Cultural Appropriation in Fashion Industry

Taking inspirations from other cultures has been a prevailing trend in fashion industry for a long time. Some cultural elements could often be found on the runway as re-interpretation of the designer’s understanding towards a certain culture. In 2002, the models wore the Geisha-inspired makeup and Chinese tribal costumes designed by John Galliano on the Christian Dior spring 2003 Haute Couture collection runway. Also, in 2015 Met Gala, Sarah Jessica Parker wore a flame-shape headwear created by Philip Treacy to fit in the dress code “China: Through the Looking Glass.” According to most of the comments left below the video of Christian Dior spring 2003 Haute Couture fashion show on YouTube (, it’s widely believed that this practice of using images from other cultures is the demonstration of transcultural creativity, an intercultural communication, even an appreciation of culture diversity. However, it might not always be appropriate to use some cultural symbols to create the fashions, which means what people recognized as cultural appreciation might actually be cultural appropriation. It draws a fine line between the idea of cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. The controversial issue of cultural appropriation involves the stereotype and simplification of a certain culture, the cultural dominance, and even the violation of the culture’s intellectual property rights. The aim of the essay is to argue that in the fashion industry, how the dominant cultures take the right of speaking of the minority cultures, how designers simplify the cultural images, and the laws pertaining to culture’s intellectual property.

Figure 1. Christian Dior spring 2003 Haute Couture. Reprinted from Vogue website, by Vogue, 2003, retrieved from Copyright 2003 by Vogue.
Figure 2. Sarah Jessica Parker’s Philip Treacy headpiece. Reprinted from Time website, by Time, 2015, retrieved from Copyright 2015 by Time.

Cultural appropriation is not a new phenomenon, in fact, it is deeply linked with the history of colonization, imperialism, and white supremacy. Shand (2002) suggests that “the first process of modern cultural heritage appropriation could be highlighted by both the ages of Enlightenment and Empire.” According to him, during the ages, first European, then American intellectual, economic and cultural requirements are highly appreciated as the models of all the world. These colonial powers not only extracted natural resources, but also cultural trophy. The colonists used the cultural heritage of indigenous people by robbing, stealing, trading and exchanging, including the artifact designs, body painting and the people themselves. These applications appeared in different occasions, involving different social status. These cultural images were first studied, and then created a trend of appreciating, yet ended up with abandoning. The display consequently made these cultural items available for appropriation.

Take Saartjie Baartman as an example, this South African native was born in 1789, she was brought to London as a slave in 1810. Due to her uncommon African women body figure, she was exhibited as so called freak show attractions in the circus, forced to perform private shows for individuals with nude-colored clothing wearing. However, Saartjie’s body figure was later mimicked. Wealthy women began to wear the dress with tight corsets and gowns with lots of layers. The cage crinoline was later developed, which largely emphasized the buttocks. The Victorian fashion trend directly copied the rather unique silhouette of African women. The body images of the African women were appropriated by European colonists, and therefore became a prevailing fashion trend in Europe (Francis, 2017). The case of Saartjie shows a typical process of colonially cultural appropriation.

Figure 3. Saartjie Baartman. Reprinted from Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) website, by BNF, 2013, retrieved from Copyright by BNF.

In the 21 century, women are not wearing Victorian fashions any more, yet wearing cultural elements is still very common now. Wearing items from other cultures can simply be culture exchange; however, when the power dynamic is involved, it becomes a more complicated issue. Cultural appropriation, especially under the power structure of the global cultures, can refer to “a particular power dynamic in which members from a dominant culture take elements from a minority culture (Johnson, 2015).” The problem is, people from the minority cultures have no right to speak for themselves, because they have been systematically oppressed by the dominant group. It was debated that whether the fashion editorial in Vogue US featuring American model Karlie Kloss in Japanese setting and costumes is cultural appropriation. Some argues that “Japan is not exactly some helpless nation being plundered by the United States.” (Zushi, 2017). However, it is undeniable that American culture is far more dominant than Japanese culture, and under this situation, Japanese culture can easily be recontextualized, and therefore create misuse or misunderstanding.

Figure 4. Model Karlie Kloss in Japanese setting and costume. Reprinted from “Spirited Away,” by M. Jansson, 2017, Vogue US, March 2017, p.151. Copyright 2017 by Vogue US.

Furthermore, cultural appropriation is not only the binary opposition of western cultures and eastern cultures, sometimes it also happens in two relative minority cultures. In the photoshoot in Elle China, Chinese model Du Juan wore some traditional Tibetan items, displaying a Tibetan princess. Nevertheless, when referring to the history that China has constantly invaded Tibet during the past hundreds of years, the photoshoot implies the dominance of Chinese government towards Tibet, both politically and culturally.

Figure 5. Chinese model Du Juan in Tibetan costume. Reprinted from “Whisper of Tibet,” by Y. Chao, 2016, Harper’s Bazaar China, October 2016. Copyright 2016 by Harper’s Bazaar China

Another controversy of cultural appropriation is the simplification of culture. The stereotype of a certain culture comes from over-simplified images. As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie (2009) stated, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

However, the fashion designers tend to tell the single story of a culture. For instance, in Christian Dior 2007 spring Haute Couture collection, in order to express inspiration of Japanese culture, the designer John Galliano had the models wear the geisha-inspired makeup. The case shows the practice of the simplification of culture, which fashion designers take the most common images to demonstrate certain cultures. In this case, there seems to be a tendency of using images like geishas and kimonos when expressing Japanese culture. While it’s undeniable that geishas and kimonos are the important cultural symbols of Japanese culture, they only represent a small part of the cultures. Simplification of the cultures not only limits the creativity and imagination, it also creates asymmetric cultural cognition and cultural status. People whose culture has been minimized, disenfranchised, and marginalized are usually ethnically depreciated.

Figure 6. Christian Dior 2007 spring Haute Couture. Reprinted from Vogue website, by Vogue 2007, retrieved from Copyright 2007 by Vogue.

The simplification of culture does not only happen when a designer try to take elements from other cultures, sometimes designers from the cultures of being appropriated also do simplification. Self-simplification comes when the designers try to demonstrate their cultural identity. In order to be recognized, they tend to present the specific cultural elements which are more familiar to people from other culture. Since these cultural elements are presented by the designers of the culture, it was believed using these elements could perfectly represent the core spirit of the culture, instead of superficial symbols. It has formed a vicious cycle that western designers appropriate certain cultural images based on stereotype, designers from the appropriated cultures then keep using the same images in their works, therefore makes the stereotype more unbreakable. Chinese designer Christopher Bu had a similar experience in his early career. In his early collections, he creates gowns inspired by Chinese dragon robes, Chinese porcelains and cranes. These are the conventional images when expressing traditional Chinese culture. Bu’s works appeared several times in Cannes Film Festival, worn by Chinese actress Fan Bing Bing. The actress had admitted that wearing Bu’s gown helps her showing her identity as a Chinese. The gowns had become the statement of where she came from (Wang, 2010). Under the asymmetric cultural status, designers can only show the cultural identity by self-simplification.

Figure 7. Chinese actress Fan Bingbing in Christopher Bu’s gown in 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Reprinted from Red Carpet Fashion Award (RCFA) website, by RCFA, 2012, retrieved from Copyright 2013 by RCFA.

Cultural appropriation not only causes misunderstanding and stereotype of cultures, sometimes it violates the intellectual property rights of indigenous groups. For example, Louis Vuitton is one of the brand who profits from the indigenous groups without acknowledging them. In Louis Vuitton 2012 Men’s Kanga collection, the brand used the Maasai square fabric in its products. Afterwards, Maasai people attempted to obtain royalties from Louis Vuitton for using their cultural heritage in commercial merchandises. However, the brand is now still enjoying the profits from appropriating Maasai cultural heritage (Young, 2017). To protect the traditional cultural expressions, the intellectual property laws play an important role in it. Some groups of indigenous people have called on the United Nations to enact the law against cultural appropriation. Since 2001, UNESCO and World Intellectual Property Organization have been trying to create international law of regulation on misappropriation of traditional images and protection of indigenous knowledge. Some suggest that property implies a physical object, not including abstract things like idea, and since cultural appropriation is about taking inspirations, it should not refer to illegal. Nevertheless, measures of cultural appropriation in fashion industry is plagiarizing particular cultural items, which are obviously physical objects, it is therefore within the protection of intellectual property. In this case, the intellectual property laws can efficiently protect certain items from appropriation.

Figure 8. Louis Vuitton 2012 Men’s Kanga collection. Reprinted from Vogue website, by Vogue, 2012, retrieved from Copyright 2012 by Vogue

However, the goal of making cultural appropriation through international regulations could be more than protecting intellectual property of indigenous groups. The laws might also play a role in helping increasing employment opportunities for the marginalized communities. In order to avoid violating the laws, fashion designers can use the cultural images legally through cooperation with indigenous designers, while indigenous people and marginalized communities would also increase social status simultaneously. The laws against cultural appropriation create an ideal intercultural communication, which designers use the cultural element with respect, and the situation of asymmetric social structure could therefore be changed.

Globalization brings intercultural connectedness, people now can easily appreciate other culture, especially in the fashion industry. Fashion designers use some cultural elements to create fabulous fashion shows with their extraordinary creativity. However, cultural appreciation tends to become cultural appropriation due to the lack of deep understanding and respect. Other than the offensive misuse of specific cultural images, cultural appropriation could be a more serious problem. Under the structural inequality of global cultures, the right of speaking would always belong to the more dominant cultures. Those from relatively minority cultures have no right to demonstrate their own cultures, while they are systematically oppressed by the dominant groups. Also, cultural appropriation creates the problem of simplification, including the self-simplification by indigenous designers. Simplification comes from the stereotype toward certain culture, designers tend to choose the most popular cultural symbols as inspiration, and use it in a relatively superficial way. Simultaneously, designers from the cultures which are appropriated would choose the same cultural images in order to demonstrate their cultural identity, which makes the situation more unbreakable. In addition to the self-awareness of the designers, legislating laws of intellectual property might be a better solution of avoiding cultural appropriation. The laws is not only the protection of the traditional cultural expressions, it also helps the marginalize communities increase social status. Through the cooperation of western designers and indigenous designers, it guarantees that the cultural elements would be used in a more appropriate and respected way.


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