A Dilemma of Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

And how Marc Jacobs Got Caught in the Middle

The fashion industry has long drawn elements and inspiration from beauty and style from all over the world. Its sources are rich and varied, and not pulled from a single muse. In today’s world there is so much pressure for fashion designers and brands to present new collections several times a year and for those collections to be sensational, commercial hits. In such a high pressure environment, it is common practice to look for and utilize overt cultural elements in designs to make the most sensational, avant-garde statement possible.

Osklen’s Spring 2016 collection: inspiration and execution. (Osklen/Oskar Metsavaht, Lynda Churilla)

This is cultural appropriation. It is a term that has been adapted from use in academic circles to describe the change and continuity of cultures over time with their interactions with other cultures. Most recently it has been brandished by social justice warriors to attack — sometimes appropriately — any use of an element of a non-Western culture for profit, publicity, etc. I don’t think cultural appropriation is inherently a bad thing however. It has occurred throughout human history — without cultural appropriation we wouldn’t have had the proliferation Classical Greek architecture in the Roman Empire. I am not saying cultural appropriation isn’t a problem, it is just important to understand when it is actually a bad thing. I am just asking people to pause before condemning artistic expressions as negative cultural appropriation and to consider the positive aspects that do exist. Cultures aren’t just bounded and isolated, and the exchange of ideas and styles is a hallmark of human history. There is a right — and wrong — way to go about it.

Here are a couple of right and wrong ways cultural appropriation should be done:

Right: Osklen’s use of Ashaninka native American motifs (See the above photo) in his Spring 2016 collection. He treated the design process as a collaboration and sends royalties to the Ashaninka tribe as well as promotes social awareness of the tribe’s struggle to protect land from increasing deforestation and environmental degradation.

Wrong: Victoria Secret’s use of sacred Native American artifacts. Sending models down in suede-fringed bikinis and a elegantly plumaged feather head dress to create a “sexy indian” look is plain insensitive. Especially ignorant of the fact that the feather head dress used was a war bonnet of spiritual significance — analogous to “casually wearing a purple heart or medal of honor that was not earned,” as Simon Moya-Smith, a journalist from the Oglala Lakota Nation stated.

Appropriation, borrowing from other cultures, can lead to great improvements and new cultural gems. Take for example Japanese Denim. Denim started as the subject of fascination by Japanese youth for American cultural items after World War 2 and it led to high importation rates of classic American blue jeans and soon the production of jeans in Japan. However while synthetic dyes and materials became the norm for many American companies, the Japanese maintained traditional quality and perfected their techniques for crafting this American “heritage” clothing — leading Japanese Denim to be considered some of the best constructed jeans attainable and regarded as true denim. And its all because of cultural appropriation.

So now lets get to the most recent case of cultural appropriation to be seen on runways this Spring/Summer 2017 (SS17): Marc Jacobs. Is this an example of cultural appropriation done wonderfully right? Or terribly, terribly wrong?

With the end of New York Fashion Week on September 16, Marc Jacobs started quite a buzz on social media. The topic of conversation over his SS17 collection was his exorbitant use of colorful, intense wigs styles to look like dreadlocks on a primarily white cast of models who walked his designs down the runway — clearly cultural appropriation.


What did he do wrongly? Jacobs is under fire for the use of this iconically Black cultural hairstyle without giving acknowledgement to the style’s origin, just using it because he thinks it is an attractive hairstyle. While not malicious in intent, it showcases his privilege and thus ignorance in the power dynamics involved when borrowing aspects of a marginalized group to be brought into the ‘mainstream.’

Adding fuel to this fire, Jacobs responded to critics via twitter stating,

“All who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race or skin colour wearing their hair in any particular style or manner — funny how you don’t criticise women of colour for straightening their hair...I am inspired by people and how they look, and don’t see colour or race.”

The quote shows his lack of knowledge of the historical reasons why women of color have been pushed to straighten their hair. Natural, curly hair was often labeled as unkempt and unprofessional and Black women who did not straighten their hair could be at risk of losing their jobs or not getting hired in the first place in a society where women, especially women of color, haven’t historically been in positions of power.

Aside from the dreadlocks and his alleged colorless vision, is the fact that representing this aspect of Black culture are a bunch of white models. There is a huge problem of an overall lack of diversity in the size and race of models in the fashion industry, a problem not helped by the high-pressured environment in which designers are pushed to craft new designs with fervor and cast models following a specific standard of beauty. With Jacobs touting that he appreciates beauty in all its forms in his twitter posts, then giving credit to the styles that inspire him by casting more models of color would go a long way to promoting the positive, cross-cultural expressions that can come out of cultural appropriation and the fashion industry as a whole. Maybe it would turn his appropriation no-no into a turn for the better as well.

Sources include:

Thompson, C. J., & Haytko, D. L. (1997). Speaking of Fashion: Consumers’ Uses of Fashion Discourses and the Appropriation of Countervailing Cultural Meanings. Journal Of Consumer Research, 24(1), 15–42.