Cultural Appropriation at New York Fashion Week

By Bethania Viana

When you think about controversy and the fashion industry, perhaps what immediately comes to mind are skinny models with eating disorders and ridiculously high heels. However, the problematic nature of the fashion world extends further than that very on-the-surface critique that most people have. Despite being a field based in creativity, cultural appropriation and lack of diversity is unfortunately what the fashion industry thrives upon. At this point, the term “cultural appropriation” is heavily used in everyday language, but it’s clear that we don’t know what it means or else we wouldn’t keep hearing about it. With regards to fashion, cultural appropriation makes reference not only to clothing that may take the traditional garb of a culture or borrow culturally specific prints. It is an appropriation of style. When it comes to fashion and cultural appropriation, it has everything to do with style – how we view it, who has it, when certain styles are acceptable and in what form of presentation.

During New York Fashion Week this past month, designer Marc Jacobs’ Spring 2017 fashion show acted as a prime example of cultural appropriation within the fashion industry. Jacobs’ show included models with brightly colored, fake dreadlocks made of yarn. All the models in the show were sporting the fake locks, but the majority of the models walking were white. Almost immediately, Jacobs was criticized for cultural appropriation and racism. Jacobs’ response online was that he didn’t see color and that he didn’t view the dreadlocks as appropriation. Additionally, he tried to defend himself by saying that if black women with straightened hair are not considered to be committing cultural appropriation, white women wearing dreadlocks shouldn’t be considered appropriation either.

Here’s the thing about appropriation and hair that individuals of a certain background and privilege cannot seem to grasp: assimilation and appropriation are not the same thing. This is where Jacobs’ defense falls apart, as he clearly does not recognize that the two processes are not the same. Black women with straightened hair? Assimilation. White women with dreadlocks? Appropriation.

Assimilation has to do with succumbing to social pressure and compromising for the sake of social survival. Straight hair is a white beauty standard that made itself the normal, universal beauty standard that all women are left to aspire for. Black women straightening their hair originates from a place of insecurity that society itself has created by telling the world that black hair is ugly, but white hair is beautiful. Black women straightening their hair comes from a place of racism in the world of beauty and fashion. White women do not share this struggle and have not been given the same kind of shame and degradation around their style that black women have. Cultural appropriation has to do with picking and choosing from a different culture without actually having to be part of that culture and take part of its culture. In other words, in an instance like this one at NYFW, dreadlocks are completely isolated from its history within black culture and reduced to a fun temporary hairstyle.
This conversation is old and tired, but yet it seems to constantly arise in mainstream media. The public remains unable to collectively arrive to an agreed understanding of what is right and wrong when it comes to hair. Here’s a simple solution for designers like Marc Jacobs who are unable to view the cultural significance of a hairstyle like dreadlocks: hire more black models if the hairstyle is that essential to artistic vision. The diversity issue within the fashion industry is just another issue that branches off of the issue of cultural appropriation. But culture and historical racial struggle cannot be reduced to just a fashion accessory for a night for a white model who will never have to be told that her hair is ugly.

Bethania is a Senior Women’s and Gender Studies Major and a Biology Minor

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