whilst the fashion industry is truly remarkable, it also has major shortcomings. 

As a woman of Chinese heritage, the debate around cultural appropriation is innately personal for me. Little Mix recently released a new collection with PrettyLittleThing including items loosely based on the traditional Chinese qipao. They describe the collection as “oriental”, and many other fast-fashion brands such as Topshop and Zara have stuck this label on their items too. “Oriental” is an outdated term that shows racial insensitivity as it groups all Asian countries and people together – much like the racist phrase “all Asians look the same”.

The way fashion borrows stylistic elements from other cultures is not a new practice and of course, where there is a genuine attempt to celebrate culture and shed light on the thousands of years of history that exist behind garments like the qipao, it is unproblematic. Unfortunately, what Little Mix has done is erased this history by figuratively (and literally) ripping it up to create revealing outfits. By sexualising the qipao, it reinforces the stereotype of Asian women being exotic and submissive which is extremely dangerous. 

Another recent and more well-known example of cultural appropriation was Kim Kardashian naming her shapewear “Kimono”. Unfortunately, over the last decade, Kim Kardashian is just a drop in the ocean of countless fashion houses appropriating culture time and time again. 

In 2012, Victoria’s Secret put a Native American-style headdress on a model for their fashion show and were forced to apologise. In 2017, Vogue was criticised for shooting Karlie Kloss dressed as a geisha and then again in 2018, for shooting Kendall Jenner with an afro. Gucci has also been accused of cultural appropriation by sending their models down the catwalk in turbans. These examples from powerful industry players filter down to normal everyday people, meaning they think it’s okay to wear bindis to music festivals (I’m looking at you Coachella!)

So… what is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?

A promising example of cultural appreciation (and not appropriation) is Dior’s 2019 Cruise collection which draws inspiration from escaramuzas – highly skilled Mexican horsewomen. For this campaign, Dior worked with eight Mexican female photographers in their native country. This collaboration and involvement with the community is incredibly important as it allows representatives of that community to share their culture and their identity in the way they want. 

The way society reacts to cultural appropriation is the reason it keeps on happening. People say, “it’s wrong” and “it’s offensive”, but no-one actually cares enough to stop it from happening. Just look at the huge PR and marketing teams behind Little Mix and Kim Kardashian promoting their collections. 

By simply understanding and appreciating the culture you’re borrowing from – like asking yourself where it comes from, who it belongs to, what the history is– it really changes the discourse around this topic.