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Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Fashion
Wordcount: 3461 words Published: 17th May 2019

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Cultural Identities or Lack Thereof in Luxury Fashion Print and Digital campaigns

Marc Jacobs, dreads, and an abundance of cultural appropriation! All eyes on Gucci’s appropriation of the Far East! While there is no patent of symbols and styles from cultures foreign to Western influences, the most expensive, upscale designers in the world, are taking their inspirations from some of the most underrepresented cultures in society.  However, cultural inspirations from Eastern and Black cultures need to be clearly recognized for its original origin. This essay will further discuss the issue of cultural appropriation in modern western luxury.

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Cultural appropriation is happening in luxury fashion, from one season to the next. Even though designers do not give credit to minority cultures that they often draw inspiration from, the groups become related cultures and are more socially acceptable to wear dreadlocks and turbans, whether in the workplace, schools, day to day life outside the house. Designers are appropriating cultures and marking them popular, but they should give credit for their inspirations instead of using cultural styles for financial gain or praise.

 In September 2016, American fashion designer, Marc Jacobs featured many white models wearing dreadlocks in his Spring/Summer 2017 fashion show and digital campaign. Often, dreadlocks and other natural hairstyles have been seen as unprofessional but when designers do it, particularly upscale, white designers, the look is then normalized and trendy, thus influencing the culture as a whole. Marc Jacobs did not credit whom this hairstyle is historically seen on or the cultural identity that it belongs to, yet he uses the style for commercial gain resulting in cultural appropriation.

The luxury fashion industry is known for its exclusivity and awe of setting the best trends and prints season after season, attracting customers globally. With that,  comes inspiration of colors, patterns and cultures from all over the world. But for whom? Even though communities of color have always had fashion, luxury fashion in the western world, got its start in the 19th century by Charles Worth that has been traditionally catered to an upper class white audience. What defines luxury fashion is the high price tag and use of premium materials like silks and furs. In recent years many luxury fashion designers have been in heavy spotlight for cultural appropriation and lack of representation in digital and print campaigns not just in the US market, but in Europe as well. Cultural appropriation is using cultural artifacts, symbols, clothing and other indicators, outside of one’s own identity or culture for their own benefit or gain.

While the argument for cultural appropriation is about not crediting to another culture’s origin, more specifically minorities, it is also about who has the power to control culture and cultural expressions.  In the context of modern luxury fashion, contemporary uses a specific hairstyles, patterns and prints. Designers present these styles as though they are new and unseen. They may be foreign to their traditional white, upper class customer, but these styles are certainly is not anything new those identities that they belong to. When one brand of significance does this, then other brands think it is okay the reproduce styles without correctly acknowledging where it comes from. This is when you see these same looks styled in fast fashion stores like Zara and H&M or places like Amazon or Ebay.

Cultural identities are governed by media. Identities classify people’s ethnicity, social class, gender, etc..  The later themes of some identities, like the white majority in modern western luxury fashion are more accepted, thus granted unearned privileges. Those identities saturate the media and are thus over-represented on social media platforms, television and print. Identities can also refer to one’s sense of belonging or based on specific characteristics. In Douglas Kellner’s book, Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics between the Modern and the Post-Modern, he looks at identity through a postmodern lens. Identity was a function of the group as a whole, but in modernity, identity was a function of creating a particularized individuality. Kellner argues that television integrates individuals into social order, dominant values and behaviors, as I argue that luxury fashion does. Luxury designers introduce hundreds of styles and trends season after season, heavily circulated through digital platforms like Vogue Runway, online homepages and social media, as well as print campaigns in the top fashion magazines, Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire and Harper’s Bazaar globally. Luxury fashion integrates its audiences into the dominant looks of the western apparel market, creating Eurocentric ideals of beauty and style, that are often forced on people of color.

Marc Jacobs is a White-American fashion designer, born and raised in New York City. Raised by his grandmother in the affluent Upper West Side neighborhood of Manhattan. Jacobs was influenced by NYC nightlife and culture in the 80s and 90s, hence Jacobs grunge and street style aesthetic. Marc Jacobs is well known for being the creative director at Louis Vuitton (1997 – 2013) and his own label Marc Jacobs. The brand’s customer demographic is are typically city  concentrated in the upper- middle to wealthy classes with high disposable incomes.

In September 2016, during New York Fashion Week, Marc Jacobs premiered his Spring-Summer 2017 collection. This collection was inspired by streetwear, rave culture, Boy George (British pop star from 80s and 90s) and Harajuku (Japanese clothing style known for its a mix of bright and youthful colors, punk, girly, goth and grunge aesthetics originated in Japan) and 80’s grunge. After the collection was debuted, it took the internet by storm because the show featured mostly white models wearing dreadlocks. Jacobs claims he was inspired by his hair muse, Lana Wachowski (thecut.com/2016). She is a transgender woman film director who wears hot pink dreadlocks. Jacobs and team used artist, Jena Counts who sells wool-dyed dreadlocks on Etsy. Jacobs fell under heavy criticism for not paying clear homage to his inspirations for using dreadlocks as a hairstyle choice. He did not mention any context of dreadlocks other than thinking they were fun and fit his theme of the season.

 In a modern historical context, dreadlocks have been attached to a Rastafarian identity, more broadly people of African ancestry. The style allows African Americans and Blacks to make a connection with their ancestors and defy the Eurocentric standards of beauty that have been forced on people of color. The Rastafarian movement native to Jamaica, is not only a social movement, it is also a lifestyle and religious movement. Born in 1930’s Jamaica, from Black political leader, Marcus Garvey, Rastafarianism emphasized the unifying of Black people with the motherland in resistance to oppression and being robbed of African heritage (Lee, Hélène, and Stephen Davis, 2003). Rastas express their identity is, through their hair, dreadlocks. This hairstyle has been adopted by not only African Americans, but also people with African ancestry throughout the Caribbean and Great Britain. Dreads was a hairstyle famously embraced by Rastafarians in the 1950’s and 60’s who wanted to give a symbolic homage to ancestors and anti-colonial efforts. This brought a collective effort of reclamation of African pride and a confronting of social culture in America and post colonialism from Europe in the Caribbean. Dreads have seen multiple political phases (Kuumba, M., and Femi Ajanaku, 2018): earliest Rastafarian phase (1950’s-70’s), African nationals (1970’s – 80’s), counter hegemonic phases (1980’s – 1990’s and a transitional phase (1990’s – present) that has since separated the statement of wearing dreads as strictly as political statement. Cultural expression  also means equality. If white dominance was being forced on people of color, then wearing natural hair styles needed to be at the forefront to progress for racial inequality. Dreadlocks are also a protective style for hair and a fashion trend that people foreign to its original cultural identity have since adopted since the mid 1990’s when dreads transitioned to be more a style fashionable style rather than a political statement. The influences from this collection are from a group/culture of people that are not seen as professional due to natural hairstyles, one being dreadlocks.  Usually those people who deem that those styles are unprofessional are the ones in power. Now, a designer who designers for people like the majority (white, upper class) in western luxury fashion is making it trendy to have trends as a hairstyle, when in reality that same trend, on people of color is not acceptable or in style.

Marc Jacobs designs for white upper-middle class to wealthy clients. In this example from 2016, he uses a hairstyle from people who have historically placed in the lower class as a minority culture. I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race- I see people…” (Marc Jacobs, 2016). He turned the tables on women of color and yet still has not mentioned his inspiration of dreadlocks. Even though his hair muse, Lana Wachowski wears dreads as an everyday look known to her aesthetic, Jacobs in an internationally recognized designer who should have been accountable to the context of his “ideas”.

In a more recent instance of cultural appropriation, Italian luxury fashion brand, Gucci was criticized for its abundance of cultural appropriation offenses. Gucci is an Italian fashion brand, know for its leather goods and logo printed products.  In their Fall/Winter 18 show that debuted on February 21, 2018 during Milan Fashion Week, Gucci featured mostly white models wearing cultural articles such as bindis and turbans to the scene of an operating room as a backdrop and the beats of dramatic symphonies. Gucci’s creative director Michele Alessandro, who is charge of overall brand direction and image drew his stylistic inspirations from Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto: SCIENCE , TECHNOLOGY , AND SOCIALIST – FEMINISM I N THE LATE TWENTIETH CENTURY (2016). In her essay, she eludes to a mythical construction of one’s own existence, through the contrast between man and animal, and philosophies like Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. A cyborg represents the complexities of human development and differences.

The show was filled with looks of what was Alessandro Michele’s interpretation of how people construct their own identities and self-regeneration so to speak. In his collection, there was an array of logo printed jackets, accessories, balaclavas (face ski masks), turbans, androgynous looks and head scarves. Typically for western designers, the runway and its spectators see largely homogenic model casting, with very few models of color. That reflects the customer profile and what images are being sold to consumers. The turbans Gucci featured, were worn by models foreign to the Sikh identity, being mostly white and non-Sikh. The blue and black turbans on the models were to be a part of accessories that one can use for self reconstruction, however there was no mentions of historical analysis of wearing turbans.

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Started in 1921 by Guccio Gucci in Italy,  Gucci was originally for leather goods, its now known for its “Eclectic, contemporary, romantic—Gucci products represent the pinnacle of Italian craftsmanship and are unsurpassed for their quality and attention to detail.” (Gucci.com/2018) Alessandro Michele is inspired by the old city of Rome, Italy and the stories that it tells. He has changed Gucci to reflect its the beauty he sees in life through contemporary contradictions between the past and the future, maintaining Gucci’s preceding customers, white, due to the nature of the demographics of the upper middle class and the wealthy in the United States and Europe. However, Michele has also tapped into the Millennial buying power and catered toward a target audience not only in the west, but also the the expanding markets of Asia, Africa and Latin America, making Gucci one of the most recognized brands in the world and a household name. Alessandro Michele has shifted Gucci’s brand aesthetic towards a more universal customer. The digital campaigns feature a diverse cast of races and ages, however the runways are not as diverse as what is projected on social media and web platforms.

This season’s looks from Gucci has white models in turbans native to Sikhs. The turban is not a new accessory but has gained popularity from fashion trends throughout modern times. Although turbans are not only native to Sikhs and has been a style in many other cultures (African and Eastern) for centuries, the turbans were tied in a way specific to Sikhs, which caused major backlash. Sikhism was founded in 1469 by Punjab native, Guru Nanak and was developed as a faith under the principles of living a true and honest life, meditation to God, and being lending hand to the community and the less fortunate. Nanak and his followers spread the faith to the regions of South Asia and the Middle East spreading the philosophies of equality for all people, away from the present social and gender divisions. The turban is article of faith and is a collective visible identities for Sikhs and is a symbol of religious mandant. According to Neha Singh Gohil and Dawinder S. Sidhu from their article, THE SIKH TURBAN: POST-911 CHALLENGES TO THIS ARTICLE OF FAITH (2008)turbans are meant to keep hair clean, acts as an identity marker for all Sikhs and also means equality and a guardian to help Sikhs or a righteous path of faith and good citizenship. While turbans are usually seen of the male followers of Sikhism, women also wear them and wear scarves to cover their hair. Turbans are not exclusively for Sikhs. They have also been seen on different peoples dating back to over 2,000 years ago seen in ancient Egypt, mentioned in the Old Testament, Hindus and other groups in South Asia. In a modern western historical context, the cultural style of turbans have been heavily discriminated against in the workplace and society. Especially post-911, people who have worn turbans face intense discrimination and are seen as a threat to society all because of an false ideas of Sikhs placed on society by the white majority.

Many of the criticism Michele faced had has the same rhetoric as Marc Jacobs. People were upset that their culture was used as a fashion piece and not even styled the right way. Actor and activist, Avan Jogia replied to a follow in opposition of his tate about this incident, “Brother, I know it might be hard for you to get why this is a big deal to Sikh people and people of colour in general, but try to be compassionate and respectful. We get torn down for our things, only to find them on the runway. It hurts.” (Twitter.com/avanjogia,2018). The turban is already widely discriminated against, as Sikhs have faced trouble with employment is social stigma, increased after the September 11th attacks in the United States. I understand Michele’s attempt to construct one’s own identity, however it does not mean that one can pick and choose different cultural imagery that aligns with a fantasy narrative without any cultural context.

In general, when  acts of cultural appropriation happens in the context on luxury fashion, these designers who are putting these styles down a runway are the ones with the power. In many cases, from observation shows at Fashion Week in North America and Europe, most of the designers/creative directors, are white.  They are ultimately responsible for what the audience sees on the runway, from looks, to design to the models. Those in power choose to take attributes from cultures foreign to their own and give agency to their existing demographics that they styles are not on trend and acceptable to wear. It sends a strong message to those who are without power, the groups that whose culture has not been accredited, it is a high offense, because they have historically been discriminated against for these same styles as dreads and turbans, yet they are acceptable to wear after popularized by white western designers.

Fashion trends start with designers liked Marc Jacobs and Alessandro Michele. These trends then get popularized by the media and are give cultural capital. The cultural styles and sentiment of wearing dreads and turbans are taken away or belittled when white designers appropriate them and make them in style. Years of being profiled and discriminated against for these expressions are not taken into account for.

Although these incidents were highly criticized, it was also heavily debated as many people went back and forth online. The majority of those criticizers spoke out about this, commented about people being overly sensitive and there is not much of an issue here. But of course those commenters do not identify themselves with this hairstyle, Rasta culture or Sikhism. This alludes to a larger issue of cultural appropriation in society as people making jokes about not being able to wear certain Halloween costumes (non-Japanese wearing kimonos as a Halloween) or Native American headpieces as festival wear. White people do not need to wear things in order to normalize things.   

According to McKinsey and Business of Fashion, trends for 2018 show that the apparel industry will continue to over half of its sale to have high growth out of the Latin America, Asia -Pacific and Africa This will be the first time that these sales do not originate from Western markets of North America and Europe (McKinsey Fashion Scope).

In the past years, luxury fashion has had a consistent demographic based for white middle-aged clients, however trends show that those demographics are rapidly shifting to millennials and consumers heavily based in the Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern markets (mckinsey.com), but still has a long way to go in terms of representation on and off the runway.

Works Cited

  • The Business of Fashion, and McKinsey & Company. The State of Fashion 2018. 2017. www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/industries/retail/our%20insights/renewed%20optimism%20for%20the%20fashion%20industry/the-state-of-fashion-2018-final.ashx. Accessed 30 Oct. 2018.
  • Haraway, Donna J.. Manifestly Haraway, University of Minnesota Press, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/warw/detail.action?docID=4392065. Created from warw on 2017-12-18 03:37:21.
  • Garrin, Ashley R., and Sara B. Marcketti. “The Impact of Hair on African American Women’s Collective Identity Formation.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, vol. 36, no. 2, 2017, pp. 104-118.
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  • Kuumba, M., and Femi Ajanaku. “Dreadlocks: The Hair Aesthetics of Cultural Resistance and Collective Identity Formation.” Mobilization Journal, 1998, Accessed 30 Oct. 2018.
  • Lee, Hélène, and Stephen Davis. First Rasta, the: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism. Chicago Review P, 2003.
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  • Sidhu, Dawinder S. and Gohil, Neha Singh, The Sikh Turban: Post-9/11 Challenges to this Article of Faith (2008). Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 9, p. 10, 2008.
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