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The Problem With Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

Young woman in hairdresser saloon having a treatment and haircutNo matter where you go, Fashion Week is all about thinking outside of the box, with designers’ manifesting their personal inspiration and self-expression on the catwalk. But recent criticisms from both New York Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week raise questions on where the line between creativity and cultural appropriation falls.

In early October, Paris Fashion Week kicked-off with a Valentino’s new collection. While the brand is typically known for its edginess and avant-garde presentation, its self dubbed ‘Africa’ themed collection was hardly considered original or edgy by online onlookers and critics.

After the show, the brand faced major heat on a global scale, being accused of culturally appropriating African culture for the sake of style, specifically, the brand’s ‘analogical approach to modern day African grace’.

Of course, this is the problem in and of itself. Africa is a massive continent with 54 different countries, over 2000 languages spoken, and thousands of cultural nuances from city to city.

In short, there is no way to sum up ‘modern day African grace’ without tokenizing and minimalizing an extremely culturally diverse region.

One of the more vocal criticisms of the Valentino show was the means in which Valentino’s 87 models appropriated facets of black and African culture. Out of the 87 models, only eight of them were white, and majority of the women donned ‘tribal’ necklaces, prints, and cornrows.

A recent problem arose at New York Fashion Week in December, when white models in Desigual’s runway show donned cornrows. For The New York Times Fashion and Style writer, Andrea Arterbery, this struck a nerve of sorts.

She writes, “I always experience a flash of annoyance when I see white girls wearing cornrows..as a black woman, know it’s not a style white girls wore when I was growing up, and that they often mocked me for wearing it.”

Black women’s hair has an extremely long and complicated historical context. When black women don cornrows, they are often susceptible to criticisms of being “ghetto”.

In a recent study of 3,000 women, 44% of women reporting changing their hair due to boredom, and 61% because they wanted a change. While white women have the luxury of donning black hairstyles such as cornrows as an exciting new look or style, black women, who have been donning these styles out of celebration and necessity for centuries, do not have the same luxury.