Culture and IdentityHomeThe Cultural Appropriation in Fashion Issue

Fashion Week or Fashion Weak?

By February 13, 2019 February 14th, 2019 170 Comments

By: Samantha Chai and Sophia Elsom


To what extent are there demographic differences in defining cultural appropriation, using fashion in America as a case study? Major magazine industries, such as Vogue and other designer brands, have recently been under fire for using various Asian cultural motifs. While artistic license is a form of freedom of expression (a main tenet of America’s socio-political sphere), it sometimes seems to walk on a fine line between appropriation and appreciation, taking into account what is culturally and politically correct. Context is the paramount variable that leads to contrasting opinions on Asian cultural ideas appearing in non-Asian art. Using these resources, information can be extrapolated on how, why, and what Asian-influenced fashion appropriates (or does not appropriate) through a variety of perspectives.


James Young (2005) describes the different categories of appropriation: subject, content, and object appropriation. Subject appropriation is an instance in which an outsider replicates a member or aspect of a different culture. An example which resulted in a negative outcome was the ‘Maui Costume for Kids Moana’. The costume was pulled off store shelves by Disney in 2016 after complaints were made about brown skin imitation and inaccurate depiction of a religious and spiritual figure. Content appropriation is when an artist uses the cultural products of another culture in the production of his or her own collection. In the fashion world, it is often the style or motif of a culture that is reproduced, not the article of clothing in its entirety. This is often argued to devalue native craftsmanship and compromise the authenticity of a product. Lastly, object appropriation is when a tangible object, such as a kimono, is transferred from aboriginal members of the culture it represents to the possession of a cultural outsider, such as a museum (Young, 136). In addition, Young touches on the disparity between the heavily-championed ideas of freedom of expression and ethics. While the act of sharing and creating art may not be wrong, it may produce unwarranted reactions, questioning the art for what it represents. The degree of tolerance within a society is also discussed; one cannot simply determine the magnitude of an offense via majority rule within a society, since minority ethnicities within the society, by definition, have smaller representation. Minority groups generally have unique sensitivities tied to their history that might be aggravated by instances of cultural appropriation, no matter how pure the intentions of the artists are. Trafí-Prats (2009) discusses the factors of historical significance behind appropriation in further detail. Art can sometimes be unknowingly insensitive to history, especially if the artist is an outsider of the culture they are trying to emulate. Ignorance is a big factor behind why some pieces of art are offensive; they resurface painful memories of events in the past, especially instances in which targeted ethnic groups were oppressed, war or violence was involved, or political strife occurred. Another concept that must be kept in mind when studying the social phenomenon of cultural appropriation is whether the reaction of the offended party is reasonable (Young, 142). An individual of Culture A donning traditional clothes of Culture B can be interpreted as insolent and derogatory by certain individuals, even if  the wearer had intentions to observe and show respect towards the culture they were attempting to blend into. For example, diplomats often wear the traditional attire of the country they are visiting to show respect to the native culture and to promote a sense of collaboration and peace. In terms of the fashion industry, brands generally strive to be accurate and honor the culture as best they can (Ahmed, 2017). Modern fashion relies on a wide range of cultures to gain inspiration and to stay artistically relevant for a diverse consumer base.


Several of the sources pointed out that societies and economies thrive on cultural appropriation. Osman Ahmed (2017) explains that fashion could not exist without some level of cultural appropriation, whether the appropriation is classified a misdemeanor or not. Designer brands and fashion magazines are successful when marketing and drawing inspiration on ‘exotic’ cultural ideals. The fashion industry relies on cultural appropriation to create new products and to garner worldwide attention. Although they may sometimes cross the line of appropriation, the ethics regarding respect towards another culture are almost pushed to the side in order to uphold a successful economy, creating a parallel to how the minority group is treated outside the scope of fashion (Ahmed, 2017). With this in mind, the major consumers of culturally-appropriated Japanese fashion areinclude members of the Sansei , or third generation Japanese-Americans, who may or may have not been raised with the traditional Japanese household ideals (Connor, 1976). This uncovers a truth that many POC who don appropriated motifs and designs of their own heritage may be doing so in an act of identity preservation through clothing, authentic or not.

The line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is often unclear, especially through the scope of political correctness. In order to build a stance on the controversial issue, education, respect, and maintaining an open mind are imperative. Rather than racism or malicious intent, it is oftentimes a lack of knowledge on the subject that drives people’s perceptions. Advocates on both sides of the argument ideally should keep an open mind in terms of culture in fashion and the fashion industry, but it is difficult to ascertain the weight of a particular example or situation without being knowledgeable of various cultural intricacies such as the ethnic group’s history, the stereotypes society places on them, the extent/direction of racism that the ethnic group endures, and the culture itself. However, this is an over-enthusiastic solution: every individual cannot be expected to understand the intricacies of every culture. This poses the question: How do people perceive their own notions on the subject of cultural appropriation? How do various factors such as ethnicity, age, and immigration background impact their views on the controversy of cultural appropriation versus appreciation?

As shown in Valk’s paper, it is possible that peoples of the ethnic or religious group whose culture is being ‘appropriated’ do not take any offense when elements of their cultures are worn by cultural outsiders. In fact, many feel a sense of pride when they witness their own culture being displayed and put into high esteem. The negative backlash from potencial protesters stems mainly from the belief that institutions would stop at nothing to monetize a culture while simultaneously whitewashing it. In many cases, intended cultural fashion can be used as a force of good, facilitating cultural exchange and creating a multiplicity of different interpretations. In other cases, culture is used as an economic tool to attract a global audience.

Surprisingly, many of the individuals who take offense to cultural appropriation are those who are outsiders to the culture being ‘appropriated’ . In Asian communities, the people of the culture exhibit positive reactions to what many cultural outsiders brand as appropriation. In other words, it is common for the cultural “target” to feel less “offended” than the cultural “non-targets.” Perhaps the outsiders feel that some aspects of immersing themselves into a culture that they are not part of is taboo. Most of the people who are solidified in their own culture feel comfortable in their own shoes and cultural identity. However, the experience is different for each individual, usually depending on their past experiences and how deep their cultural affiliations are. There seems to be a general consensus that is reached regarding the subject of cultural appropriation: the offense is amplified when malicious intent occurs. This is evident in the image that received the most ‘5’ scores (‘not okay with the image’). See Image 1.

Once the definition of the term “Coolie” is revealed to be deliberately antagonistic, many responders increased their rankings. On the other hand, the two images that received the most ‘1’ scores (‘okay with the image’) were depicted as respectful and courteous. See Image 2.

This is a diplomatic example and demonstrates that the context of the situation is critical for reaching a decision on whether the act is classified as offensive or non-offensive. In this case, highly respected leaders wearing traditional clothing while attending a conference in the country of the clothing’s origin was seen as largely non-offensive. This situation is similar to the image of Britney Spears wearing a traditional Korean hanbok during a press conference in South Korea, but less people ranked that particular image as a ‘1’. It was hypothesized that this is due to her status as an international pop sensation, which has more of a negative connotation.

A diverse and immense amount of data was received. 280 responses were recorded as of December 25, 2017. Not only were participants of mixed ages, but of mixed ancestry as well, which was taken into account.

The image ranking responses were a mixed bag, as suspected. Situations were deliberately compiled, varying in offense (in our opinions). This fluctuation shows in the ranking answers. An interesting aspect to these constant responses was that the responders were not limited to a specific race; ethnicity does not necessarily explain level of offense. It is concluded that many common target groups of cultural appropriation (in this case, Asians) can be okay with the ‘appropriation’, reinforcing Valk’s study. Another factor that contributes to the large numbers of Asians with low rankings is the fact that the majority of the surveyed population consisted of Asians (and Caucasians). Another interesting aspect is age: of the 29 responders with all or all but one ranking as 1s, approximately 90% were older than millennials (~45 years old being the average age). This confirms the suspicion that older age groups tend to be less concerned with cultural appropriation. Younger age groups frequent social media more often than other age groups, allowing them to gain access to commentaries that exist in bountiful amounts in the web. Many celebrities such as Amandla Stenberg (of black ancestry) utilize their influential presence to educate their young audiences on how they feel when their culture is used as a means of profit or trend-chasing. There were many survey participants who argued that there are ‘bigger’ problems that need to be addressed before something seemingly insignificant like cultural appropriation. We would disagree; many of the “worse” issues come hand-in-hand with this “millenial complaint”. By gaining clarity of the realities of the fashion industry and celebrity influences with extensive impact in the social sphere, real social change can be made in a ripple effect. Offenders of cultural appropriation are using a cultural aspect in a disrespectful and ignorant context for their own benefit instead of talking about the struggles and tribulations that the appropriated group is continues to face this day and age. It can be argued that in some cases, the only time some individuals have respect for or take interest in minority groups is when they are wearing it.

The optional question at the end of the survey asks for additional thoughts at the end is believed to be answered by people with stronger opinions (participation bias). 39 free-responses were recorded as of December 25, 2017. The content and message of these open-ended responses could be sorted into the following general categories that answer the original hypotheses:

Category 1: Those not concerned or questioning the validity of the topic.

Category 2: Those who are concerned and see a validity in the topic.

Category 3: Those who unsure of the validity of their contribution to the survey. They made explicit statements that exhibited self-awareness that they did not have sufficient experience or historical/cultural knowledge to provide further understanding for the survey’s images.

Category 4: Those who made “as long as” statements. They made complex statements detailing thresholds where they believe appreciation ends and offensive appropriation begins.

Category 5: Statements that were not relevant answering the research question. These were excluded from being considered as data since they asked for clarifications, suggested improvements, or they were not serious about taking the survey.

The population under Categories 1 and 2 included diverse ages, ethnicities, community types, and family history of immigration. This demonstrates how this particular response is not limited to a certain demographic factor. Category 3 was mainly from the under 12 and 12-17 age categories. This supports the theory that younger people may not have a fully developed stance on the issue due to lack of experience and exposure. It was noted that the younger children (most notably the ‘Under 12’ category) may not have the knowledge taught in high school courses like World History and U.S. History, thus lacking exposure to historical realities of the treatment of ethnic/culture/religious groups. Most of the free-response answers were in Category 4, indicating particularized conditions that shaped opinions. A group that was of particular interest in the study were the “woke” adults. Interestingly, older participants wrote about how their personal views have been reshaped or expanded, influenced by their children.

  1. “I love seeing Native American attire, simply because I know it means that culture will live on… Simply wearing the attire from a culture you don’t identify as, doesn’t mean you are disrespectful.” An American Indian or Alaska Native and White 45-54 year old. This is a Category 1 response. It supports Valk’s theory that individuals of the culture that is allegedly being appropriated take pride in their culture and see no problem whatsoever of it being used by cultural outsiders. Many minorities have positive experiences when they see their usually obscure culture enjoyed by others.
  2. “I think people ought not judge others based on what they wear. People ought to mind their OWN business. Folks in one country wear a costume for any number of different reasons, whether it be for protest, entertainment, whim, tribute, [or] simply fashion… What I am speaking of, is *freedom*… freedom of expression, freedom to make youthful statements, and freedom to dress without fear of being judged insufficient, in any regard, due to the presumptuous, fatuous, self-important righteousness of anyone else who does not walk in the shoes of one [sic] would decide for oneself what to wear.” A white 45-54 year old with at least one grandparent who is an immigrant. This is a particularly strong Category 1 response. This individual also selected all ‘1’ (‘okay with the image’) scores for the image ranking questions. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution is often brought up in this narrative, arguing that freedoms are restricted when cultural appropriation is called out. However, this is an ethical issue and whether one abuses their freedoms to erroneously depict or degrade another culture is ultimately up to the individual, not the law.
  3. “… Native Americans and African Americans… were executed and [persecuted] throughout history still to this day they are being [persecuted] and executed. If models are constantly taking other people‘s cultures and training them as a way to sell it causes controversy between white people and the rest of the world there’s many different social classes and racial classes and the fact that they’re being used to sell merchandise and or products is disrespectful to other people‘s cultures.” A 12-17 year old Spanish/Latino/Hispanic immigrant. This is a Category 2 response. The argument is a common one: cultural outsiders profiting from the culture of a group that has historically suffered without bona fide interest. For example, Urban Outfitters sells ‘Navajo hipster’ clothing and accessories for outrageously high prices even though Native Americans have been forced to discard their tribal culture assimilate into white mainstream culture for centuries. It can be inferred that the sold items are not legitimate tribal artworks, but rather renditions of art that the owners involuntarily yielded in the past.
  4. “A feeling that I can’t explain like not all Asians look like that. It’s like saying black costume and a guy in [hip hop chains]… I’m not exactly sure if it offends each other by calling the costumes but if I found out it was offensive my opinion might change because I don’t want to offend them because I don’t know how they feel and I don’t have a better understanding,”. An Asian child under 12 with at least one parent who is an immigrant. This is a Category 3 response. The younger child difficulty articulating their feelings; however, they mentioned their discomfort at the Asian costumes, saying that real Asians don’t look like how they are depicted. They rated all the images as a 1 but stated that they do not have a strong understanding of the subject and how it affects other people. Even from a young age, the child expressed an uncertainty and overall uneasiness towards the images they were asked to rank.
  5. “Some [cultures] are not bothered by cultural appropriation and the idea is more circulated in the Western Hemisphere, but this only applies in certain situations.” (White 12-17 year old with distant relatives who are immigrants.) This is one of many Category 4 responses. It accentuates the argument on the importance of circumstances surrounding the possible offense. The context may include the environment and the individuals in it, the historical implications behind the article of clothing and the ethnic group it originated from, the quality of the article of clothing, etcetera. There were many Category 4 responses that discussed the distasteful qualities of many offensive pieces of clothing: instances where an ethnic or religious group is sexualized, infantilized, stereotyped, caricatured, or brazenly insulted.
  6. “I feel there is a difference between respect of another culture like wearing the Indonesian batik shirts vs wearing something with religious/deep cultural significance and wearing it as fashion. I just recently learned about the history of dreadlocks and I’ve [changed] my opinion on that…  I have three late teenage daughters and they are keeping me, as they say, ‘woke!’.” (White 45-54 year old with great-grandparents who are immigrants.) This is an adult who formed their opinion with the assistance of younger generations, showing influences of different generations on each other, demonstrating the social phenomenon that many adults are open to merging their own beliefs with the younger generations’.


It is difficult to decipher if a specific cultural group is targeted merely for aesthetic pleasure without respect toward the culture, or if the group is being celebrated by a well-meaning company to spread recognition. Cultural integration is a goal shared by many major names in the fashion industry. The sharing of culture has the potential to be harmful, especially because of the high chances of political incorrectness, overgeneralization, sexualization, and accentuation of racial stereotypes. To an outsider, this harmful representation may perpetuate false judgments on ethnic groups and their cultures. The best course of action is to avoid naivety and ignorance. Education on what is morally right and wrong and the sometimes turbulent and sensitive history of a specific ethnic group (most often than not in the form of maltreatment by other races) need to be considered as well. The consequences tend to have more impact than positive intentions. Upsurges of backlash tend to occur when the wearer is presenting a cultural garment in a drastically different context than what it would be traditionally (i.e., religious Hindu bindis worn as Coachella festival forehead jewels), or when the the wearer is contemptuous and blatantly gives prominence to a racist demeanor (for example, sexy Asian-inspired costumes that pave way to the Asian fetishism described above). As seen earlier, surveyors mentioned that there are more pressing issues than cultural appropriation (racism, LGBTQ+ rights, etc.) that need relief. In reality, a mix of moral duty, acceptance of others, and awareness of the historical and cultural implications are crucial components to a multitude of “more pressing issues” that are accentuated by the issue of cultural appropriation a well. Although cultural appropriation is not a matter of survival like some other problems can be argued to be, that does not make the issue any less critical to acknowledge. Truly, it would be ideal for “woke”-ness to be the societal norm, celebrating foreign cultures with bona fide appreciation instead of intentionally butchering the cultural wear with misconducts like racist or oppressive undertones. While one can not be expected to know the implications and intricacies of every culture that they borrow fashion inspiration from, quintessentially, being knowledgeable and truly appreciative are key to being able to distinguish between appropriation and appreciation in fashion.


Works Cited

Connor, John W. “Persistence and Change in Japanese American Value Orientations.” Ethos, vol. 4, no. 1, 1976, pp. 1–44. JSTOR, JSTOR,


Young, James O. “Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 63, no. 2, 2005, pp. 135–146. JSTOR, JSTOR,


Valk, Julie. “Research Note: The ‘Kimono Wednesday’ Protests: Identity Politics and How the Kimono Became More Than Japanese.” Asian Ethnology, vol. 74, no. 2, 2015, pp. 379–399. JSTOR, JSTOR,


Trafí-Prats, Laura. “Art Historical Appropriation in a Visual Culture-Based Art Education.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 50, no. 2, 2009, pp. 152–166. JSTOR, JSTOR,


Ahmed, Osman. “Why Fashion Needs Cultural Appropriation.” The Business of Fashion, 1 June 2017.

Young, James O. “Art, Authenticity and Appropriation.” Frontiers of Philosophy in China, vol. 1, no. 3, 2006, pp. 455–476. JSTOR, JSTOR,


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