Cameron Russell's picture
Submitted by Cameron Russell on September 23, 2014 @ 11:30 am

When it comes to wearing or designing fashion based on other cultures, it’s hard to know if you’re being tacky, cool, or offensive. The dangers of cultural appropriation go beyond offending people, appropriation continues patterns of disempowering groups that are already marginalized. Looks shouldn’t be THAT important. Ideally, we can feel cute while empowering people with what we wear.


Well, before you put on that bindi, kimono, “street wear” or adorn yourself with cornrows, a headdress or turban, here’s some easy questions to ask yourself:

#1. What culture does this style reference, and what is my relation to that culture?

The most important thing to keep in mind, is that you’re part of a global community, so whether you mean it or not, what you wear has meaning connected to that global context. If what you want to wear references a culture that is experiencing or has experienced injustice, violence, or a traumatic colonial past, appropriating the culture can offensively repeat patterns of unequal give and take- especially depending on how your own culture/past is related to that trauma.

If the item in question finds its origins in a culture you’re not a part of, move onto question 2.

#2. Why are you wearing it?

Let’s be real, half the time the reason you’re wearing an item will reveal some of your own values to yourself.

Cute! Getting in gear with your Desi bride at an Indian-style wedding.

Mohammed Fayaz

YOU'LL LIVE WITHOUT IT IF YOUR ANSWER IS: To be sexy!” “Just looks cool!” “To be crazy!” “Cuz its random!” “It’s a costume!” “It’s cinco de drinko!”

It’s hard to imagine a time where shock value, “pure aesthetics”, or sexualization is really worth furthering stereotypes or erasing a history. So you might want to consider putting down the drinking sombrero, especially if you’re in the US where Mexicans are battling anti-immigrant racism,  systematic abuse of foriegn low-wage workers, and deportation brutality.

OKAY, YOU MIGHT GET A PASS: “It is part of a cultural event I am a part of or invited to.” (Examples: celebrating a marriage or holiday)

“For educational purposes.” (Examples: you read about something, or went abroad, and want to tell people the story and represent, and believe in it)

None of this is to say that after you visit India for a week, or date a Japanese person that you should take on the entire look or act like you understand or own the culture now. But if you had a moment with a crafts-person, were moved by the story of a product, or found a shirt with a map on it and genuinely respect the culture and want to spread the word about issues of history, craftsmanship, or current events, more power to you.

Okay, so your intentions are decent. Let’s see how well it’s executed with our next question.

#3. Who made the product, and who's selling it?

Rep it! Wearing a purse from an Native American designer. 

Mohammed Fayaz

An easy way to tell if you’re empowering another culture with your style, is if what you’re wearing is authentic or if profit goes back to the original cultural creators.

YAS!: Natives making “Native American inspired” items, African-made print swimwear, or gems from immigrant or indigenous mom-and-pop shops near you (and how rad would it be if they have sons or daughters who create contemporary pieces? You never know!)

OR NAH..: Urban outfitters designs "inspired by" Native American culture, or Pakistani-style necklaces

MAYBE?: If a street vendor or collector acquired a items abroad, or a designer has inspiration from abroad, it can get tricky. I try to vote with my dollars based on the vibe I get from the seller, how they got it, why they are selling it, and the amount of markup. Which brings us to our next point:

#4. How accurate/respectful is it to the source?

Teach on! One friend shares her culture with the other in teaching the ease, beauty, and protection of a head-wrap.

Mohammed Fayaz

This is usually solved by knowing the story behind what you wear, which is easy if you buy it from a place where its made by people with some relation to the culture.

STOP PLAYING: Lady Gaga’s see through veil accompanied by a hyper-sexual song Aura/Burqa (click for lyrics) in which the she explicitly states that she's a pop star wearing a Burqa for style, not to make any type of statement. The style Gaga's going for is sexual, and the song replays classic colonial fantasy of wanting to see what’s beneath the veil, while spinning the culture behind it as backward (making references to slavery and violence). Such fantasies position Middle Eastern cultures as a second class, exotic cultures worth dominating.

Katy Perry’s shoot with faux baby hairs and cornrows. She can wash that out at any moment and not have to live with the negative profiling black people in America are subject to everyday #RIPMikeBrown (also she BEEN inappropriating).

Rihanna’s Princess of China video also mix-and-matched elements from multiple asian cultures, furthering the homogenization that is a prerequisite to asian fetish the dehumanizing erasure of individuality.

LOW KEY IMPRESSED: Rihanna’s outfits while visiting Abu Dhabi were actually covering up in a stylish way that I could totally see Arab women wearing. A cool gesture for the duration of her stay. 

~That’s it! How’re you looking?~


Luckily, with so many ways to sell goods online and the budding trendiness of small or local business, there are probably more rad designers and retailers around you than you know.

Real talk though, hype for hype's sake is basic, lbr. Intentionality and authenticity is stylish so don’t stress bypassing a fad. If there’s a chance of  appropriation, I promise you can look good without it.


Sweet, that’s what we are here for. Here’s more resources in case you wanna be an ambassador and start letting your friends know what’s good.

More Resources:
+Appropriation beyond fashion
+Definitions and Explanations

Contribute to this post now! [+]


ck2014's picture

It's "Arab women", not "Arabic women". Arabic is a language and is not used to refer to the race. (This mistake questions your authority on judging Rihanna's outfit to be okay).

browntourage's picture

Thanks for catching the mistake. You're totally right, and my utter lack of grammar skills shouldn't be an excuse. That being said, we've asked to edit it, and it should be fixed now! -Tonia

bmorejoe's picture

Roger on the Arab v Arabic. But "race"?  No bio evidence for races or for Arab as a separate race that I know of. Question: Is Arabian legit or colonial?

Shahrzad's picture

I think it would be great if you reconsidered what you wrote about Lady Gaga and the Rihanna bit. Hiba Krisht (Marwa Berro) posted a well written piece on it here:

cherielabombe's picture

Hi there, just a few things:  1) The picture of Rhianna you have posted shows her in front of a mosque in Abu Dhabi, NOT Dubai.  2) Rhianna may have visited Dubai, but in the incident you speak of she was performing in Abu Dhabi. 3) Her photoshoot actually offended quite a few people who thought it was disrespectful for her to take 'sexy' photos of herself in front of a mosque.  I wasn't offended myself, but I just wanted to point out that you have a number of factual errors and indeed your statement that Rhianna's behavior was "OK" actually runs counter what the real reaction to it was.   

Cameron Russell's picture
Cameron Russell

Thank you for letting us know cherielabombe. I'll make the change now. 

AK716's picture

GREAT ARTICLE!! I do want to add that since Rihanna is from the West Indies (Barbados specifically), that there is a strong undertone of Asian/Chinese influence within the Caribbean and her native country. There is long history of Asians being kidnapped as well as immigrating to the Carribean. So her appropriation is not as poignant as say her inappropiate actions in the middle east. Just my two cents. 

danielteacher's picture

The reason you think appropriation is wrong is because of the values of your culture- values that are not shared universally among cultures.  Your attempt at a cross-cultural and universalizing morality seems like a contradiction.  Are there any clear cases of dominator and victim cultures?  England was ruled by the Roman empire for three hundred years and by the Normans for 150 years.  A few hundred years later the sun never set on the British empire.  So is England a "victim culture" or an "aggressor culture?"  Do cultures have such clearly defined either/or natures?  Where does one culture end and another one begin?  Why do some cultures have few rules for membership while others have nearly impossible barriers to membership?  What is it that makes a particular social group "cultural?"  Once you start asking these questions, the whole notion of appropriation falls apart.  

toofarinsideacar's picture

A culture/nation may not be 100%  "victim culture" or "aggressor culture," but I think it's safe to say that, for example, the USA and England ARE aggressors *in relation* to West African cultures, Mexico, etc. Back in the day when Romans were imperializing England, I would say, sure, the English could be victims of appropriation. But, these days, European westerners are *usually* the ones with more power, not less.Also, the "rules" in this post are mostly just about respect -- about the difference between superficial commodification of culture and deep understanding and sharing of culture.Yes, values do arise out of our culture, and yes, they are worth examining... but does that mean we should just not have any values?

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