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.
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?