Is Cultural Appropriation in Fashion Ever Okay?

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As a “melting pot,” Americans observe and consume different aspects of various cultures every day. In Western culture, it has become the norm to borrow foods, traditions, and clothing from other racial and ethnic groups as we please. But when exactly does taking inspiration from other cultures’ ways of dressing cross the line into cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation by definition is “the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another.” From Pharell’s Elle UK cover, to Katy Perry’s music videos, the fashion and entertainment industries always seem to cause an uproar every time someone wears a Native American headdress or Indian bindi. But is it possible to ever rock a turban or fringe without offending anyone?

The answer to that question is complicated, especially when it comes to those cultures that have been historically repressed by others. Native Americans seem to be the biggest issue with the ubiquitous use of headdresses everywhere from the runway to music festivals like Coachella. There’s no doubt that white people have done horrible things throughout history to exploit Native Americans, so I understand why they would be terribly offended when they see people from outside of their culture wearing full-on headdresses.

However, there are some styles that have become so ingrained into the Western way of dress that people may wear them without even realizing that they might be offending someone. Moccasins, for example, have become a staple shoe option in the West. And why wouldn’t they? They’re comfortable and go with almost anything. And what about driving moccasins? Should we stop using such a practical innovation in footwear just because our forefathers stole the idea hundreds of years ago?

So what determines what styles belong to a certain culture anyway? One culture that seems to have a lot of gray areas is that of African Americans. One of the most sensitive areas in African American culture is the representation of their hair. And just because a person is a minority doesn’t mean that they are free to wear whatever they want without considering other subcultures. Dreadlocks, for example, have religious associations that might make it inappropriate for some African Americans to wear. 

African Americans in general have taken on certain kinds hairstyles to be considered as their own, such as cornrows and baby hairs. As a white Hispanic girl with curly hair, sometimes I find it difficult to tell if I’m “allowed” to get in on the natural hair movement that many mixed-race women and women of color have been embracing lately. Some mixed-raced Latinas may be able to get away with sporting cornrows, but as someone who appears to be a white woman of Anglo-Saxon descent it’s difficult to see where I fall. Am I supposed to walk around with a sign that says “I am Cuban-American. My ancestors did not enslave your ancestors”?

Granted there are times when celebrities completely disregard a culture’s background and simply wear certain styles because they think it’s cool or sexy. Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna come tend to come to mind as examples. Perry’s “Dark Horse” video is just a bunch of random cultural messages slapped together without even trying to make a statement or anything of artistic substance.

A lyric in Lady Gaga’s song “Aura” reads verbatim “she wear burqa for fashion.” So not only is she trying to make light of a garment that women are forced to wear in some parts of the Middle East, she uses incorrect grammar to imitate a foreign accent. Not cool.

Yeah…not really sure what’s going on here.

And let’s not forget the time Rihanna came under fire for trying to look sexy in traditional clothing in Abu Dhabi.

While I’m not sure if we can always dress without appropriating any cultures whatsoever, there are few instances where it is a big no-no. With Halloween coming up, try to be conscious about what kind of costumes you choose to wear. For example the sexy version of any kind of ethnic-wear is probably not the most politically correct thing to wear. Most importantly, this holiday should be about having fun, so think about how un-fun it would be to feel like your own cultural identity is under attack.

Katherine Fabian (@kafernn) is a recent graduate of Fordham University’s College at Lincoln Center and is currently applying to law schools, freelance writing, and teaching yoga. She hopes to one day practice fashion law and defend the intellectual property rights of designers.

Featured image courtesy of [Chris Beckett via Flickr]

Katherine Fabian
Katherine Fabian is a recent graduate of Fordham University’s College at Lincoln Center. She is a freelance writer and yoga teacher who hopes to one day practice fashion law and defend the intellectual property rights of designers. Contact Katherine at



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