Updated: Mar 14, 2021
Tahmina R. and Irisa R.
Recently, on Instagram, we came across an image of a jai namaz (prayer mat) with the Holy Ka’bah printed on it being sold as a ‘frilled Greek carpet’ by the fast fashion brand ‘Shein’. This was just one of many examples we’ve bombarded our group chats with, of disturbing-to-the-point-of-funny, instances of cultural or religious appropriation. Some are plain absurd and others are downright offensive because they take cultural or religious symbols and carelessly market them as an ‘aesthetic’.
The term ‘cultural appropriation’ has come to mean something that it was never intended to - white people have slotted themselves in as the centre of the discussion. It’s become about what is and isn’t permissible for white people to wear, rather than what it actually is - the erasure of minority cultures through the commercialisation of garments that are not up for sale. Cultural appropriation allows members of the mainstream to benefit from elements of minority culture without permission of use or acknowledging where an item of clothing comes from. Similarly, religious appropriation strips garments, symbols and objects of their religious meaning, leaving only the aesthetic value. For example, one of Gucci’s recent fashion shows featured models in a dastar while others wore what looked unsettlingly close to a hijab.
Imitation is (definitely) not the highest form of flattery
There is a myth that the more globalised the world becomes, the traditions and customs of all people can be poured into an ever-churning pot, where no one really holds any particular ‘ownership’ of anything (the great ‘melting pot’ narrative of globalisation). But in stripping a garment of its specific context and the meaning that comes with that, then repackaging it in a way that appeals to a dominant group, it values its aesthetic quality over its actual purpose and meaning. It means that the average white consumer is given the power to determine what is preferable to their tastes and what can be discarded. This leads to ridiculous situations, where a kameez is being sold without the salwar, where a keffiyeh is being repurposed as a mini dress and where a cheongsam is cut into a two piece crop set.
Cultural appropriation isn’t just moving a garment from one context to another, it is (if even unintentionally) erasing the agency of the communities that they belong to. By stripping the rich, non-European context of the garment, it becomes something that fulfils a fleeting trend and nothing more. The process of selling these garments for profit without recognising the artistry behind them, the legacy of the garments and the story of why they’re worn is problematic. It means that we can’t distinguish between a hanbok, a kimono and a cheongsam with each being generalised into an ‘oriental print’.
When we bought a tunic from Palestine, we soon realised that we had no place wearing it, so we gifted it to a Palestinian friend, who explained to us the significance of the embroidery. So, this conversation isn’t just a competition between white people and everyone else. That said, there is still so much space for us to meet on common ground where we both give or take in a mutual exchange. But as soon as it becomes one culture taking the aspects of another and assuming them as its own, it can be cultural appropriation regardless of whether the person is white or BIPOC. This can happen whenever there is a clear imbalance between the person appropriating and the person losing control of their culture. A common example is South Asian people speaking in blaccent.
Appropriation Becomes Harmful
It’s easy for us to think that if our own communities honour and acknowledge the significance of the garments or the jewellery that we wear, then why does it matter? For example, our own parents will celebrate some instances of appropriation as people showing interest in our culture, genuinely believing that there is nothing to lose from their involvement. However, historically, cultural appropriation has been mobilised as a way to preserve certain aspects of a minority culture that fit the dominant group’s interests while purposefully discarding others, leading to cultural erasure. Now that these practices can’t be institutionalised, and this sort of racism can no longer be made policy, the same sentiments are emerging in equally problematic ways in fashion and pop culture spaces.
We all hold a form of cultural capital. The value of this capital is often determined from the Eurocentric viewpoint that we often (unintentionally) inhabit. So with this in mind, the sharing of cultural knowledge can move away from a mutual exchange into a way for the mainstream audience to take without acknowledgement. What’s more is that when they are taken and commercialised, cultural and religious garments can often be sexualised in order to appeal to a very specific demographic. When the cheongsam is appropriated with high slits, it seeks to sexualise the bodies of women who wear it, when the actual clothes themselves are not at all for that purpose. One of the more dangerous examples of religious appropriation is the sexualisation of the hijab. As a garment its very purpose is to protect the wearer from being objectified and alarmingly, the appropriation of the hijab and niqab in both high fashion and pop culture has had the effect of causing the opposite.
Taking the value of an item of clothing, without paying homage to the place, its history and the people who wear it, allows us to take the aesthetic without honouring its story in the process. Everyone's responses to this can vary but we think that for us, the line between appreciation and appropriation is crossed when something is sold without benefitting the communities from which it was taken.