In the recent past, many celebrities and luxury fashion brands have been called out for cultural appropriation — a topic that has gained momentum owing to people’s refusal to stay quiet about it, besides their interest to learn more about what hangs carelessly between ‘appropriation’ and ‘appreciation’ of another culture.
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For the unversed, ‘appropriation’ refers to making certain choices that may hurt and offend people belonging to a certain race, ethnicity, community, etc.
For instance, if you choose to dress up in the traditional attire of another country — without so much as learning about it — and simply make a fashionable statement with it, it is appropriating that culture. Or, if you choose to wear a piece of jewellery or accessory that is rooted in another culture and you flaunt it as a mere accessory, you are guilty of doing it.
It is believed cultural appropriation stems from the fact that people and brands are not socially and morally aware of the ramifications of their actions; it extends beyond clothing and accessories to include hairstyle and makeup, too.
Social media is almost always abuzz with mentions of such gaffes. Recently, Dior was embroiled in a controversy after it was accused of appropriating Chinese culture. Protestors claimed the French luxury fashion house copied a classic skirt design, which dates back to the Ming dynasty.
 
 
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The black pleated skirt from Dior’s fall collection, which the fashion house stated “highlights the idea of community and sisterhood in looks with a school uniform allure” is, in fact, a rip-off of the traditional ‘Mamian’ or ‘horse face’ skirt that was popular in China during the time of the Ming dynasty — between 1368 and 1644 — protestors claimed.
 
 
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With many incidents like these, how do people in the fashion industry walk the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation? Indianexpress.com reached out to experts to understand more about it, and what they think about making conscious and informed decisions while designing, manufacturing garments, styling a look etc.
Shehla Khan, a fashion designer who has worked with many A-list celebrities, told this outlet that according to her, culture appropriation is the incorrect adaptation of a particular culture.
“I can’t say I have seen this happen or remark on anyone who has, but I think as designers, we do tend to use inspiration from different cultures. This does not come with the intent of disrespect. In this day, with so much emphasis on social media and exposure, it is very easy to hurt people’s sentiments or become an easy target for disrespect to someone else when it’s unintended,” she said.
Echoing her thoughts, fashion designer Shruti Sancheti said cultural appropriation reinforces stereotypes or presents an inaccurate version of a culture. “It means using symbols, rituals or ways of a culture by another culture, but in a manner that is exploitative and distasteful. Culture is a part of one’s life and somebody can enrich their life by learning from other cultures and broaden their horizons — this is the essence of cultural ‘appreciation’,” she said.
Appropriation versus appreciation
Explaining further, Sancheti added that designers are a “creative lot” and get their inspiration from societies, tribes and cultures. “I personally work on collections which are heavily borrowed from various tribes and regions and feel there is nothing wrong in interpreting something from another culture. There is, however, a thin line between blatantly copying cultural ethos and getting inspired by certain cultures.”
Leepakshi Ellawadi, who is a costume designer, luxury consultant and a stylist, told indianexpress.com that if someone makes an effort to comprehend and learn about another culture in order to extend their perspective and establish cross-cultural relationships, they are demonstrating appreciation.
“Appropriation on the other hand, is simply taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest,” she said, adding that it happens when members of a majority group adopt cultural practices from a minority group in an exploitative, insulting, or stereotyped manner and profits financially or socially from it.
“One of the infamous examples of cultural appropriation in fashion is when Gucci was under fire for listing Indy Turban for $790 as an accessory on their website. The product debuted during Gucci’s fall 2018/2019 runway on multiple white models, antagonising the members of the Sikh community,” Ellawadi remarked.
Dear @gucci, the Sikh Turban is not a hot new accessory for white models but an article of faith for practising Sikhs. Your models have used Turbans as ‘hats’ whereas practising Sikhs tie them neatly fold-by-fold. Using fake Sikhs/Turbans is worse than selling fake Gucci products pic.twitter.com/gCzKPd9LGd
— Harjinder Singh Kukreja (@SinghLions) February 22, 2018
Khan pointed out that in all this, social media plays a huge role. “Social media has become a platform today that anyone from anywhere can access. The smallest of things can blow out of proportion and it is easy to become a target. This is why we, as creative people, must always accredit any culture or individual, personality or even historic figure that we use as an inspiration in any part of our work… It is important to adhere to the fact that social media is an amplified form of imagery and news telling, and is purely recreational.”
As mentioned earlier, besides clothing, other things like a particular hairstyle, or even makeup can be called out for appropriating another culture. Ellawadi said if used for commercial purposes, makeup inspired by other cultures is “fine as long as the brand gives credit where it is due, has deep knowledge about the culture, as well as portrays the makeup and hair in the right manner”.
 
 
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Divyak D’Souza, a stylist and costume designer opined that one cannot be so “overtly woke” all the time that they do not allow “different aspects of culture to come into art”. He said that when borrowing/being inspired by an idea, what matters is acknowledgment, credit and even monetary compensation in many cases.
“Is there an authentic representation of the community that you are showcasing? I feel, cultural appreciation is absolutely essential. Like, when I go through social media, I see a certain tribe in Kenya dancing to Bollywood numbers, or Indians making videos on K-pop songs. It is a wonderful thing, but needs to be credited and not done in a disrespectful manner,” he told this outlet.
 
 
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D’Souza explained that a stylist’s job is all about “image creation”. “We have to observe culture and curate an image out of it — whether for a celebrity or a brand, or a design on a runway. Then, it becomes all the more important to be educated about all aspects of culture; it extends beyond wardrobe and clothing,” he said.
Finally, it is also the model/artiste’s job to be presenting the piece of culture with utmost respect and responsibility.
According to actor and model Richa Ravi Sinha, style and fashion “say a lot about someone’s personality”. “When it comes to brands and collections, I try to understand the designer’s philosophy behind the brand and collection as a starting point. Every designer has a unique perception and style. In whatever I choose to wear, I like to represent the ethnicity of the culture without hurting anyone’s sentiments who is associated with it,” she said.
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