To Do: Better
It has been said that trends come and go, but style is forever. What is concerning, though, is the possibility that cultural appropriation—a more than common “trend”—will never go out of style in the fashion industry. Like many indecencies perpetrated mainly by white people, cultural appropriation stems from ignorance and a lack of empathy. In order to better itself, the fashion industry needs to take initiative in condemning designers that continue to appropriate cultures that are not their own for the benefit of their brand.
Over the course of many show seasons, Marc Jacobs has proven to be a consistent name on the list of fashion’s cultural appropriation perpetrators. His Fall 2016 show was for its use of dreadlocks on a group made up of almost entirely of white models. In the Spring 2018 season, Jacobs is facing backlash for the use of head wraps on another set of predominantly white models. Jacobs’ shows are being remembered in this appropriative light; however, without consequences for his conduct and the designer’s unwillingness to listen to people of color in saying he is appropriating their cultures, there will be no positive change in his fashion lines or those of smaller houses seeking recognition. Jacobs’ response to this outrage was via a comment on Instagram. “I don’t see color or race – I see people,” he said.
When we reward color blindness, appropriation, and blatant disrespect towards communities of color, it further instills our country’s false, toxic ideas of white superiority that the nation was built upon. Marc Jacobs has been called out for appropriating cultures in three of his last four fashion show seasons; yet, the powerful people and businesses in fashion—most of whom are represented or figure-headed by white people—do not condemn him. Rather, these outlets cover the story, treating cultural appropriation and racism as displayed by their own industry as a hot topic more than the rampant American problem it is.
Internationally renowned magazine, Vogue, plays a key role in such superficial-ization. The magazine holds a now-iconic annual fundraiser at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, often referred to as simply the Met Gala. Just two years ago, in 2015, the theme of the star-studded event was “China: Through the Looking Glass”. Each year’s theme coincides with pieces on display in the museum’s costume exhibit, which is the specific beneficiary of the gala; however, the 2015 gala’s theme was criticized for breeding appropriation of Chinese culture.
Firstly, considering pieces of clothing that are tied to Chinese culture as costumes does not bode well for the red-carpet fashion that is to come under such a theme. Unsurprisingly, many attendees of the “China: Through the Looking Glass” 2015 Met Gala event sported ensembles based on Westernized stereotypes of Chinese and Asian culture as a whole. Stars sported many shades of red, there were dragon designs galore, and intricate golden accessories, including headdresses (see Sarah Jessica Parker, as an example).
The ideas behind this “Through the Looking Glass” theme, as well as the red-carpet fashion it inspired, were questioned, and rightfully so. Yet, as often is the case with controversies in popular culture, such a transgression by one of the biggest leaders in fashion was a brief headline producing short-lived outrage. It was quickly replaced with the next polarizing headline to come around. The issue of appropriating cultures is used as an object for headlines rather than being addressed as a gross disregard for minority cultures. Without such acknowledgement, American society does not progress towards something better; it remains unbothered by its institutional and societal racism.
With each season of major fashion shows, cycles of major magazine spreads, and ad campaigns starring big market celebrities, there comes at least one highlighted instance of white ignorance on full, fashioned-out display. The fashion industry may be innovating in terms of new designs and trends, but this matters not if industry powers--oftentimes white people--do not acknowledge past mistakes and implement a plan for positive change.
As consumers, particularly those of us who are privileged white people, the time is now to be active allies. We cannot continue to assert solidarity with communities of color while we continue to lean on such people for education. Every day, there are blatant instances of injustices standing before us. It is our job to not only recognize these injustices, but to go out and combat them. We must take the initiative to learn about cultures that are not our own, so we can be active, educated consumers who are able to appreciate cultures and understand fashion boundaries that must be respected. From buying new brands, to calling for fashion powers to recognize their wrongs and make things right, there is much to do better.
Illustration by: Enne Goldstein