How Big Retail Brands are Using Cultural Appropriation to Turn a Profit
By Yashashree Samant
The fashion industry does more than manufacture and sell garments. To a degree it’s a mirror to the society that we live in or even the world we want to live in. So in the past when most fashion brands perpetrated a singular idea of style and beauty, it got more and more difficult for people whose looks didn’t meet that standard to find their place in the world. However, due to the increased “wokeness” of the last decade, changing ideas, and the events that conspired around us, the fashion industry understood that it needed to adapt, to make sure that they imbibed diversity in as many ways as possible.
In 2020 there was a huge resurgence in the conversation about inclusivity in fashion, as people identified rampant racial discrimination and underepresentation of minority cultures within the fashion industry. It also led to calling out brands for missing the mark on fashion inclusivity by simply appropriating cultures. Several fashion labels have often confused the idea of inclusivity with appropriation, turning years of deeply entrenched cultures into costumes for mass consumption.
Cultural appropriation is turning elements of an ethnic group, most often an underrepresented minority culture, into everyday products. Cultural appropriation doesn’t try to understand the context for these elements or respect the existing aspect when it’s practiced by the said minority, but celebrates it when larger groups adapt them.
A great example is cornrows or braids which were considered draggy or uncool when traditionally worn by Black women, but when adapted by white fashion icons not only were they celebrated, they also were labelled as trendsetters. When done in fashion, appropriation makes a garment that was traditional into something that is trendy without acknowledging the roots. This supposedly trendy garment then sells for a high price that is usually pocketed by big brands while the culture that inspired it does not benefit in any way.
Can cultural appropriation be counted as fashion inclusivity? The answer is always no. Fashion inclusivity is to give different minority cultures a platform. Appropriation is to turn those very real cultures into a mere accessory to make the already rich, richer.
So what can we do?
We can take the onus to find out more about the brands that we’re purchasing from. When we embrace a culture or a style we need to make sure that it is represented correctly and that there aren’t any negative stereotypes or caricatures attached with the garments. We can also ensure that the community or ethnicity has been properly compensated for the inspiration that the brands derive, and lastly, if the brand of our choice hasn’t followed through, then as a vigilant member of society it is our responsibility to call them out.
But it doesn’t stop there. Fashion brands need to do better too. They need to make sure that they do their research on different styles, employ designers, C-suite executives, and models that mirror a society that promotes equality. They also need to make sure that they uplift a culture that inspires them, not just by adapting their style but also by helping those in need.
D.O.B believes in equality of access for all people, connecting you with purpose-driven smaller brands who offer product designs originating from and giving back to the cultures they represent.