A brief introduction to cultural appropriation

You will have gathered that, to us, sustainability is about much more than environmental preservation – it has social, cultural and political focuses too. Fashion is filled to the brim with history. Even the most commonly worn items have origin stories, and often these histories involve stories of power and culture.

Fashion is political. If you are a fashion designer, you cannot shy away from that. And, if you are a fashion consumer (especially if sustainable and ethical fashion is something you care about) you have to be acutely conscious of this too.

The conversation around cultural appropriation is one that we’ve been wanting to have on this space, for a while. It’s a complex conversation and we are still learning about the nuances of it. So, it made us nervous to even think about writing an article on it. But, then we realised that maybe some of you are at the same point in your learning journey as us. So, we thought instead of writing an article from our perspectives, we’d point you to the places and people that have helped us gain a better understanding of cultural appropriation.

Before we hop into the article, we wanted to share a definition of cultural appropriation that has informed our thinking. This definition of cultural appropriation, by Ijeoma Oluo, which we found through Emi Ito:

“So that brings us to what it is that makes cultural appropriation, appropriation. It really is systems of power. We live in a society where dominant cultures have been able to come and take what they want from oppressed cultures and use it however they want, change it, and then discard the rest, even degrade the rest that they don’t like, that doesn’t suit them in the way that they want to use… And they will take what they want for their own purpose. They will then say, “That’s what this is. It’s what it has always been.” And they will further remove it from the culture that developed it and depends on it. They may even profit off of it while the people who developed this piece of culture themselves are still being degraded and oppressed and sometimes mocked for those very same things.”

Without further ado, here is a short list of resources we have found insightful when it comes to understanding cultural appropriation and how we can be more aware of it:

Cultural appropriation or appreciation – Emma Dabiri

This short video shares a working definition of ‘cultural appropriation’ by Emma Dabiri, which we found really helpful as a starting point. The definition comes from Emma’s book, titled ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’, which is a brilliant book about the history of Black-hair and hairstyles and how they have been appropriated. If you’ve ever thought, “But, it’s only hair”, this book will prove you so wrong.

Fashion and race database

Founded by Kimberly M. Jenkins, the Fashion and Race Database is a comprehensive resource that helps students, educators, researchers, designers, business professionals and fashion consumers to learn about the intersections of fashion and race: “The goal for the database is to center and amplify BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) fashion scholarship, illuminate under-examined histories and address racism throughout the fashion system.”

Instagram account: Give credit

There are sooooo many examples of how fashion has appropriated culture, without any credit. The @givecredit_ Instagram page highlights the many many times that fashion brands have disrespected and disregarded the cultural histories behind fashion items.

Podcast Episode: Are you represented? Sara Ali on fashion and inclusion

Podcast 96 of Clare Press’ podcast, ‘Wardrobe Crisis’, with Sara Ali is a must-listen. Sara Ali is a culture and sustainability business advisor, and this conversation is so insightful. She unpacks a few examples of cultural appropriation in luxury fashion and talks about what inclusion in the fashion industry should look like.

 Blog: Little Koto’s Closet

Through her Instagram page, Emi Ito shares thought-provoking and honest reflections on her own identity and is vocal about cultural appropriation – especially regarding the appropriation of kimonos. Emi also has a blog where she has compiled multiple articles she has written on cultural appropriation. We have learnt so much from Emi and we highly recommend that you read her work and treat her space with respect.

Here is a link to Emi’s Instagram, blog and Patreon.

Blog Post: On cultural appropriation in “ethical” fashion

With this blog post, Cat brought up the important topic of cultural appropriation by brands that label themselves as ‘ethical’ and/or ‘sustainable’. She uses Reformation and their appropriation of the qipao as an example, this was long before they got called out during the June of this year due to the Black Lives Matter movement/momentum. Cat sums it up perfectly by saying, “with ethical and sustainable fashion picking up momentum, we need to and can hold brands to a higher standard. It’s not revolutionary to do the bare minimum of paying their workers, and I’m done upholding brands that think that’s enough.” Ethics goes beyond wage.

We hope this list of resources helps you to reflect on your own thought processes, habits and fashion choices, and helps you on your own journey of understanding cultural appropriation. We are all on this learning journey, together.

With love,

Masego and Stella


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