I’m Ready for a New Conversation on Fashion & Cultural Appropriation.

By: Emily Yakashiro

I have a background in non-profit work, specifically focused on raising awareness about violence against women. In the 5 years I worked in that particular sector, I observed that the rhetoric and teaching tools we used to raise awareness were constantly changing. For example, “No Means No,” embraced the addition of “Yes Means Yes”. Instead of telling women to watch their drinks, campaigns from rape crisis centres transitioned to putting the blame where it belongs–on perpetrators and bystanders. I have witnessed these changes occur, and I’m only 24. I have yet to see such changes in the fashion world when discussing cultural appropriation.


Above: American Apparel’s infamous”Afrika” print, which was designed by Landon Metz.

I’m ready for the conversation to change when it comes to discussing fashion and cultural appropriation. I think we have reached a place where the words, rhetoric, and tools we have to teach people about it and engage people in conversations about fashion and cultural appropriation is at a bit of a stand-still.


Image above found here.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think the Chanel Pre-Fall show (pictured above) was a f****** disaster, and Miley Cyrus‘ ongoing tendencies to “borrow” from black cultures for her tour performances/musical awards ceremonies is truly offensive. I also realize that I have a great deal of white privilege, which is no doubt informing this post.

I will say though that while I feel I can offer many different anecdotes, examples, and teaching tools to have conversations on several different levels about violence against women, I cannot say the same for fashion and cultural appropriation. When my friends ask me why it would be inappropriate for them to wear feather headresses to Sasquatch or bindis for a night out, my arguments are always the same–I have a very limited amount of anecdotes and ways to explain why cultural appropriation in fashion is inappropriate. When I emerge the victor in such conversations, I know it is because of my own personal disapproval or judgemental attitude that prevents bindis and bandage dresses from happening, not because I explained things well or in an accessible manner.


Above: Gwen Stefani–I love her, but she is a serial offender of cultural appropriation. Image found in this article about cultural appropriation x fashion.

I find that a lot of the arguments against cultural appropriation in fashion occupy a curious space between highly personal experiences (which often ‘out’ the explainer in some way) and very academic concepts and terminology.

2013 American Music Awards - Show

Above: Katy Perry’s performance at the American Music Awards November 2013.

When I say ‘outing’ the explainer, I refer to situations where we say it doesn’t mean the same thing when we see a racilazied minority wearing something (say, a turban) versus a white person wearing a turban. In my own personal experience, I might say something like “Japanese people can’t wear kimonos for fun the way white people wear kimonos for fun.”  At this point it is highly likely that the person I am talking to (if I don’t know them) will inquire of my own ethnic background, and I will feel obligated to say why yes, I am of Asian descent. In contrast to my other ‘area of expertise’ I have noticed, however, that I never, ever had to identify as a survivor of violence to explain or discuss violence against women.

The second stumbling block I experience when discussing fashion and cultural appropriation is that a lot of the conversation tends to be highly academic and intellectualized. I can say “colonialism” and “capitalism” all I want, but those concepts are hard to explain and throw around–even in Canada where we are taught via our public school curriculum roughly what colonialism and capitalism mean. Hell, when I was 20 and in my third year of university and busily working away for the support centre I worked for on campus, I used my paycheque earned from my (which was cemented on feminist and anti-oppressive principles) to run out and buy the infamous “Afrika” print American Apparel leggings (see the first picture in this post). I, of all people, should have known better. But I didn’t.


Above: Karlie Kloss in one of the most heinous examples of cultural appropriation in recent fashion history during the Victoria’s Secret fashion show.

I have no doubt that I have some blind spots when it comes to explaining cultural appropriation and fashion, but I also have a pretty darn solid background in workshop facilitation and public speaking (if I may toot my own horn for a second)–if half of what we say is not what we say but how we say it, my ‘toolkit’ to discuss or explain cultural appropriation should be pretty darn good, yet I find myself constantly fumbling through arguments against cultural appropriation in fashion.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the gift for coming up with snappy metaphors or eye-opening anecdotes that might make a difference in how I explain things (like “Yes means Yes,” etc) with regards to fashion and cultural appropriation. I can rehash the statements well enough, and back them up once I know them, but for now I am certainly lacking. I am ready for a new conversation about fashion and cultural appropriation, and I think the fashion world is ready as well. I’m looking looking for more conversations, more ideas on how to approach this issue-will you help me out?


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5 thoughts on “I’m Ready for a New Conversation on Fashion & Cultural Appropriation.

  1. I don’t find the print called “Afrika” offensive in the slightest. What is offensive is its name; boiling a huge and varied continent with many ethnic and racial groups down to a so-called “tribal” print. There is nothing worse about people of any colour or origin wearing African-style prints than wearing tartans, paisleys, East Asian or Indigenous American patterns. I wouldn’t put that at all in the same category as a full-on pastiche of a cultural garment (such as a kimono) or worse, a garment with great symbolic meaning, such as a Plains peoples feather headdress.

    Turbans? It depends. They were very popular among European women in the 1920s and 30s, and were just viewed as something chic but practical.

    Cultural appropriation can be very offensive indeed, but it is normal to have influences from the world over. I’m not discarding either my Palestinian keffieh or my Basque béret.

    • I’m from East Africa (Kenya) and I agree with Lagatta. There is nothing wrong with people from other areas or racial backgrounds wearing African clothing. After all, it’s all a part of cultural exchange and appreciation. What makes me go nuts is the appropriation of jungle, safari, tribal, animal and what have you prints as representing Africa.

  2. I think you are right, it is time for a new conversation. This is interesting to me because I am a white chick from Connecticut, who moved to Louisiana for grad school and made some Indian friends. One of them passed away suddenly and she left me her (fantastic) jewelry collection, including a couple of tikkas. Other Indian friends ask me why I don’t wear them, and honestly, it’s because I don’t feel comfortable wearing them because of the signal it might send to the Indian community that I don’t know all that well. My normal fashion sense is practically a pastiche of womanhood (I grew up with some hard core gender violence, and a way for me to embrace who I am is some real girly-girl ness) I wear tiaras regularly (to lab! I am a scientist rock star!), and I don’t feel the jewelry is ostentatious, but I am aware of other people’s feelings.
    So…long comment, I know, but I think it’s time for a new discussion about how our ever globalizing world can affect our appropriation, and how to dissect appreciation, affection, and respect from out and out taking ownership of someone elses stuff without the understanding behind it.
    In a similar vein, I am not Catholic, but regularly wear Catholic medals because I love the stories and intent behind them. Is this appropriation? Catholicism (depending on the part of the world) is usually “owned” by those in power, and can be symbolic of patriarchal dominance over another culture, but is it still ok for me to wear another culture’s deeply spiritual icons? Maybe because I am a white girl from Connecticut and can “pass” as one of “them.”
    So many subtleties in this conversation, probably not what you intended, but I’ll watch the comments section carefully.

  3. To ramble on… Maybe a good place to start is defining appropriation… teasing apart the feelings around it, and defining the message you are sending. I think bindhis are gorgeous but they send a specific message. I think a lot of people don’t realize the message they are sending, because they see a pretty shiny thing, and don’t recognize the deeper meaning behind it. Tikka’s are often worn by brides as part of a religiously significant bridal set where they are indicating a desire or wish to be kept on a straight and virtuous path, thus the placement of the chain in the part. If you are in a club, is that the message you want to send? Kind of like how when people get tattoos in a Chinese characters, but can’t read it, so don’t really know if it says “I’m an a-hole.” Perhaps the place to start is identifying the message they are sending, educating the person on what they are saying about themselves.

  4. I find cultural appropriation to be a really difficult issue to wrap my head around. When I look at Karlie Kloss I have a guttural negative reaction, but the images from the Chanel show bother me somewhat less. Possibly just because one is far less visually refined than the other.
    I’m not so much a fashion person, though — I’m more of a music person. And there are so many examples in music of things that could be classified as cultural appropriation that it’s mind-boggling. Elvis, The Beatles, Led Zepplin, The Beastie Boys; they all borrowed from black musicians. Sadly, the history of popular music is generally written by white dudes and thus white dudes get much of the credit, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the faults of these artists — they weren’t copying outright, but were making something genuinely new.
    Which brings me to what I perceive to be the line between “cultural appropriation” and making art with various influences — love.
    Which seems insane, but I think it really might be the key, because I don’t really sense any love of native culture in Victoria’s Secret fashion shows. And when I look at Chanel I actually do see love, but in aesthetic terms only — as though they looked at a bunch of amazing historical photos and simply said “ooh, pretty!” and tried to capture that without any deeper understanding. But I do think it would be very possible for a white designer to see some gorgeous printed fabrics, find the artisans who made them, and then use it in their fashion designs while giving credit to those artisans . Think Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo creating “Homeless”, which uses the melody of a traditional Zulu wedding song. I hear a lot of love and respect there, not crass copying or disrespect. But I suppose there’s an argument to be made for cultural appropriation, there, too.
    So maybe it’s hard to talk about because so many visually attuned people are simply assembling pretty things, and don’t look at things in a broader social context, and because they’ve been doing this for such a long time it can be difficult for people to recognize and process and care about. And maybe we can’t really do much about the way things combine and meld into one cultural consciousness, even if we don’t like it. After all, plaids were appropriated by the British from the Scottish Clans they conquered and used as symbols of their repression. Most of us think of them as being pretty innocuous now.

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