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FYI: Cultural Appropriation And Racism In Fashion Still Exists

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UC Irvine chapter.

As someone who is a sucker for fashion innovation, I am filled with excitement during every fashion week (and Moschino does fashion week the best). However, I have been disappointed by a couple of controversial moments in the past several weeks.

Cultural appropriation is a concept that makes me feel really disappointed, especially knowing that it is still prevalent to this day. We can see it often in fashion, film and even in the music industry. The fashion community has seen two major incidents of it in the past month: one by the Japanese label Comme des Garçons and one by the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT)’s annual student fashion show. Even though FIT’s fashion show is not considered a luxury brand event, it is still crucial to acknowledge the incident because it is one of the top fashion universities in the world. 

On Jan. 18, Comme des Garçons made a questionable fashion choice by dressing its white models with cornrow wigs. It is not very pleasant to know that out of all the hairstyles the fashion director could have chosen, he decided to select cornrows for his white models. The creative director took a stance and stated that he was going for an “Egyptian prince” look. On top of that, the fashion label still lacks racial inclusivity, only to have cast its first black models last year in over 20 years.

When designers do not take the time to study cultural fashion practices, they are not acknowledging the meaning and purpose of historical traditions. It is seen as though they are not considering the traditional use of the design, and merely making up its meaning for their own purpose. Creating a hairstyle is a creative, political and social choice people make daily. Unfortunately, many people experience prejudice from the individual styles they choose to wear. Designers need to be aware of the impact of the social statement they can make, even if it is merely through the decision of a hairstyle.

Last week, a FIT MFA student put together a fashion show for the university’s annual fashion showcase. In the show, models were given accessories of big red lips, big “monkey ears” and fur-like eyebrows. When looking at photos from the show, I felt as though I was looking at racist advertisements of blackface from the late 1860s. After the Civil War, blacks and African-Americans were portrayed as “animalistic” with features such as big red lips, extremely white teeth, bloodshot eyes and “gorilla-like” features. I can not fathom how this show was allowed to occur, especially knowing the student’s intention of wanting to highlight “ugly features of the body.” 

The president of FIT stated that students had the “freedom to craft their own personal and unique artistic perspectives as designers, to be even what some would consider being provocative.” When a graduate student chooses to create problematic works, it incorrectly informs younger students that it is acceptable. An institution like FIT should teach its students that cultural appropriation and the creation of racist works must end.

It is mind-boggling to see that prominent figures in fashion, such as those at Comme des Garçons and FIT, allow these controversial events to occur. Are there not any specific regulations that the designers and students have to follow? These events seem insignificant in comparison to all the fashion shows during the year, but even one show can misinform a generation of upcoming designers on what is considered “fashionable”. 


Rehana is pursuing double degrees in Film & Media and Ethnic Studies with an interest in screenwriting, creative non-fiction, and oral histories. A proud Capricorn, she enjoys spending her time daydreaming about flaky pastries, baby otters and Studio Ghibli films.