BY MORGAN BROWN
As time allows the for more multicultural interactions globally as well as locally, people tend to pride themselves on a perceived aptitude for discussing cultural differences as experienced voices, if not experts. In reality, there is an increased ambiguity that makes it even more difficult to debate, much less agree on, the true distinctions between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is defined as the adoption of elements of a certain culture by a more globally prevalent culture with false assumption of implied mutual consent for this taking. This allows dominant cultures to force an assimilation or acculturation of certain treasure symbols and traditions which belonged to the adopted culture.
Conversely, cultural exchange is openly understood by both cultures to be a two-way street of sharing.
In today’s western cultures, appropriation is implemented freely, if not in esteemed forms, in the fashion industry. Recently, the fashion company Chanel was under some under-publicized criticism for what it called the Chanel “Urban Tie Cap.” Despite the well-constructed, flattering name for the accessory, Black people on social media and other online forums made clear their disapproval of not only the item, but most prominently for the lack of proper credit given.
The “Urban Tie Cap” is quite clearly what African-American people actually refer to as a do-rag, and is generally used by some African American people for functional purposes, not for the purposes of fashion. Typically, a Black woman seen wearing one would be viewed negatively or as looking silly. This contrasts with the message of Chanel, which anticipates its product to be viewed as “trendy.”
The trend of headscarves is a productive example of how cultural appropriation need not exceed international borders, but also often does. At the roots, headscarves in fashion today do seem to be inspired by the customs of African and/or Black women worldwide. The desire of fashion enthusiasts in western cultures to have as many “cute” forms of headscarves as possible has led to the inclusion of styles which originated from women in previously colonized areas such as Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States.
The discourtesy comes in with the fact that for centuries, Black women in these areas wrapped their hair for the sake of convention rather than trendiness. The lack of consideration is almost unsettling when one contemplates that the descendants of slaves and service workers, who still wrap their hair for functionality today as in the past, must now witness this become a fashion statement for the descendants of those who neither share the same roots nor have the same conventionality requirement.
Urban Outfitters is a popular repeat offender, for their seemingly guileless disregard for the cultures from which much of their clothing is inspired. There have been controversies such as in 2013, when they used Ethiopian and Eritrean traditional styles of dress for the sake of consumerism. The dress in question upset many Ethiopians and Eritreans because the dress bore blatant similarities to their traditional wear. Beyond that, people were most upset by the labelling of the dress as a “Vintage Linen 90’s Dress.”
Here, the disrespect can be observed in the fact that most people today would still be able to recognize 90’s styles for women as bright colors, tight fitting clothes, and pants crafted in polyester or denim, rather than the modest, mostly white linen dress produced by the company.
It was enough to incite Ethiopian- and Eritrean-Americans to start a petition in an effort to raise public awareness of the issue as well as gain the attention of Urban Outfitters. The petition, now closed, garnered over seven-thousand signatures.
The petition ends with a moral appeal to Urban Outfitters, saying, “This is a call for you to stop expropriating our cultures, and if you are going to borrow from us, the least you can do is give us credit.”
Some of the disregard is less transparent. In another case, Urban Outfitters showed a hint at its use of other cultures as inspiration. Such was evident in the highly criticized line entitled “Navajo,” which was inspired by Native American traditional style.
To be clear about the breadth of this issue, nearly every clothing company that caters to Western youth is guilty of producing clothes under the ambiguous stylistic classification of “Tribal,” which can apply to any region, but seems to focus on various Native American and African traditional styles.
Cultural exchange is inevitable because of how interconnected the globe is today, and this will only grow to be more true in the future. Overall, this can beneficial to all parts of the world when the exchange is not only equal but voluntary and deliberate.
Not intending disrespect is not equivalent to giving respect. This means that a person who appreciates a culture is not automatically entitled to feel somehow relevant to it. When dominant cultures repeatedly use parts of others’, despite a lack of relevance to it, it diminishes the historical importance and becomes an ostentatious means of entertainment. To suggest that cultures should be flattered or grateful belies prideful arrogance and an ignorant lack of understanding.