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Appropriation vs. Appreciation

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 are 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 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 an item 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 are 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

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