3 Ways to Avoid Cultural Appropriation in Fashion


Sponsored by MATTER Prints

Disclaimer: I write this piece as a white woman with a primarily white audience in mind regarding the need for education.

Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

As the conversation on appropriation goes mainstream – reinforced by events such as 2015’s MET Gala, at which more than a few celebrities cringingly co-opted Asian culture and aestheticsĀ – more people are aware that there are certain cultural symbols you simply don’t adopt for yourself.

From indigenous American headdresses to chopsticks in your hair to cornrows, it’s fairly well understood that, unless you are a part of the cultures in which these fashions and symbols originated, you do not have a right to them.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. While I’m sure a vast majority of StyleWise readers have listened in on or participated in a conversation on cultural appropriation, I still think it’s important to discuss why we would place certain restrictions on the ways people engage with cultures that aren’t their own.

The simple answer is colonialism, i.e. the fact that appropriation is most likely to occur when there is a power differential between the appropriated and the appropriator.

Leah stands in yard wearing a green romper and straw hat - Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

In the case of Western colonialist history, white people of European descent have already, over years of neglect and abuse, co-opted and destroyed important cultural artifacts and symbols that give culture its distinctiveness, and that reinforce social bonds.

This is, to put it bluntly, a form of terrorism. I once spoke with a Syrian friend about his home country and he told me that what people don’t think about is the depth of grief that comes from losing your sense of place, from losing access to ancient buildings and art that cradle you in belonging.

In our colonialist context, then, where white supremacy reigns, it is particularly important for white people and others with relative social and political power to approach cultural heritage with sensitivity and contextual understanding.

The fact is that, in far too many cases, traditional prints, designs, and handicrafts are all that remain of a person’s cultural history. To use these items without context is to rub salt in the wound of colonialism.

I recently read a very good piece on cultural appropriation versus appreciation on the MATTER Prints blog, which you can read here. Fran of Ethical Unicorn also covered this topic several months ago, and it’s worth a glance. In both articles, the writers highlight a few ways you can ensure that you’re not partaking in cultural appropriation…

3 Ways Consumers & Brands Can Avoid Cultural Appropriation and Cultivate Appreciation

Leah stands in yard wearing a green romper and straw hat - Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

1 | Ensure that the creator of the product or experience comes from the culture they’re promoting.

In the case of MATTER Prints, designs are not only inspired by artisan textile traditions, they’re produced by the artisans themselves. This means that the people closest to the history, meaning, and creative process of the piece are overseeing production and financially benefiting from the sale of finished products.

The flip side of this would be big corporations like Urban Outfitters and H&M, who are routinely in the news for profiting off of textile prints and designs without a cultural link.

2 | Ask permission to use the product or partake in the experience. 

Fran, a white woman from England, shares a story in her post of the time she wore a gele, a traditional Nigerian head wrap, to a wedding. In her case, she was a member of the wedding party and was given express permission to partake in a culture that was not her own. This was a way for her to honor rather than exploit her friend’s heritage.

3 | Educate yourself on the meaning of the print, design, or product you seek to incorporate into your lifestyle and respect it as an heirloom, not a throwaway good.

MATTER delves into this in their blog post, but the gist of it is that cultural artifacts like patterns, artisan processes, and clothing styles tell us something about people. Therefore, it’s not just a matter of what we wear but of who made it and for what reason. Knowing this reminds us that people matter, and that ultimately fashion is meaningless without its ties to human experience, ingenuity, struggle, and storytelling.

When these 3 criteria are met in a single item, you’ll be capable of truly appreciating the item rather than appropriating it as a mere fashion trend. But always err on the side of sensitivity, and if you don’t know something, ask someone with answers.

As I’ve found myself in more social justice and activist circles over the years, this is something I’ve learned: it is better to make a fool of yourself by asking than to stay ignorant.

Leah stands in yard wearing a green romper and straw hat - Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

About the All Day Romper

First things first, MATTER Prints’ All Day Romper is a one-piece you can use the bathroom in without taking the whole thing off (hooray!). It was also designed by a customer, which makes a lot of sense given how versatile and easy to wear it is. With a flyaway back and an adjustable waistband, it’s the epitome of easy summer dressing (I’m going to wear it on my upcoming road trip to Louisville because it’s really comfortable).

The print is called Falcon Footprint because of its shape, and was produced through a traditional ikat (ee-kat) dye process, which requires tie-dying the threads before they’re woven into fabric, unlike what we think of as tie-dye, which is done on finished fabric. The fabric was woven and the piece completed in India, where ikat has been produced for thousands of years. 

One of the things I love about working in the sustainable fashion space is being able to celebrate true innovators like MATTER. I’ve been talking about them since the beginning of this blog, and being able to partner with them as they continue to develop projects and live out their mission is an honor.

Questions (or corrections) about cultural appropriation? I can’t promise I have all the answers, but I can help you find someone who does. Feel free to leave a comment.

Shop MATTER here

More in Social Justice.

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

May we recommend...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.