On Culturally In/appropriate Fashion

"Hangers" by Brandon King

"Hangers" by Brandon King

By Mary Hanlon (Staff Writer) 

Cultural appropriation in fashion and dress is not often associated with the everyday clothing of Western consumers, but it should be.

While more blatant examples of the practice can be spotted at outdoor music festivals, on high fashion runways and in popular culture magazines and music videos, more (not so) subtle displays of a similar fashion can be found down the aisles of your local clothing retailer.

So, what’s wrong with fashion designers and companies taking inspiration from other cultures, and consumers proudly sporting the subsequent garb? For Dr Adrienne Keene, activist and author of the blog Native Appropriations, cultural appropriation, either consciously or unconsciously, is all about power. When fashion incorporates traditional designs and motifs of marginalized groups without permission, it deteritorializes cultural memories and historical narratives (Lamrad and Hanlon, Forthcoming).

Cultural appropriation does not always stem from a particular cultural design, weave or motif, and there is, seemingly, no limitation to where or how fashion designers and fashion and apparel companies garner inspiration. Take, for example, Rodarte’s attraction to violence against women in Mexico, which exemplifies a kind of misguided attempt to leverage perceived culture as inspiration for art and design.

Dr Minh-Ha T. Pham, Assistant Professor at Cornell University, and co-author at Threadbared, has pushed beyond the debate in cultural appropriation, calling instead for critics to engage in ‘inappropriate’ dialogue, where emphasis is placed not only on what is taken, but also on what is lost:

Rather than obsess over whether certain practices and forms of cultural appropriation are “good” or “bad,” “racist” or “post-racial,” respectful or not, inappropriate discourse asks what is not appropriate-able, what cannot be integrated into and continue to maintain the existing power structure of the high fashion system, and why. In doing so, we truly challenge the idea of the absolute power and authority of the West to control how the world sees, knows, and talks about fashion.


What does any of this have to do with you? Consumers of everyday so-called ‘Western’ fashion products are inevitably engaged in a form of appropriation, by the very nature of global fashion and apparel systems of design and production (2).

Regarding the cultural appropriation of First Nation and Native American motifs in Canada and the United States, things are beginning to change, thanks in no small part to the tireless work of Dr Keene, Dr Jessica R. Metcalf, founder of Beyond Buckskin, and others, alongside a mobilized community of online activists.

So, the next time you dig into your closet to get ready for the day, take a moment to consider the cultural narratives and signals, both seen and unseen, your clothing has woven into its fabric.

(1) Lamrad, Nadira and Mary Hanlon. (Forthcoming) Untangling fashion for development. Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture.

(2) Root, Regina A. (2014) Powerful tools: towards a fashion manifesto. International Journal of Fashion Studies 1: 121-126.