Stitching the line

Cultural appreciation vs cultural appropriation

Elisabeth Siegel

Designers are constantly inspired by ideas and concepts from other cultures, but many disagree on whether it is stealing or respectfully borrowing. One of the most mainstream debates in fashion today is cultural appropriation: when designers and fashion gurus inappropriately adopt cultural elements. I believe that it is important for people to know the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation before attacking someone for wearing or designing a piece of clothing or jewelry.

Marcelo Gaia is the designer of Mirror Palais, a sustainable womens wear brand. His most recent collection was shot in Mexico, but the pieces themselves were inspired by Sônia Braga in the film “Gabriela” and Rita Hayworth in the film “Gilda.” The white lace detail and flowy skirts give the garments an effortless yet feminine look. He pairs many of the clothes with cross necklaces and the vibrant backgrounds of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. But some people questioned the designer in his social media comments by suggesting that the collection was appropriating Catholicism and Mexican culture. Little did they know that Gaia himself was Brazilian and was raised by Catholic parents. The collection pulled inspiration from his own background and other parts of Latin culture. 

The Victoria Secret fashion show, canceled since 2019 for not being inclusive to all body types, was a highly anticipated annual event that would show off the brand’s products on their models, the “Angels.” Paired with the lingerie, the outfits stirred up controversy. In 2012, model Karlie Kloss wore a Native American headdress in order to represent Thanksgiving. In 2014, the models wore tribal patterns and leopard print for the “Exotic Traveler” theme. In 2016, the models wore feather dragons and Chinese garments for the “Road Ahead” theme. In 2017, the models wore Native American inspired dress again with tribal war bonnets for the “Nomadic Adventures” theme. The brand was using traditional garments and modifying them to be perceived as sexual, drastically straying from their original purpose. Additionally, these looks were modeled on girls that were not of the descent of the culture they were parading.

There is a difference between creating something after learning and connecting with its background and creating something just because it’s in style and you know it will do well.

Elisabeth Siegel

Cultural appropriation means stealing cultural elements from minority groups for personal use. For example, it is appropriation for a non-Native Americans to wear a Native American headdress as a fashion statement, like the Victoria Secret models did. For some, it could just look like a bunch of feathers, but for indigenous peoples, it is a symbol of strength and bravery for the most important leaders of the tribe. Culture isn’t just jewelry or a hairstyle, it is tradition and identity.

No matter the aesthetic that a piece of clothing is trying to emulate, it should not contain elements of other religions and cultures and represent them in a way that would go against the culture’s values. Appropriation largely targets marginalized groups, which is why most people have an issue with it. It is imperative that we truly understand the meaning behind what we are wearing.

Appreciation, I believe, is when someone understands the other culture and represents it in a way that respects their identity and community. Gaia connected his personal background with the vibrance of Mexican cobblestone streets to create beautiful scenery in the back of his images. Growing up Catholic and Latino, he understood the Latin experience and wanted to reflect it in the collection. Just because it was shot in Mexico doesn’t mean that he was trying to cosplay Mexican culture; his intentions were truly cross-cultural and appreciative. Gaia is an example of a designer that effectively admires the beauty and uniqueness of different conventions.

When discerning if a fashion piece is culturally appropriate or not, we need context before jumping to conclusions. First, I think that it is important to ask if the culturally-inspired design is “trendy.” If so, ask if the brand is using the piece to profit off of this culture or if they are truly honoring tradition. For example, many of Mirror Palais’ designs have been ripped off by other companies, often fast fashion companies. It is clear to me that Gaia’s designs were made with the intention of sharing something beautiful with the world, not just for profit. There is a difference between creating something after learning and connecting with its background and creating something just because it’s in style and you know it will do well.

We have seen many brands and celebrities come under fire in the media for cultural appropriation, like when Adele and Kim Kardashian wore traditional African hairstyles or when Gwen Stefani had Harajuku girls in the back of a controversial music video. You don’t have to be a celebrity to culturally appropriate, harmful stereotypes are often perpetuated through things like Halloween costumes. Since this debate is very nuanced, the best we can do is try to understand the intention, yet also listen to the people of the culture that is being taken from. If we weren’t inspired by other cultures, then fashion maybe wouldn’t be as interesting as it is today. At the same time, make sure this diffusion of inspiration coincides with a diffusion of respect as well.

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