What I’ve always loved about fashion week is how it brings together fashion and political expression. This year was no exception, with conversations on race, feminism and body image being the forefront of many of the top shows.
Fashion week is also a time where the lines between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation are blurred. Marc Jacobs’ SS18 show crossed that line. His models were accessorized with African-inspired head wraps and featured garments that strongly resembled traditional East African clothing. The problem is that these pieces have history and meaning, but none of that was acknowledged. In fact, no mention of the inspiration behind the clothing has yet been given.
Conversations surrounding appropriation can be exhausting, because it feels like you are always walking on eggshells. Why can’t you just appreciate culture? We live in such a globalized world, that it seems impossible to not derive inspiration from other cultural communities. But it’s more than just inspiration. It’s a power imbalance, where a culture that belongs to a group of people is demonized until it’s presented on a white body. And then it’s loved and seen as an art form.
In a high school in North Carolina, African American teenagers had to fight for the right to wear traditional head wraps to school. These young girls were not allowed to observe their culture because it was deemed “inappropriate.” But Marc Jacobs’ show is being appreciated as art, without an acknowledgment of the women who were once forced to wear head wraps and their descendants who are now being banned from wearing it.
The head wrap has a long-standing history in the Americas. It was a tradition that African American slaves brought with them from West Africa when Europeans stole them from their homes. White slave masters then forced African American women to wear less elaborate head wraps as a badge of enslavement. A symbol that originally represented your marital status and your lineage was shamed into being nothing more than a cloth verifying you were a slave.
That is why appropriating the African head wrap, especially in an American context is so problematic. African American women have worked tirelessly to reclaim a cultural symbol that was associated with shame for so long. And in cases like the girls in North Carolina, were punished for doing so.
He could have said this was in support of women who are demonized for wearing their cultural pieces, he could have acknowledged the African American girls in North Carolina who staged protests – but there was nothing.
Whether we are willing to accept it or not, this country was built on a foundation of racial inequality that still paints the experiences of so many BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color). It’s why it’s art on certain bodies and inappropriate on others.
How can you respect and appreciate a culture, while devaluing the people who are native to it and stay silent in their struggle? Marginalized people aren’t angry that you’re sharing their culture, they’re angry because you are deciding you want the culture and not the people.
Marc Jacobs has a history of cultural appropriation in his fashion shows, including bantu knots in SS16, and faux locks in SS17. And while his shows were praised for being “edgy” and “rave-inspired,” Black people have been harassed and fired from their places of work for natural Black hairstyles, including locks and dreads.
It’s hard to say what the intent of shows like this is, but a UN sanction protecting Indigenous culture could open many designers up to lawsuits in the near future.