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What is cultural appropriation and why is everyone talking about it?

As we shift from one fashion capital to another, the noise about cultural appropriation just becomes bigger. Here’s what the term means with experts back home debating upon its relevance.

fashion and trends Updated: Oct 01, 2016 09:45 IST
Snigdha Ahuja
Model Gigi Hadid presents a creation from the Marc Jacobs Spring/Summer 2017 collection at New York Fashion Week. The dreadlocks worn by the model made quite a stir.
Model Gigi Hadid presents a creation from the Marc Jacobs Spring/Summer 2017 collection at New York Fashion Week. The dreadlocks worn by the model made quite a stir.(Reuters)

The biggest labels, designers and luxury brands are busy showing their might as fashion season moves from New York, London and Milan to now, the French capital, Paris. As news is made every day about what’s trending on the runway and off it, one can’t avoid the noise made about cultural appropriation.

You might have been introduced to it earlier this year, when Coldplay’s video, Hymn For the Weekend, made its debut. The song’s visuals drew a lot of flack, especially from the online community. A segment, with singer Beyoncé dressed as a Bollywood actor particularly became controversial. And, here’s why.

Beyonce’s look was targeted by the online community. (YouTube)

To simply define cultural appropriation, it means the use of one culture and its defining elements, by another culture. Oxford Reference defines it as: “A term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non-Western or non-white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance .”

Why is it making a buzz again?

While Marc Jacobs initially defended the use of dreadlocks on white models, he eventually apologised. (REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

For starters, Marc Jacobs chose to send his models on to the ramp wearing multi-hued dreadlocks. The big deal? The show consisted mostly of white models including the ever popular Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner. What ensued was an online slamming of the designer with many blaming Jacobs of cultural appropriation.The designer retorted and reportedly commented on his Instagram (now deleted): “Funny how you don’t criticize women of colour for straightening their hair.” The designer then apologised, but not before sparking off the debate. In another instance, Delhi-born designer Ashish Gupta had a Bollywood-celebration of sorts, bringing his roots on to the ramp.

A model presents a creation by Ashish during the 2017 Spring / Summer catwalk show at London Fashion Week. Some online commentaters accused Ashish of cultural appropriation. (AFP/Niklas HALLE'N)

While he is of Indian origin, some of his followers on social media still blamed him for adorning white models with henna, maang teekas and other ‘Indian’ elements.

good life @voguespain

A video posted by Kendall (@kendalljenner) on

Model Kendall Jenner also saw herself embroiled in the appropriation controversy when she posed as a ballerina for a Spanish magazine, with many professional ballet performers asking the magazine why they needed a model to showcase their art.

Touchy much or debate worthy?
A bit of both, experts say. “It’s easy to throw the term ‘cultural appropriation’ around in fashion. As designers, we are constantly looking for inspiration. What’s important is, to ensure that the results are not unwise and distasteful. We have to respect the cultures in our efforts to preserve them. While it is important to introduce unseen creativity in your work we must be watchful when we look beyond the usual and connect with the culture and traditions that inspire creativity in an appropriate way without causing resentful displeasure. Cultural, cross-border variations are essential to get freshness in fashion. But, there’s a thin line that needs to be balanced,” says designer Gaurang Shah.

Marc Jacobs Daisy Trio at #MJSS17 🌸 #MarcJacobsFragrances

A photo posted by Marc Jacobs (@marcjacobs) on

For designer Anupama Dayal, the creative license is inherent in fashion. “The way we view the world is changing everyday. We are forever creating and adapting. I enjoy seeing how something that would particularly be associated with one culture would look juxtaposed with another. If done right, the relevance of both increases. The whole world is the designer’s plunder ground. But of course, let the debate follow,” she says.

Designer Rocky S emphasises that ‘sensitivity’ is the key. “I believe fashion is diverse and takes inspiration from a particular culture or a mix of cultures. Even though influences are borrowed from a few aspects, those do not define a particular culture as a whole. While saying that, we as influencers need to ensure neutrality and be sensitive towards others beliefs. Even though fashion is a creative outlet, we need to make a conscious effort to not offend the ones exposed to it by understanding how much is too much. This, however, does not mean restricting creativity and altering versions. Instead, we need to recognise the purpose behind culturally driven looks and invest time to share that with the people, thus promoting a healthy cultural exchange through fashion.”

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