Cultural Appropriation Wars: a passing fad?

Cultural appropriation has become a contested topic recently. Many individuals and groups are outraged by borrowing or stealing cultural elements in the world of fashion, music or tourism. When was the last time you have noticed a trendy piece with ethnic print? Have you thought about cultural appropriation?

Oxford Dictionary defines this term as an ‘unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society’ and Cambridge Dictionary gives importance to a fact that it is the act of taking and using culture without showing respect and understanding.

Power and Culture

A dominant culture is an essential condition of cultural appropriation. Generally speaking, a dominant culture is widespread and powerful enough to impose its values, language and ways of behaving on subordinate cultures through economic and political power. This may be achieved by media, communication or political suppression (Marshall, Scott: 1994, 192). On contrary, subcultures stand out due to its own rarity and elements that distinguish them from the mainstream society. These members are typically stereotyped and labelled and can lead to discrimination or prejudice.

Cultural appropriation can be also interpreted as a by-product of imperialism, oppression, and capitalism. Culture is treated as a natural-source by those who become accustomed extracting everything valuable from colonized people and territories. From this point of view cultural appropriation is seen as profitable and directly endangers the existence of marginalized cultures (AIHFS, 2011: 4).

On one hand, someone could point out that there is a close relationship with a cultural exchange and it accounts for something natural in the current globalized world. It is inevitable to acquire certain values and customs if they are in accordance with our lifestyle. However, it must be differentiated when an appropriation or an exchange is being held. Cultural exchange refers to a reciprocal process when participants are open to discussion. Moreover, it requires some elements of mutual equality, understanding, and respect for each other (Uwujaren, 2013). On the other hand, when mentioning cultural appropriation, people belonging to a subculture are seen as victims since they are not usually allowed to benefit from using their culture.

Focusing on the fashion industry, it would be naive to assume that designers offer a part of the profit to a community in case they utilized or were inspired by subculture symbols. Likewise, if the given culture is used in a disrespectful manner, such as faith symbols transformed into accessories, it can oppress its members. It leads to a fact that appropriation cannot be held the other way around, more precisely not by a minority subculture. In this case, it is about cultural assimilation – a process by which the minority group acquires cultural characteristics of a dominant group in order to fit in. It does not have to be their choice, however, rather a way to avoid discrimination.

From a legal point of view, not surprisingly, ownership of cultural artefacts is an often reason for disputes among states. What is the legal situation in case of the appropriation? It is a serious problem especially for Indigenous people since they have faced destruction and disappearance of their culture. For instance, there has been a litigation of intellectual property in the Australian Court. As a result, fifteen Aboriginal artists were able to obtain a compensation from the t-shirt makers who reproduced without their permission. These cases are rather rare and therefore, it is essential to protect Aboriginal customs by law means (B. Ziff – P. Rao: 1997). On the global level, the United Nations adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, as a significant tool in combating marginalization, and discrimination of Indigenous people. The Declaration deals with cultural heritage as well ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage…‘ (UN, 2008). Nevertheless, it does not seem like that any kind of protection that has been introduced so far would have a significant impact on actions of those who appropriate cultural elements.

Inspiring or exploiting?

As it has been said, the issue of cultural appropriation can be found in many aspects of our life. First of all, from the definitions it is obvious that a perception of the issue is highly subjective. Indigenous people will always have an uncompromising posture. Secondly, each case should be assessed individually since generalization is not suitable here. Context always matters. For instance, in the world of fashion is somehow natural that designers are inspired by cultural symbols and elements. However, where is the line between inspiration and exploiting? To what extent is it acceptable and seen as an appreciation of the culture? There are dozens of cases when the fashion houses have been using inspiration from other local cultures and it caused a wave of resistance. It was often seen as insensitivity and a sign of disrespect, especially in case of symbols of faith. Nevertheless, there are cases such as wearing espadrilles, shoes originally from Spain and France, which hardly anyone considers as appropriation.

In contrast to espadrilles, a completely different case has attracted attention recently. When Dior presented the last pre-fall collection it was impossible not to notice that some pieces were almost identical with the tradition Romanian designs from the North East region Bihor. Several Romania groups got engaged in publicizing of this case and appealed to Dior to give credit and compensate the traditional dressmakers for using their designs. Romanian fashion magazine Beau Monde assisted to shoot a campaign video with the aim to promote Bihor culture in which one of a local women says: ‘Big brands offer no credit, and no money returns to poor communities, and traditions die.‘ A campaign Bihor Couture was launched to fight against cultural appropriation, especially due to similar cases in the fashion industry. Bihor Couture created a website where authentic items can be purchased, and money is returned back to the local communities. Last but not least, the magazine sent few representatives to the Paris Fashion Week 2018 to draw attention to the issue of and promote the Bihor community (Euronews, 2018). Dior has not provided any apologies or explanations yet.

Nor Victoria’s Secret is without a blemish on their reputation, on contrary, the company sits on the top of the list. Victoria’s Secret has been accused of cultural appropriation many times; while they claimed to have learned their lesson and promised to be more respectful towards Indigenous communities, they have incorporated other cultural elements on a regular basis. A strong public reaction received a model wearing a Native American feathered headdress on the catwalk. After the outrage, the model was removed from the broadcast (Nicholas, 2017). Other models including Asian and Chinese-inspired ornaments, especially a dragon wrapping the white model was perceived as ridicule and disrespect to the Chinese culture (Heller, 2017).

Many similar cases would be found – Gucci and Sikh’s turbans at the runway, Chanel and its $2,000 boomerang. Most brands gladly use a term ‘cultural exchange’ while talking about their collection. The only parts to benefit from this ‘exchange’ are fashion houses and not the local communities (Erascu, 2018).

However, Brazilian sportswear brand Osklen showed a better way how to respectfully use other culture designs. Osklen’s 2016 spring collection was inspired by Indigenous Brazilian people Asháninka who live in the Peruvian rainforest. In exchange for the permission to use traditional tattoos and fabrics, the Asháninka has been paid and used the money for the development of the community such as a new school (Varagur, 2017).

Has political correctness gone too far?

Regarding cultural appropriation, it was not meant to present it as a debauchery of the current society but rather to provide a reflection of the discourse. Has political correctness gone too far? Not only regarding fashion industry, but everyone should consider her or his action from comments on social media, business activities to the Halloween costumes. The risk of being accused of appropriation is high. We should bear in mind that personal responsibility, respect, and good manners will always lead us to a right approach to what is appropriate and what is rather an insult. Fashion houses should feel responsible due to its image and wide influence, and they should avoid similar outrages. Nevertheless, nobody wants to reach a point when eating Pad Thai will be considered as an act of stealing culture. It can be a passing fad as well and no one will pay attention to the issue in the future and it will become an inseparable and acceptable product of globalization.

Until then, any forms of a solution are not likely to be established. First, the question of ‘Who owns culture’ would have to be solved as well as ‘who would be asked for a permission?’ For instance, in the case of a small community such as Bihor, any kind of cooperation was possible; however, it will be hardly possible in the case of Aboriginal Australians. A complete avoidance of cultural inspiring as a subcultural protection is not a way to preserve them. They deserve attention to other aspects if we want to maintain a diversity of cultures. On the other hand, this public agitation can be a tool on how to encourage not only fashion designers to think in context and not to rely that taking inspiration from subcultures will be unnoticed. From the consumers’ point of view, we have always a right to decide what to support and express our disagreement.


Soňa Hoigerová

 American Indian Health and Family Service (2011): Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?, 15.9.2018.

Cambridge Dictionary, 9.9.2018
Erascu, A. (2018): Cultural Appropriation: How Big Brands Inspire and Benefit from Traditional Handcrafted Items., 16.9.2018.

Euronews (2018): Romanian designers accuse Dior of ‘plagiarising’ traditional vest., 10.9.2018.

Marshall, J. Scott (1994): A Dictionary of Sociology, Oxford University Press, pp. 192.

Heller, S. (2017): Every time Victoria’s Secret has been accused of cultural appropriation in its annual fashion show., 15.9.2018.

Nicholas, G. (2017): Victoria’s Secret does it again: Cultural appropriation., 15.9.2018.

Oxford Dictionary, 9.9.2018

The United Nations (2007): United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples., 10.9.2018.
Uwujaren, J. (2013): The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation., 15.9.2018.

Varagur, K. (2017): Is This the Right Way for Fashion to Do Cultural Appropriation?, 16.9.2018.

Ziff, B., Rao, P. (1997): Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation, Sydney Law Review, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick., 16.9.2018.