My culture IS NOT A COSTUME
Do you know if this picture is an example of cultural celebration or appropriation?
we all like to think we’re woke when it comes to cultural appropriation, but this year there’s been some high-profile cases in the fashion industry. It turns out, the whole cultural costume thing is still confusing people, and you’re probably wondering where the line is drawn. It is a complicated subject, so we’re here to help you make informed decisions.
Cultural appropriation or celebration?
That was the question when American model Gigi Hadid posed for Vogue Arabia wearing a hijab. Some Muslim women objected that an element of their faith was being used as a mere fashion accessory. Others pointed out the photos were in a publication made for hijab-wearing women, and so the magazine was contributing to their culture rather than appropriating it. Gigi, who defines herself as ‘half-Palestinian’, said on Instagram that she saw the photos as an opportunity to celebrate different cultures. So who’s right?
The answer is all of the above – so it’s not hard to see why it can be very confusing. There are no hardline rules about what is or isn’t appropriation, but there are some questions you can ask to help figure it out on a case-by-case basis.
Is your cultural costume at the expense of others?
In the March 2017 issue of Vogue, there was a fashion spread in which Karlie Kloss was made-up to look Japanese. Non-white models get comparatively few jobs in international fashion mags overall, so why – many people asked – didn’t Vogue just hire a Japanese model?
In day-to-day life, the question of appropriation at other people’s expense can apply to things like Aboriginal or Indian jewellery designs being sold by big chain stores. These mass-produced items are taking earnings away from the artists or designers of the culture being copied, so it’s important to buy from the originators wherever possible.
Does this perpetuate negative stereotypes?
In one of the Vogue images, Karlie is dressed as a geisha – which is a specific role a minority of Japanese women throughout history have played, but is often used in Western culture to represent a narrow, sexualised idea of Asian women.
This problem also occurs when it comes to fancy dress costumes based on culture or nationality. ‘Japanese’ is not a costume, neither is ‘Native American’ or ‘Mexican’. These are each rich, complex, diverse cultures, and dressing up as a stereotypical version reduces them down to a single set of features.
Karlie released an apology when faced with the backlash, and took to Twitter and Instagram to say: “These images appropriate a culture that is not my own and I am truly sorry for participating in a shoot that was not culturally sensitive. My goal is, and always will be, to empower and inspire women.”
Unfortunately for Karlie, this wasn’t the first time she has been caught up in an appropriation scandal in the name of fashion.
During the Victoria’s
Secret Fashion Show in November 2012, Karlie and the brand were called out for her appearance on the runway in a Native Americaninspired headdress and lingerie.
For Native Americans, their headdress is reserved for elders who have earned the right to wear one. It’s a spiritual symbol, not just a cultural one, and they believe that wearing an imitation headdress as a costume or fashion accessory belittles what Native American elders spend their lifetimes earning.
Is a costume of a character OK?
You might be wondering, ‘Well, if it’s not OK to wear Indian headdresses, is it OK for me to dress up as Pocahontas because that’s a specific character?’ The answer is no. Native Americans find this offensive, because they feel that Pocahontas misrepresents their culture.
Another example that can make this a little clearer for you is from earlier this year when Disney released a brown, tattooed-skin costume of the Moana character Maui. Many people pointed out that it was offensive – not only because skin colour is not a costume, but because tattoos have specific meaning to the Polynesian people.
Disney hadn’t considered the potential issue, and they swiftly withdrew the outfit from sale after there was a public outcry.
Helpful advice from our girl Zendaya
If you’re not sure how to separate celebration from cultural appropriation, Zendaya has some advice: “There are reasons why people are hurt by certain things, so I would suggest talking to people... Get to know the background, understand why people are offended and [learn] how we can be more sensitive of other people’s cultures.”
We’re not here to call out Karlie, Gigi, Vogue or Victoria’s Secret. It’s OK not to know, so long as you try to learn.
Don’t get caught out like Gigi and Karlie! Research cultural costumes to know what’s OK and what’s not.