Cultural Appropriation in Fashion, Dress, and Appearance

Benjamin Wild

Bibliographical guide

DOI: 10.5040/9781474280655.BIBART2002

Abstract

Cultural appropriation refers to the taking of ideas and artifacts from one culture and incorporating them within another. It is conventionally argued that appropriation involves cultures of unequal political or social authority, where members of an “outsider” or dominant culture take from “insider” members of a subordinate culture. Inequalities apart, exchanges between cultures are long-standing, even inevitable, and they are not limited to people’s dress and appearance. Nonetheless, the apparent persistence of cultural appropriation within the fashion industry has become an increasingly controversial topic, particularly in relation to ethnicity and race. Fashionable designs are often accused of cultural trespass because the emphasis they place on visual expression can appear to reduce influences to superficial and stereotypical motifs. What constitutes cultural appropriation, and whether it is necessarily problematic and predicated on unequal political and social relationships, nevertheless remains a complex and emotive question. The following article summarizes different academic approaches to the topic of cultural appropriation and considers how they can be used in the examination of fashion, dress, and appearance. In reviewing some of the more controversial examples of cultural appropriation within fashionable dress and appearance, the article examines efforts by the industry to address its perceived transgressions and to be a force for cultural appreciation.


The term “cultural appropriation” is freighted with ambiguity. The idea of “culture” might be broadly comprehensible, but defining the word in a meaningful way, especially when it is qualified by “appropriation,” an equally expansive word, is challenging. Two views of culture are dominant within academic literature, at least in connection with cultural appropriation. The first is explained in The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation by editors and philosophers James O. Young and Conrad G. Brunk (2009), who show that culture can refer to a community’s commonly held, if largely subconscious, ideas and values. Invoking the “family resemblance” concept of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, specifically his example of a notional game, they explain how the constituents of something can be purposefully understood by many people, even if a precise definition of it remains elusive. The games people play are each very different, but they share many characteristics and so can be readily conceptualized. The same is true of human culture. There are myriad cultures throughout the world, but they are alike in having similar characteristics, typically relating to how individuals perceive themselves and treat other people. A second interpretation of culture is explained by academics Bruce Ziff and Pratima V. Rao, editors of Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation (1997), who discuss the tendency to view culture as “some type of creative product (whether tangible or otherwise).” In this explanation, emphasis shifts from the beliefs people share to the “cultural goods” that articulate them. Examples conventionally include art, literature, film, music, and theater.

Superficially, reference to objects facilitates consideration of cultural appropriation because the ability to identify creators and owners expedites the determination of belonging and, where necessary, theft. However, as Young and Brunk (2009) observe, determining the extent to which something belongs to a culture is not straightforward. Moreover, they observe that cultural appropriation can be “benign” and “wrongful,” whether it refers to ideas or objects. They suggest that appropriation is negative when it “causes unjustifiable harm” or “profound offence.” Typically, negative cultural trespass occurs following the infringement of a property right (when ownership can be established unambiguously), or when it constitutes an “an attack on the viability of identity of cultures or their members.” The editors adapt philosopher Joel Feinberg’s concept of profound offense, which was initially developed in relation to jurisprudence, to denote something that “strikes at a person’s core values and sense of self.”

The use of terms and ideas from different academic disciplines to establish a working understanding of cultural appropriation demonstrates the expansive nature of the concept, figuratively and literally. This complexity is encapsulated in the suggestion by Richard A. Rogers (2006), an academic in communication studies, that cultural appropriation occurs in four distinct forms. In his essay, “From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation,” Rogers identifies different types, or degrees, of cultural appropriation: (1) exchange, (2) dominance, (3) exploitation, and (4) transculturation. The first three terms explain different types of cultural exchange, from amicable to aggressive, by highlighting varying levels of “(in)volutariness, (in)equality, (im)balance, and (im)purity” between the peoples involved. The fourth term urges an understanding of culture as a “relational phenomenon that itself is constituted by acts of appropriation.” Here, Rogers follows anthropologist James Clifford and argues that “Appropriations do not simply occur between cultures, constituting their relationships, but that such appropriative relations and intersections constitute the culture themselves.” If this argument is accepted, cultural appropriation is inescapable, necessary—if sometimes unwelcome—and perhaps made more complicated by a binary focus on whether it has been perpetrated by “outsiders” against “insiders,” and whether its motives and consequences are benign or wrongful.

Investigating Cultural Appropriation within Fashion, Dress, and Appearance

A specific complication for the study of cultural appropriation within fashion, dress, and appearance is the fact that academic enquiry into this topic has been inversely proportionate to media reports of fashion brands causing profound offense through cultural trespass. Chapters in the two edited volumes on cultural appropriation referenced above are interdisciplinary and global in their focus; but for a cursory reference to African face masks and head coverings, similar to those discussed by art historian Moira F. Harris (2010), human dress and appearance are not explicitly discussed. The marginalization of people’s dress and appearance in scholarly discussions of cultural appropriation is an oddity because Young and Brunk (2009) establish scope for their examination in discussing “aesthetic issues,” which include “style.” Aesthetic issues are identified as a distinct form of cultural appropriation because of the associated moral implications. They suggest that “artistic content” can distort an original culture and harm its members, or be viewed mistakenly as an authentic example of a culture and damage its reputation.

The limited academic engagement with cultural appropriation in fashion, dress, and appearance is all the more apparent because Nigerian scholar Tonye V. Erekosima and dress scholar Joanne B. Eicher (2005) have enunciated a model to understand cultural exchanges and assimilations in relation to people’s dress and appearance. The Cultural Authentication Process is, in fact, the only theory related to cultural appropriation to focus exclusively on human clothing and dress. The process consists of four progressive stages—(1) selection, (2) characterization (by naming), (3) incorporation, and (4) transformation—and explains how motifs in garments and dress accessories from one culture are borrowed and adapted to occupy new meanings and roles in another culture. Curator and Asian scholar John E. Vollmer (2010) suggests that cultural authentication “nearly always entails a host of tangible and intangible conditions on the part of the receiving culture. These may include issues of religion, social order, gender, or culture, as well as psychological and even philosophical attitudes.” The process through which cultural authentication occurs is therefore supplementary to Richard A. Rogers’s (2006) view (outlined above) that cultural exchanges are continual and inevitable. Indeed, Vollmer argues that “Cultural assimilation and transformation is global and has undoubtedly existed for millennia,” even if its documentation is fragmentary. The discontinuous application of Erekosima and Eicher’s cultural authentication theory may be a consequence of the Eurocentric focus of much Anglophone clothing-based research, a theme explored by curator Suzanne Baizerman, textile scholar Catherine Cerny, and Joanne Eicher in their essay, “Eurocentrism in the Study of Ethnic Dress” (1993).

Another reason for academics’ partial study of cultural appropriation in human dress and appearance is suggested by art historian Minh-Ha T. Pham (2014). In 2014, Pham wrote forcefully about the futility of pursuing the topic of cultural appropriation and fashion in an article published in The Atlantic under the heading, “Fashion’s Cultural-Appropriation Debate: Pointless.” Pham’s contention is that discussion about cultural appropriation in fashionable dress has become “predictable, limited, and unhelpful.” She avers that when a fashion brand is thought to be guilty of cultural trespass, a now-standard process ensues: the offending items of dress are withdrawn from sale and the parent company publishes an apology in which a commitment is made to change internal procedures to ensure similar mistakes do not recur. Within academia and the media, another discussion about what constitutes cultural appropriation commences. The extent to which Pham’s observation is accurate is perhaps less important than her argument that discussions of appropriation concerning race are particularly problematic because: “They reaffirm the very thing they intend to oppose: white Western domination over and exploitation of culture at the expense of everyone else.”

In seeking to explain why academic consideration of cultural appropriation has tended to preclude fashion, dress, and appearance, Pham’s emphasis on race is noteworthy. Her remarks highlight a peculiarity of discussions about cultural appropriation within people’s clothing and appearance that tend to focus on ethnicity and race alone. By contrast, while race and ethnicity are considered within discussions of appropriation that affect other cultural goods (for example, art, literature, film, music, and theater), these dialogues typically include an acknowledgment that cultural trespasses manifest themselves in various forms, involving, for example, archaeology, intellectual property, religion, and the sciences.

There is no obvious reason why this distinction should exist because the conception and creation of human dress and appearance involve consideration of history, anthropology, intellectual property, religion, science, and technology, at a minimum, and all of these are areas where cultural appropriation occurs. Nevertheless, it could be suggested that the possibility of causing profound racist offense is heightened in a person’s choice of self-presentation, for two reasons. First, dressing is a predominantly visual act and people’s ability to understand it is culturally contingent. Consequently, designs, materials, and forms of styling that are often encountered with little or no contextualization are liable to be more readily misinterpreted, and cause offense, than other cultural behaviors and goods. Second, material of an offending nature is likely to be given an acute force when incorporated into articles of dress, because the intimate act of clothing and adorning the body implies that their wearer condones their message. The possibility that ethnic and racial offense might be more apparent through people’s dress and appearance than in other cultural goods may explain why these themes have acquired such importance in discussions of cultural appropriation in clothing.

Cultural Appropriation in Fashion, Dress, and Appearance

Contemporary examples of cultural appropriation occurring within people’s dress and appearance demonstrate how “profound offense,” as interpreted by philosophers James O. Young and Conrad G. Brunk (2009) (explained above), is caused, particularly in relation to people’s ethnicity and race. A widely reported case of cultural appropriation occurred in February 2019, when Gucci included a sweatshirt resembling blackface in its spring/summer collection. Offense was caused because the garment recalled the historic practice in which white and Black actors artificially darkened their skin to perform. As fashion scholar Alphonso D. McClendon describes in his book, Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation (2015), blackface is a mocking and derogatory means of depicting Black people through the use of darkened skin, “kinky hair and red lips.” A similar form of offense was caused in February 2020 during the Fashion Institute of Technology’s “Fine Art of Fashion and Technology” show at Pier 59 Studios in New York. The catwalk presentation of graduating student Junkai Huang included white and Black models wearing what Washington Post journalist Katie Shepherd (2020) described as “large prosthetic ears, oversize plastic red lips and fuzzy, caterpillar-like eyebrows.” Shepherd explained how harm was caused because: “The lips and ‘monkey ears’ recalled offensive caricatures of black people that exaggerated those features … The costumes reminded some observers of the blackface common at minstrel shows that demeaned black people and racist images that compared black people to monkeys, many critics noted on social media.”

Cultural appropriation within people’s dress and appearance is not always associated with race. In February 2019, for example, Burberry was widely criticized for including a hoodie in its catwalk presentation for fall/winter that appeared to glorify suicide. The garment featured a drawstring that appeared to resemble a noose. Model Liz Kennedy argued that this detail recalled the “horrifying history of lynching” Black people within the United States of America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More broadly, the hoodie caused offense because it appeared to valorize violence. In many of the world’s cultures, self-harm and suicide are deeply sensitive topics. Consequently, items of dress and clothing that appear to appropriate this topic are likely to spark controversy. For example, in a discussion of the culture and presentation of British working-class skinheads, sports historian Susan Barton (2015) has explained how “violence surrounding soccer hooligan gangs caused a moral panic in the media” during the 1980s.

Moreover, even when cultural appropriation in people’s dress does occur, it is not always because a dominant, or “outside,” culture has trespassed against a minority, or “inside,” culture. For example, journalist Stuart Cosgrove (1984) has shown how male members of the Mexican American community, particularly youths, pachucos, wore zoot suits during the 1940s to challenge their marginalized status in the United States of America. The zoot suit is an appropriation of the draped-cut suit that originated in the West. It was distinctive, and provocative, for being made of a voluminous quantity of cloth at a time of widespread material shortages and rationing because of World War II. The offense caused by Mexican American men co-opting a style of clothing conventionally associated with white male privilege and authority is evidenced by the forcible, violent, and public attacks that were made against them to remove their suits.

Addressing Cultural Appropriation within People’s Dress and Appearance

Since the millennium, the recurrence of controversies within people’s dress that result from perceived cultural trespass have encouraged efforts to promote cultural appreciation within the contemporary fashion industry. Cultural appreciation is the attempt to acknowledge different cultures, their values and objects, to ensure they are equally respected, and to strive for increased diversity and equality. For example, in 2011, Teen Vogue’s “My Culture Is Not a Costume” campaign highlighted the “dehumanizing” effect of fancy-dress costume that is worn without reflection and consideration of people’s feelings. A film containing interviews with people from different cultures explained how costumes that appear “funny and harmless” cause offense by perpetuating racial stereotypes through cultural appropriation. As art historian Courtnay Micots (2010) explains in relation to the masquerading traditions of Ghana, cultural appropriation frequently occurs in this sartorial form because conventional strictures on dress and appearance are temporarily suspended. Within the fashion industry, and specifically in response to recent complaints about cultural appropriation, brands, including Burberry, Gucci, Chanel, and Nike, have appointed diversity officers. The nature of these roles varies between brands, but they typically seek to ensure the inclusion of people and to spearhead initiatives that increase awareness of, and respect toward, people’s ethnicity and race, gender, and sexuality.

Incorporating Study of Cultural Appropriation within Clothing-Based Research

Academic study of cultural appropriation within clothing-based research has been limited, but methodologies do exist to support its study. Analyzing the propensity for fancy-dress costume to cause offense on the basis of cultural trespass, cultural historian Benjamin Wild (2020) suggests analysts should consider appropriations as part of “an inevitable, ongoing exchange linked to people’s negotiation of their self- and society-identities, rather than an antagonistic tussle between ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders.’” Richard Rogers’s (2006) argument that cultural appropriation typically takes one of three forms provides sufficient flexibility to consider instances of cultural trespass within people’s dress and appearance on a scale from neutral to negative. Thinking of cultural appropriation as something that occurs on a global scale and spectrum would also facilitate greater usage of Tonye Erekosima’s and Joanne Eicher’s (2005) Cultural Authentication Process.

Another way to engage critically and continuously with the topic of cultural appropriation in clothing-based research has been suggested by Minh-Ha T. Pham (2014). Pham suggests there should be an “inappropriate discourse” that focuses on cultural ideas and goods that do not typically feature in the exchanges and appropriations between different groups of people. The argument is that this approach, which purposely complicates analysis of the “power structure of the high-fashion system,” would move discussions beyond binary declarations of whether an act of appropriation is “good” or “bad” and, instead, shift the focus to “challenge the idea of the absolute power and authority of the West to control how the world sees, knows, and talks about fashion.” Within Pham’s proposed approach there remains a focus on race and ethnicity, but the awareness of continuous cultural transactions and the refutation of binary declarations means it is supplementary to the models forwarded by Rogers, and Erekosima and Eicher.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Baizerman Suzanne, Joanne B. Eicher, and Catherine Cerny. ““Eurocentrism in the Study of Ethnic Dress”.” Dress 20 (1993): 19–32.

Barton Susan. “Sportswear.” Bibliographical Guides. Berg Fashion Library, 2015. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781847888594-BIBART11001.

Find in Library Cosgrove Stuart. ““The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare”.” History Workshop 18 (autumn 1984): 77–91.

Find in Library Erekosima Tonye, and Joanne B. Eicher. “The Aesthetics of Men’s Dress of the Kalabari of Nigeria.” In The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society, edited by Joanne B. and Sandra Lee Evenson, 4th edn., pp. 349–361. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Find in Library Harris Moira “Masks.” In The Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, Volume 10, Global Perspectives, edited by Joanne B. Eicher and Phyllis G. Tortora. Oxford: Berg, 2010. Berg Fashion Library, 2010. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/EDch101618

Find in Library McClendon Alphonso. “Gendered Identities, Ideologies and Cultural Difference.” In Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation, pp.77–90. Dress, Body, Culture series. London: Bloomsbury, 2015. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350051195.ch-005

Find in Library Micots Courtnay. “Fancy Dress: African Masquerade in Coastal Ghana.” In The Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, Volume 1, Africa, edited by Joanne B. Eicher and Doran H. Ross. Oxford: Berg, 2010. Berg Fashion Library, 2010. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/BEWDF/EDch1511.

Pham Minh-HaFashion’s Cultural-Appropriation Debate: Pointless.” The Atlantic, May 15, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/05/cultural-appropriation-in-fashion-stop-talking-about-it/370826 (accessed August 2020).

Find in Library Rogers Richard. ““From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation”.” Communication Theory 16 (2006): 474–503.

Shepherd Katie. “‘Clearly Racist’: Fashion Institute of Technology Apologizes for Offensive Outfits at Fashion Show.” The Washington Post, February 20, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/02/20/fit-racist-outfits/ (accessed August 2020).

Find in Library Vollmer John. “Cultural Authentication in Dress.” In The Berg Encylopedia of World Dress and Fashion, Volume 10, Global Perspectives, edited by Joanne B. Eicher and Phyllis G., pp. 69–76. Oxford: Berg, 2010. Berg Fashion Library, 2010. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/BEWDF/EDch10009

Find in Library Wild Benjamin Linley. Carnival to Catwalk: Global Reflections on Fancy Dress Costume. London: Bloomsbury, 2020.

Find in Library Young James. Cultural Appropriation and the Arts. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Find in Library Young James, and Conrad G. Brunk, eds. The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Find in Library Ziff Bruce, and Pratima V. Rao, eds. Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.