Cultural Appropriation: Appreciation or Exploitation?

 Headdress Japanese VS African Style

The readings and discussion this week focused on the idea of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry and how the manifestation of culture within fashion can be seen as representing intercultural interaction on a larger scale. A central theme that arose particularly during class discussion was the question of whether the commoditization and mainstreaming of culturally inspired styles is a form of cultural appreciation or exploitation.

The Cultural Economy of Asian Chic  by Thuy Ling Nguyen Tu


Why the Rise of Asia In Fashion Isn’t As Beautiful As It Seems by Jeff Yang

Within these two articles, Tu and Yang address the appropriation and representation of Asian culture within the fashion industry in the United States and examine what this relationship reveals about the relationship between “the East” and “the West.” According to Tu the “cultural economy of Asian fashion” became prevalent within the fashion industry from the mid-1990s to the mid 2000’s, with Tu labeling this period as “the decade of Asian chic” (Tu, 100). This notion of “Asian Chic” was characterized as “the utopian and euphoric embrace of elements of particular Asian traditions that have now come to stand in for an undifferentiated Asia” (Tu, 101). Within the 1990’s there was a fascination with Japan, India and China in particular, which were combined to create a generalized image of the East within the fashion world. At this point in time fashion magazines and designers worked hard to frame Asian chic as cultural appropriation as opposed to cultural exploitation. This framing was a performance of cultural capital as designers attempted to show their cosmopolitanism. Readers were encouraged to view these designers as anthropologists and ethnographers, with their designs as ethnically accurate representations of a culture based on extensive research. However, within Asian chic there was a contradiction of authenticity and translation, where western society was, and according to Yang still is, seeing a western interpretation of Asia and a generalized East versus an accurate representation of Asian culture. As a student said in class, the fashion industries interpretation of Asian culture revealed more about western culture than the eastern culture they were supposedly “representing.”  Towards the late 1990’s and early 2000’s this dialogue of Asian Chic began to change as the appropriation of Asian aesthetics began to be framed as a creative act. Designers were seen as “updating” and “adding value” to unoriginal and uninspired traditional eastern dress.  However, as can be seen in the image below much of this “improvement” consisted of high slits and short skirts or a sexualizing of traditional Asian attire.

Updated Oriental

This framework resulted in increased the cultural capital and economic capital of Asian inspired designs in comparison to authentic Asian designs, therefore justifying the differences in prices that existed. Tu viewed this condescending representation and treatment of Asian culture as a western response to the “threat” of Asia and its rising role in the fashion industry and manufacturing.  He viewed this devaluing of authentically Asian fashion as an attempt by the west to maintain their position within the fashion hierarchy. This framing of the “superior” western identity can be seen in the Dior advertisement below as the white model is glorified in comparison to the dowdy and identical Asian women that surround her. 1005f3798a586a2045e9ab376e00f2dc

According to Yang, while the fashion industry now attempts to frame their relations with Asia and “Asian chic” as an embrace of globalization and multiculturalism, in reality western-eastern relations are not as cosmopolitan as they may appear. Yang claims that the framing of the appropriation of Asian culture as “appreciation” can be seen as “fashions alibi for continual problems with race” (Yang, 2).  As shown in the images below, while the fashion industry may appropriate Asian imagery they frequently do not use Asian models. Instead the models depicted below are African American and White, made to appear Asian through dress, hair and makeup.

  870b82a88ffb9386e5f8720944769e18      464a075f03190faf67af35704cbaff68

Yang’s interpretation of the fashion industry’s use of Asian imagery raised some particularly interesting ideas within class discussion. Some students argued that the fashion industry couldn’t be deemed as the source of the racism within the industry and that it is merely a reflection of society as a whole. They argued that the industry is in the business of making money and is responding to the desires and wishes of the public. On the other hand other students argued that it is the responsibility of industries in power to combat racial stereotypes and biased structures within society. They claimed that by participating in “yellow face” as illustrated above it excludes Asian participation while simultaneously making a mockery of Asian culture and identity. This issue regarding the line between cultural appreciation and interpretation and cultural exploitation and mockery continued with our discussion of the appropriation of African and Native American culture.

Eating the Other by Bell Hooks

Bell Hooks delves into the exploitation of cultures in her discussion of the Other. The Other can be defined as any non-dominant race or culture which varies from mainstream “whiteness.” Hooks believes mass culture extends the notion that extreme pleasure may be found in dabbling with minorities. Mainstream, white culture is seen as boring, relying on otherness to provide occasional, temporary spice and flavor, but always returning to the norm, the status quo, for safety. Engaging in relations with the other, especially sexual ones, allows white people to play with the power structure of white supremacy and the “primitive.” The advertisement for an African inspired shoe collaboration below featuring Olivia Palermo, a wealthy white NYC socialite, is a perfect example of the exploitation of primitivism.

ESTRADA FOOTWEAR - Spring/Summer 2013 campaign

As we discussed in class, there is a tendency to glorify white culture and reestablish dominance by placing white models and figures in ethnic or exotic scenes and utilizing other cultures as props. Hooks elaborates, “it is within the commercial realm of advertising that the drama of Otherness finds expression” (Hooks, 370). In associating with the Other, one’s life becomes more exciting and dangerous, qualities it lacks beforehand. The Tweeds catalog, for example, fully exploits the dreamy landscape of Egypt but in a manner that highlights the white people posing in it. The lack of emphasis on difference in their succeeding Norway catalog suggests “white people are homogenous and share ‘white bread culture’” (Hooks, 373). By a process called decontextualizing, the commodification of racial differences does, indeed, threaten to destroy and erase meaning and significance of any history belonging to the Other, a concept that runs parallel to Hix’s analysis of cultural appropriation. Hooks uses the example of black nationalism to prove how weakened signs have become, stripped of their political messages: “When young black people mouth 1960s black nationalist rhetoric, don Kente cloth, gold medallions, dread their hair…they expose the way meaningless commodification strips these signs of political integrity and meaning…” (Hooks, 375).

Hooks’ final stance is clearcut—in relation to the Other, commodification poses a serious threat to sustaining political meaning and cultural significance in the modern era. By “eating” the other, society briefly enjoys and deduces pleasure from the experience, but ultimately expels and rids itself of it, forgetting and moving on to something else.

Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans by Lisa Hix

Within the larger context of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry, Lisa Hix focuses on the particular niche of the “Native American” trend. This form of “cultural thievery,” has brought many issues to surface as both fast fashion brands such as Urban Outfitters, as well as high fashion designers such as Isabel Marant, incorporate the “Navajo” look into their clothing. From a historical perspective, stripping Native Americans of culture has been happening since invasive white Europeans colonialized them, creating the original wound on which the salt keeps pouring in modern days. Jessica Metcalfe, blogger and doctor of Native American studies, claims the major problem arises from the industry picking up on these culturally specific styles, transforming them into purchasable “Native-inspired” items, and selling them to a general audience of non-natives enchanted by the aesthetic. The result is a mismatch in who represents the Native culture and reaps the benefits of profit, and who generated the original style and receives recognition for it. For example, as you can see from the images of Free People advertisements below, this mainstream company’s entire identity is based on a “free spirited” lifestyle, which is frequently inspired by Native American dress.

 5ec4694fb28eb696_fp-fairy9         Free-People-Catalogue-2012-1

As discussed in class, through this process cultures face the threat of dilution as the industry “cherry-picks” only the aesthetics they deem worthy and sellable, neglecting history and meaning associated with cultures. The ceremonious rituals or stories behind the prints of the Pendleton blankets, for example, are left behind when these items are mass produced. Additionally, a hefty gray area exists between exploitation and appreciation. As Hix perfectly details, “Ke$ha and other young scenesters seem to think there’s nothing wrong with donning copies of sacred headgear for partying at summer rock festivals like Coachella” (Hix 15).  While most would agree these instances illustrate exploitation, the more innocent “appreciation” is harder to come by. Nonetheless, the ease with which the class was able to find culturally appropriated items on our scavenger hunt Wednesday afternoon exemplifies the great extent to which cultural appropriation has infiltrated the market. This also makes one wonder, if seemingly everything has been taken or influenced by another culture or style, is this really morally wrong? Have we run out of originality and simply recycle and readjust what’s already been done?

Hix also allots a significant portion of her article to discussing the Pendleton company, a brand which has been loyal to its market of Native Americans and whose blankets have become an integral part of their lives.  The company’s engagement in collaborations and attempts to reach a broader market in recent times, however, has demonstrated the inevitable business drive behind any company. They must find a way to maintain integrity and loyalty with their Native American following, but also keep a broad enough audience to consume and keep them in business.

 Hix’s analysis of the commodification of Native American culture brings to light some major issues relative to many cultural appropriations. While it seems appropriation is unavoidable these days, the manner in which the industry chooses to enact it should be in favor of a more respectful appreciation instead of an outward exploitation.


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