Cultural ‘appropriation’ versus ‘appreciation’: stylists, designers on how to maintain a fragile but informed balance


In the recent past, many celebrities and luxury fashion brands have been called out for cultural appropriation – a topic that has gained momentum due to people’s refusal to remain silent about it, in addition to their interest in learning more about what casually lies between “appropriation” and “appreciation” of another culture.

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For the uninitiated, “ownership” refers to make certain choices that can hurt and offend people belonging to a certain race, ethnicity, community, etc.

For example, if you choose to dress in the traditional attire of another country – without even knowing more about it – and just make a fashionable statement with it, it is embrace this culture. Or, if you choose to wear a jewelry or accessory which is rooted in another culture and you display it as a mere accessory, you are guilty of doing so.

Cultural appropriation is believed to stem from people and brands not being socially and morally aware of the ramifications of their actions; it extends beyond clothing and accessories to include hairdressing and to put on makeuptoo.

Social media is almost always abuzz with mentions of such gaffes. Recently, Dior was embroiled in a controversy after being accused of appropriating Chinese culture. Protesters claimed the French luxury fashion house had copied a classic skirt design, which dates back to the Ming dynasty.

The black pleated skirt from Dior’s fall collection, which the fashion house says “highlights the idea of ​​community and fraternity in looks with a school uniform look” is actually a rip-off of the traditional “Mamian” or “horse face”. skirt that was popular in China during the Ming Dynasty era – between 1368 and 1644 – protesters claimed.

With many incidents like these, how do people in the fashion industry distinguish between cultural appropriation and appreciation? contacted experts to learn more about it and what they think about making conscious, informed decisions when designing, making clothes, styling a look, and more.

Shehla Khana fashion designer who has worked with many A-list celebrities, told this outlet that she believes culture appropriation is the improper adaptation of a particular culture.

“I can’t say I’ve seen this happen or comment on anyone who has, but I think as designers we tend to draw inspiration from different cultures. It doesn’t come with intend to disrespect. On this day, with so much emphasis on social media and exposure, it’s very easy to hurt people’s feelings or become an easy target to disrespect someone else when it’s not intentional,” 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 mannerisms of one culture by another culture, but in an exploitative and distasteful way. Culture is part of life and someone can enrich their life by learning about other cultures and broadening 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 draw inspiration from societies, tribes and cultures. “I personally work on collections that are heavily borrowed from various tribes and regions and I think there is nothing wrong with interpreting something from another culture. There is however a thin line between copying in a way blatant cultural ethos and drawing inspiration from certain cultures.

Leepakshi Ellawadi, costume designer, luxury consultant and stylist, said that if someone makes an effort to understand and learn more about another culture in order to broaden their perspective and build cross-cultural relationships, they are showing appreciation.

“Appropriation, on the other hand, is simply taking an aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal gain,” she said, adding that it happens when members of a majority group adopt the cultural practices of a minority group. in an exploitative, insulting or stereotypical way and derives financial or social benefit from it.

“One of the infamous examples of cultural appropriation in fashion is when Gucci was under fire for the Indy Turban listing for $790 as an accessory on their website. The product debuted at Gucci’s Fall 2018/2019 runway on several white models, upsetting members of the Sikh community,” Ellawadi remarked.

Khan pointed out that in all of this, social media plays a huge role. “Social media has now become a platform that anyone, anywhere can access. The smallest of things can explode out of proportion and it’s easy to become a target. This is why we as creative people must always accredit any culture or individual, personality or even historical figure that we use as inspiration in any part of our work… It is important to adhere to the fact that social media is an amplified form of images and news, and is purely recreational.

As mentioned before, besides clothes, other things like a particular hairstyle or even makeup can be invoked to appropriate another culture. Ellawadi said that if used commercially, makeup inspired by other cultures is “fine as long as the brand gives credit where it’s due, has deep knowledge of the culture, as well as portrays the makeup. and hair the right way”.

Divyak D’Souza, stylist and costume designer, felt that one cannot be so “openly awake” all the time that one does not allow “different aspects of culture to enter the art”. He said that when borrowing or drawing inspiration from an idea, what matters is recognition, credit and even monetary compensation in many cases.

“Is there an authentic representation of the community that you highlight? I think cultural appreciation is absolutely essential. For example, when I browse social media, I see a certain tribe in Kenya dancing to Bollywood numbers, or Indians making videos to K-pop songs. It’s a wonderful thing, but one that needs credit and not done in a disrespectful way,” he told this outlet.

D’Souza explained that a stylist’s job is all about “image creation.” “We have to observe the culture and draw an image from it, whether it’s for a celebrity or a brand, or a design on a catwalk. Then it becomes all the more important to be educated about all aspects of culture; it goes beyond wardrobe and clothes,” he said.

Finally, it is also the job of the model/artist to present the piece of culture with the 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 the collection as a starting point. Each designer has a unique perception and style. In whatever I choose to wear, I like to represent the ethnicity of the culture without hurting the feelings of anyone associated with it,” she said.

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