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Op-Ed | The Cultural Appropriation Paradox

Globalisation makes cultural appropriation unavoidable, while social media platforms make it undeniable, observes Liroy Choufan.
Gucci Autumn/Winter 2018 | Source:
  • Liroy Choufan

There is something that the fashion industry is currently unable to avoid: accusations over so-called cultural appropriation. From Chanel's boomerang to Marc Jacobs' dreadlocks to Gucci's Sikh turbans, the issue keeps taking over the discourse.

But pointing the finger at specific incidences today can obscure the fact that it has been part of the system since fashionable society was established in Europe around the 14th century, or even before. Novelty, the main characteristic that defines fashion as fashion, has always been achieved by quoting from other places and other cultures. The motivation has always been to look to the ‘other’ — which, the more remote it was, the more enchanting it seemed — for new inspiration. That was the case in the Middle Ages, with the heavy Eastern influence that the Crusades brought to Europe; it was the case after the excavations of the tomb of Tutankhamun, which led to the Egyptomania of the 1920’s; and it was the case with the paisley prints of 1970’s hippies. Fashion's viral nature makes it work the other way around as well, with Western styles being adopted, either forcibly or willingly, in other places. To put it bluntly, in many aspects, fashion is cultural appropriation.

So, what, if anything, has changed? Why does it bother us now? And why it is so hard to resolve? The answer is mostly because of globalisation and the conversational nature of the internet. Together, these create a unique phenomenon: globalisation makes cultural appropriation unavoidable, while social media platforms make it undeniable.

On the one hand, the world is more open-source than ever; but on the other hand, it is not free to use.

This dynamic characterises every aspect of our daily lives. Interpreting certain parts of the theory that was published in Scott Lash and Celia Lury's "Global Cultural Industry" might explain why. In a global world, where physical and virtual limits collapse, we are flooded with information and cultural references, data and objects that come from everywhere. Of course, the more globalised the world is, the faster people and data move around it, and the more objects and cultures people come across. Everything mixes and remixes together both virtually and physically: Starbucks, veils, Hassidic music, Sia's new track, gun control protests, wooden cage bags and Louis Vuitton logos.

The point is that we are so flooded with information that it is nearly impossible to know what meaning objects might have. We usually run into them and decide to use them without much thought. A designer might take inspiration from what looks like a really cool headdress after a random search through Google Images, a trip to Mumbai or Jerusalem, or at local flea market, and not even consider or know where it really came from, who made it, why, what its original use was and in what context it was created. Social networks have exacerbated this now that hashtags can aggregate countless references to the point where it is impossible to understand what they reflect: ideology, religion, politics, design or some other social phenomenon.

The networked world has led to another issue: a conflict that arises because anything can also mean something to someone else. Just ask Diet Prada, the Instagram account that hunts copycats. While in a pre-global world you could use a symbol taken from somewhere and no-one would be able to notice, in a multi-connected world everything is visible and anyone might — justly — seek to reclaim his or her property. Moreover, the question of why we can't all share what the cultures of the world have to offer is a political one, deeply rooted in the power dynamics of history. Thanks to the Internet, suppressed cultures now have a voice and using cultural references can quickly devolve into public shaming.

In a multi-connected world, everything is visible and anyone might seek to reclaim his or her property.

Today’s world is no doubt challenging to navigate: on the one hand, the world is more open-source than ever; but on the other hand, it is not free to use. That can be highly confusing. Fashion, as form, commerce, logic and industry, is a modern, Western creation based on a take-and-use, or take-and-abuse logic, that now needs to squeeze itself into a global postmodern state of mind, which is far less fixed and much more fluid, and yet strictly supervised.

As noted above, in an age that enables everyone to be heard and to potentially trace what belonged to them in the first place, designers and other creative people are constantly being criticised for cultural appropriation. Considering the new awareness and the tight relationship between style and capital, this leads to a certain restraint or effort to avoid any move that might be interpreted as disrespect. Fashion designers, who once travelled to kingdoms far, far away (or, at least Googled kingdoms far, far away) to bring back treasures, need to now find a way to innovate without taking inspiration from others and to make do with their own cultural environments.

The only problem with this is that it is a relatively narrow perspective, which contradicts fashion's ultimate raison d'être — to innovate, no matter what — and has resulted in a system that's increasingly stuck on repeat.

So, maybe it is time to give things a kick. Either we move away from fashion, at least as it has been formulated over the past 700 years, or we accept the unavoidable — and often problematic — reality of globalisation and its corollary: cultural appropriation. Either option will change the world, but we just can’t have it all. This is the paradox.

Liroy Choufan is a fashion writer and creative consultant in Tel Aviv.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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