Fashion's Cultural-Appropriation Debate: Pointless

Waves upon waves of backlash haven't stopped Western designers from continuing to swipe recklessly from other cultures. Critics should change the subject by examining the histories of what gets swiped—and more importantly, what doesn't.

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AP (A "Chinatown plaid" jacket in Stella McCartney's 2013 ready-to-wear collection.)

Since around 2007, I’ve written about the politics of race, gender, and class in fashion. These writings have been published in scholarly journals and popular media sites, including the research blog I co-founded called Threadbared. As a result, a regular and happy feature of my everyday life involves responding to media and public inquiries about fashion trends, events, or news items that have a distinct racial dimension.

But I have to admit: I’m getting tired of fashion criticism.

This is not because I’ve grown tired of thinking and writing about fashion. And it’s certainly not because I no longer think fashion is an important cultural and social activity.

What I’m weary of is the predictable, limited, and unhelpful manner in which people talk about race in fashion.

Typically, it begins with a fashion event that raises issues of race, gender, or class: a new designer collection in the genre of “exploitation chic,” a blackface/yellowface/redface magazine spread, the use of people of color as props on the runway, etc. This event, which is almost immediately shared widely online, typically elicits two major responses. Critics bring charges of “cultural appropriation” and implicitly or explicitly suggest that racism is part of why the event happened and is being paid attention to.  Defenders, in increasingly strained tones, take the position of “cultural appreciation.” They say that drawing inspiration from the bodies, cultural practices, and cultural objects of people of color are acts of appreciating, admiring, even loving racial difference and diversity.

The popular chorus of cultural appropriation! cultural appreciation! quickly becomes a performance, in which neither side misses a cue nor forgets a well-learned line. This continues for several days and maybe weeks until it peters out or until the next racist fashion event crops up—whichever comes first. The debate around the event often gets more press and social-media attention than the event did itself, and nobody seems to change opinions for the next go-round.

Of course, I’ve contributed to this cycle. On Threadbared, the term “cultural appropriation” appears 142 times. That’s because critiques of cultural appropriation do have their use. They have been an important strategy, in Richard Fung’s words, “to redress historically established inequities by raising questions about who controls and benefits from cultural resources.” Acts of cultural appropriation often deepen existing divides between haves and have-nots, who’s in and who’s out, who has power and who doesn’t. Commenting on the appropriation of Native voices by white Canadian novelists, M.T. Kelly has poignantly observed, “Again and again, papers have been written, careers built, tenure granted, royalties issued, and yet the people upon whom this is based are left behind on the reserves with nothing.”

Cultural appropriation controversies happen outside of fashion, as well. Debates similar to those I’ve just described have sprung up in recent days around the likes of the Flaming Lips, Miley Cyrus, and the Coachella crowd. Grantland went so far as to name “cultural appropriation” as the pop-culture phenomenon that “won” 2013.  

But there’s a big problem with critiques of cultural appropriation.  They reaffirm the very thing they intend to oppose: white Western domination over and exploitation of culture at the expense of everyone else.

For an example of what I mean, let’s look at a fashion trend that fashion bloggers, journalists, and others unofficially dubbed “Chinatown chic” and, alternatively, “migrant worker chic.” The trend emerged about a year ago during the Céline and Stella McCartney Fall 2013 ready-to-wear shows in New York City. Both collections included looks featuring bright, graphic plaid prints reminiscent of the large plastic woven tote bags that you see all over Canal Street. (It should be noted that Marc Jacobs presented a near-exact precursor to the trend in the Louis Vuitton Spring 2007 ready-to-wear collection, featuring $1,900 tote bags.)

Not long after, the same garments appeared on the bodies and feet of the fashion elite. A series of photographs posted to Phil Oh’s highly celebrated blog Street Peeper showed members of the New York and Paris fashion glitterati wearing the conspicuous design pattern on their skirts, sneakers, tops, and coats. The trend reached peak ubiquity when more affordable versions of the luxury garments appeared on the shop floors of mass market retailers Zara and TopShop—all featuring the print design that Oh nicknamed, “‘Chinatown bag’ plaid.”

But U.S. Chinatowns are far from the only places where these bags circulate. Manufactured in China and sold for as little as a dollar each, their cheap price tag and their high durability make them popular carryalls for poor migrants around the world. In China, they’re colloquially referred to as “mingong” bags, named after the migrant workers who tote the shiny, bright carryalls on their long journeys between home and work. In Germany, they’re called “Tuekenkoffers” or Turkish suitcases, while in Trinidad they’re known as “Guyanese Samsonite.” In Nigeria, Ghana, and across West Africa, the same bags are called “Ghana Must Go bags,” a moniker rooted in the mid 1980s when the 1983 Expulsion Order in Nigeria gave Ghanaian immigrants 14 days to flee with whatever belongings they could carry. In England, they’re simply “Bangladeshi bags” or “refugee bags,” and in South Africa, where they’re most strongly associated with internal migrants, the bags are known as either “Unomgcana” (literally, the one with lines) in Xhosa or “China bag” in English. A journalist for the British newspaper The Telegraph insists that the sobriquets are “telling” of a plural yet shared experience of being from and wanting to get out of, in her words, “some poverty-stricken hell hole.” But, as I’ll explain, the various names given to these bags conceal more than they tell about the complex mix of sources that make up the so-called migrant-worker-plaid trend.

Public reactions to the Céline and Stella McCartney collections were largely mixed. A writer for Vogue UK cheered Phoebe Philo (creative director of the Céline house) for “reinventing” the laundry bag in ways that were “insanely elegant and very clever.” Hamish Bowles, European editor-at-large for the US edition of Vogue, concurred, calling the collection “supremely elegant.” Likewise, Radar magazine commended the designer for giving the “refugee bag pattern” “a 180 … metamorphosis to high-end.”

But many others saw it as a continuation of the fashion industry’s long history of poaching from marginalized peoples. Diana of the blog Hanger Hiatus views the Céline pieces as an “inevitable” occurrence given fashion’s “rampant culture-sampling.” In a blog post examining street-inspired fashion including the Céline and Louis Vuitton pieces, editors of the academic journal Vestoj: The Journal of Sartorial Matters describe appropriation practices in terms of “smuggling.” They note later on in the blog post that fashion’s appropriations depend on a one-way power flow from the top down: “While fashion corporations are keen to crack down on illegal copying, it’s interesting to note that the ever-fine line between appropriation and copying in high fashion continues to be toed for effect.”   

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​Minh-Ha T. Pham

Minh-Ha T. Pham is an assistant professor at Cornell University. She writes about race, gender, and fashion and is the author of a forthcoming a book on new fashion media. She lives in New York.

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