Cultural appropriation in fashion, and the grey area which surrounds it, is something that I’ve hesitated writing about for a while now, but following the recent launch of Dolce and Gabanna’s first hijab and abaya collection, I see no better time than now. The term ‘cultural appropriation’ (CA) AKA “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different culture”, was born not long ago, in a time of Internet outrage, oversensitivity, and an obsession with being politically correct, all fuelled by Miley Cyrus’ twerking and the rise of bindi-wearing festival goers. Big woop.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I see how and why people can be offended; a white woman pompously twiddling her dreadlocks and twirling in her kaftan while simultaneously mumbling racial slurs is pretty distasteful. However, the term ‘cultural appropriation’ ultimately implies that certain elements of cultures actually belong and are limited to the culture in which they stem from. This, in my opinion, is where the problem, and ‘grey area’, if you will, lies. In fact, if it weren’t for cultural exchanges, fashion wouldn’t be anywhere near where it is today.
Revisiting the Dolce & Gabanna hijab and abaya collection as mentioned earlier, the collection itself is everything I stand for in fashion- accessible to anyone and everyone, regardless of race, culture, or religion. But of course, throw ye old ‘cultural appropriation’ into the equation, and we have a completely different story. Why, though? The whole purpose of the collection is to demonstrate to the masses that fashion is forever evolving to suit the needs of others, but thanks to the big CA, it limits Dolce & Gabanna’s collection to whom it can be worn by without ‘offending’ others. Personally, I wouldn’t wear the hijab as I understand its religious purpose, and as I’m not particularly religious myself, I wouldn’t feel the need. However, I would still like to feel like I’m welcome to try on D & G’s abaya without ignorantly being labelled a racist.
Descending from a Middle Eastern background myself, I wouldn’t feel offended in the slightest if a designer or fashion house ‘appropriated’ elements of my culture for their collections, but instead feel tremendous amounts of pride and worthiness that someone else, especially in the fashion industry, deems my culture as beautiful to them as it is to me. Take Reem Acra’s Spring/Summer 2016 collection for example, a sophisticated homage to her Middle Eastern heritage featuring heaps of embroidered florals and gold beaded trimming. The collection infused the catwalk with an ambience parallel to Beirut’s, expanding and developing the ever-growing cultural diversity in the fashion industry. Acra and her collection were welcomed with open arms into New York’s already highly integrated society after her catwalk show at New York Fashion Week last September, and her Middle Eastern inspired kaftan dresses, as well as other designers’ cultural collections, are already set to conquer the high street this coming Spring/Summer.
Acra and many others are often the pioneers of cultural trends, starting on the catwalk, and ending up on the high street. Take Aztec print, kimonos, and harem trousers for example; all having their place in history, being adapted by designers, and eventually ending up in our favourite high street retailers for an affordable price. If the ‘rules’ surrounding cultural appropriation were actually enforced, many of the trends that we know and love wouldn’t have been half as popular as they were. Cultural influences and exchanges not only diversify the different ends of the fashion spectrum, but also unite the designers, models, stylists, and journalists of the fashion world, regardless of their race, religion, or culture. This union is something that I believe makes fashion one of the greatest industries in the world.
Although it’s understandable how one can take offense to the appropriation of their culture given the oppression that some cultures were subjected to in the past, the accusations that believers in modern cultural appropriation imply are not only often dangerous, but also a major setback on how far fashion has come within the past century. If it wasn’t for the cultural fusion that’s been occurring for the past 100-odd years, women would most probably still be wearing British hand-sewn floor-length dresses accompanied by a hoop skirt and petticoat. If anything, we should all thank CA for freeing us from that monstrous excuse of a dress.
The truth is, there really is nought wrong with adopting certain elements of one culture if it differs from yours. Whether it be fashion, food, music, whatever. If these trends were still ‘guarded’ by their rightful cultural owners, society would not be anywhere near as progressive as it is today. After all, the exchange of ideas, styles, and traditions is one of the tenets and joys of a modern, multicultural society.">