The term “cultural appropriation” has started to be heard increasingly common lately, often denounced (as a practice) by the more socially conscious among the population. But what exactly is it? Maisha Johnson defines it thus: “Members of a dominant culture adopt elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominate group”. 

Often, culture is thought of as a singular, stagnant construct. However, culture is an amalgamation of many different elements. Culture refers to traditions, beliefs, and practices of a large group of individuals throughout generations. Culture is not an exclusively visual concept as it is based in traditions and beliefs, rather than race. However, in many cases, perceived “appropriation” is clearly based on the accused’s race, rather than an obvious conflict of culture. It therefore seems that the notion of “cultural appropriation” sometimes “…speaks to a broader confusion about the relationship between race and culture; a confusion that afflicts anti-racists as much as racists” – Kenan Malik. Within this framework, elements as diverse as religion, entertainment, urban fashion trends, and even tourist-trap tchotchkes may be targets of appropriation. Untangling the threads requires an examination of some history and perspectives, including those on the internet. 

Know the History 

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A Scottish Paisley Shawl. Image from CRC, University of Edinburgh at https://flickr.com/photos/98144996@N07/24945894012

The pattern known in the West as “paisley” may seem innocent enough but its history is fraught with colonialism. A traditional Middle Eastern design known as Butteh, teardrop-shaped prints were originally hand-embroidered by the Kashmiri people on cashmere shawls which became popular in Western Europe around the turn of the 19th century. Cassidy Zachary (one half of the team behind the Dressed podcast) explains that European textile producers saw a profit to be made and began mass marketing cheaply-made shawls emblazoned with the print. The biggest production hub was located in the Glasgow suburb of Paisley, Scotland.

 

Conversely, garments that superficially suggest “appropriation” can be tame by comparison. The latest resurgence of the “kimono” trend in fashion has seen fast fashion retailers like Zara and H&M regurgitating designs every season, minorly altering a hem length or pattern. A lot of what they market as “kimonos” are in actuality simple, boxy robes made out of cheap material printed with Asian-esque patterns. Most shoppers see the bastardized prints and associate them with Japan, but their inauthenticity prevents them from truly appropriating any culture. (They remain guilty, of course, of orientalism and exoticism.)

While a great deal of apparel has arisen in the argument over cultural appropriation, far more remains potentially problematic because the relevant history hasn’t yet been examined. Understanding the cultural origins of a garment or pattern is essential in determining whether it might be exploitative or offensive. 

Tourism and Souvenir Garments

At many destinations, tourism provides the main source of revenue. Visitors purchase mementos for themselves or to bring back as gifts from faraway locations, expecting them to represent the local “culture”. In response, China and Japan routinely traffic in cheap robes for tourists that are reminiscent of authentic cultural dress, but made of low-quality fabrics from mass-production factories, and lacking all cultural significance. Moreover, these robes are often ornamented with dragon motifs — only contributing to Western stereotypes. At best, these robes are in a Nemaki style, but the souvenir shopkeepers know tourists want kimonos, and label them as such.

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Two examples of early Hawaiian Shirts

A very different example, Hawaiian shirts are too recent an invention to trivialize Hawaiian culture. These shirts were modeled after Western dress (a sad byproduct of colonialism) and originally constructed out of leftover kimono fabric, brought over by Japanese and Chinese contract laborers who serviced the growing produce industries in the 19th century. The first Hawaiian shirts were requested by surfer kids on the islands (Caucasian, Asian, and Polynesian) who liked the lightweight silk and prints of the kimono fabrics. Soon, tourists saw these and began ordering custom versions as well, ultimately leading tailors to design new prints and manufacture shirts to be sold off-the-rack, rather than bespoke. Because Hawaiian shirts were created specifically for non-native tourists, rather than being reproductions of a significant cultural costume, their souvenir value doesn’t appear to trample on anyone’s ethnic identity.

In these examples then, and in general, the tourist-trade and the clothing produced to serve it are ultimately not appropriating culture so much as they are diluting it.

Religious Garments 

The world’s religions are associated to varying degrees with a plethora of different cultural traditions. However, while certainly important in many parts of the world, religion is not defining to one’s identity in the same way that being born of one race or raised in one culture is; therefore, it is necessary to treat the “cultural appropriation” of religiously-significant cultural elements as a separate facet of identity.

In some cases, when a dominating culture’s religion differs from that or those of oppressed cultures, the latter’s religious garments are outlawed. An example of this is the Islamic rule of Spain, from 711 to 1492. The Moors, late in their occupation, prohibited the conquered Catholic population from wearing any religiously-affiliated garment or accessory, punishable by death. Interestingly, the Spanish were not required to convert to Islam, nor conform to Islam’s strict dress code.

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A Native American Headdress

In more recent history, a similar persecution of religious attire occurred in the United States. In the 19th century, the so-called “Peace Policy” was instituted throughout the U.S. It required Native Americans to give up their religious and cultural practices and begin to assimilate with the dominant American, overwhelmingly Christian, population, ultimately leading to a ban on the Native American headdress. Perversely, in recent decades, it had become popular for non-indigenous people to wear them as novelty items at festivals. 

Fortunately, recent strides in cultural sensitivity have generated a public outcry that in turn has led to widespread condemnation of non-Native Americans wearing such sacred garments. Festivals have even begun prohibiting their use and wearing, a sign that our society is becoming conscious of the taboo of true cultural appropriation. 

Religion is its own construct, separate, but not mutually exclusive from culture. However, the more expansive a religion, the more room there is for cultural differences among its adherents. For example, of the many Jewish people in the world, most would not identify exclusively as culturally Jewish, usually identifying with another heritage along with their Judaism. All Jewish men might wear a yarmulke, but none would be prevented from wearing his other culturally significant clothes. It is incorrect to assert that a person’s religious identity should dictate whether or not they may wear culturally-associated clothing, as the two are distinct. Perhaps a new term should be coined for instances when religious garments are appropriated, since including them within “cultural appropriation” can confuse and muddle interpretations. 

Costumes and Performance

The most egregious appropriation most often occurs among promoters of popular entertainment — performers of which also frequently compound their crime by offensive caricature and reduction to stereotype.  The garment itself has little to do with promoting racist notions, but the creation of a character who is wearing it, and who is basically a racist caricature, encourages lazy stereotyping. 

Maisha Johnson cites Katy Perry’s 2013 American Music Awards Geisha-inspired performance where (though she later claimed to be honoring Japanese culture) she perpetuated stereotypes of female Asian compliance by wearing a kimono and acting sexually submissive. Even though Katy Perry refrained from “yellowface”, costuming herself in kimono and presenting herself in a stereotypical fashion encouraged a pervasive and racist attitude. She herself, of course, enjoys the luxury of never being branded by the stereotype, being able “to take the costume off”. And though Katy Perry is a repeat offender when it comes to appropriating cultures, she is hardly alone.

Madonna has committed countless infractions against other cultures by both appropriation and perpetuation of stereotypes, most notably the “dancing Latina”. For the music video of “La Isla Bonita”, Madonna creates a Spanish flamenco character as an alter ego for her shy self, literally dancing her way out of seclusion and into acceptance. This dancing character is seen caressing herself suggestively and is generally more sexually emotive than her ethnically ambiguous counterpart.

“Ghetto” Gold and Urban Fashion 

America has had a long history of appropriation, stemming back to at least minstrel shows and “blackface” performances. Beginning in the 1830s, white men blackened their faces and donned rags to perform a humiliating mockery of African American slaves. While this example of appropriation has less to do with cultural garments of the people, the harm is still felt in their community. 

Since the end of slavery, African Americans have begun acquiring a cultural aesthetic, formed in the urban centers many were forced into. In recent years, that aesthetic has also become ripe for appropriation, and fashion trends are more frequently coming off the street, rather than the runway. However, there is a huge disconnect between who is setting the trend and where the trend is actually originating. Often these styles (such as hoop earrings), when isolated, will be interpreted negatively: “ghetto” or “ratchet”. But when a (usually white) fashionista wears them on the cover of Vogue, they instantly become “edgy” and “fierce”. Maisha Johnson argues that this discrepancy, further fueled by the positive acclaim of the fashionista and pervasive oppression of the person of color, causes pain and does harm to the community where the trend originated, as it trivializes their experiences and culture. 

This is a valid argument as it points out the unfair disadvantages systemically-oppressed people suffer in our society. The styles of these people become a novelty to people who have never experienced the hardships of oppression. This is similar to wearing a costume for a performance, which the uninformed wearer gets to take off at the end of the day with none of the repercussions others wearing the same thing face daily. 

The Internet’s Response

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Soong Ching-ling in a Cheongsam

Perhaps the most recent cultural appropriation debate began a month ago, when Utah high schooler Keziah Daum decided to wear a cheongsam (a traditional Chinese dress) to her senior prom. After posting pictures online, outrage erupted on Twitter, where she was denounced for having the audacity to wear the “culturally important” attire. Many of her attackers identified themselves as Chinese, with one stating that although Asian, she wouldn’t wear “Korean, Japanese or any other traditional dress…”. Conversely, Daum was defended by other self-identified Chinese Twitter users, many of them sending support, telling her how good she looked in the dress and assuring her there is no issue with wearing a garment from their culture. Daum herself has responded to the backlash proclaiming she meant no harm, and in fact intended the opposite; she wanted to show her admiration and respect for the culture by donning its fashions. 

It can become confusing when a single ethnic group is split over whether or not their culture is even being appropriated. Even if we take their assertions of Chinese ancestry at face value, one’s cultural identity is based on many different and changing factors — “Chinese” being one facet among many. This perhaps explains the conflicting arguments about a single dress. The outcry from people who are legitimately and sincerely offended needs to be heard and respected, as they have that right to be offended; their feelings are their own. However, I would direct criticism at the anonymity that people have behind their computers. We don’t know that people reacting (positively or negatively) are being truthful in their self-identification with a certain culture. 

Furthermore, the internet erects a barrier to actually learning about the accused’s culture and background. The main critique of her wearing a cheongsam is that “she is not Chinese”, but how do these Twitter users know that? When accusing someone of appropriating a culture, how do we know they are not a part of that culture? More often than not, accusers are assessing the person’s race, rather than their cultural upbringing (since race is more visually apparent than culture). 

Survey Results 

While researching this subject, I conducted a survey of 40 participants to capture opinions on cultural appropriation. I collected information from a variety of age groups, ethnicities and genders, to create a well-rounded dataset. Respondents were challenged to decide whether or not 11 different culturally significant garments constituted cultural appropriation when worn by specific persons of another culture. The results of the survey were used to support my claims and give me an idea of people’s notions on cultural appropriation and the examples to be discussed. 

Surprisingly, there was little variation among generations and genders on what they perceived to be cultural appropriation. Most participants found many of the examples to be appropriation, even understanding the historical significance between garment and wearer I sometimes baited them with. The only example of widespread agreement there had been no appropriation was over the question concerning a German wearing a French beret. One wonders whether such an agreement would be reached in Vichy France.

Conclusion

The opponents of cultural appropriation have valid arguments, as they are trying to undo generations of oppression and racism. However, there must be a better way to get their message across than by attacking people from behind a screen. More often than not, the perceived offenders do not know they are upsetting others by the clothes they wear because most people don’t think much about what they wear each day. I would argue that the reason people choose to wear attire from a different culture is more likely that they find it beautiful and/or interesting than that they intend to cause harm. It should also be noted that the act of wearing a garment from another culture can serve as an introduction to that culture and generate interest in it.

Because of this, the solution should probably not be impulsive hostility, as it often is. Rather, people’s responses should strive to open up dialogue between the offender and offended. When innocent motives are publicly attacked, both sides feel wronged, and progress is difficult to achieve. And as we’ve already seen, many cases of instant infamy are also based, essentially, on perceptions of race (rather than culture).  

That having been said: when the offender is also perpetuating a cultural stereotype, they are being racist and need to be called out immediately, as in the case of caricatured performance. Similarly, when there is an apparent double standard between fashion choices worn by separate cultures, the racism underpinning that dichotomy needs to be corrected. These are true cases of cultural appropriation, and they serve an oppressive function. 

Overall then, a sensitivity to cultural appropriation is beneficial to modern society, as it is a tool that can help correct the injustices of racism. However, context is the key to assessing it, and we must be vigilant about cases of unknown or unassessed context. Otherwise, it becomes difficult to be sure whether the subject is race or culture. And with that, I just would like to remind you, dear reader, to have fun with your clothing choices, as fashion is meant to be fun.

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