Conscious Fashion: Native Cultural Appropriation

A look from Nicholas K Spring Summer '14, via The Frisky
A look from Nicholas K Spring Summer ’14, via The Frisky

One of the best parts about fashion is the personalization factor. We choose heels or sneakers, maxi skirts or miniskirts, structured denim or sheer chiffon. No matter what we choose, our clothing is a representation of ourselves, a piece of our individuality for everyone to see.

That choice to wear what best represents ourselves is a privilege — a privilege that must be approached with consciousness and consideration. I’m sure you’ve heard the term before: cultural appropriation. It is the fine line drawn between appreciating a culture and disrespecting it.

When a person wears an item that represents a culture they are not a part of, it isn’t just affecting the wearer, but it devalues the item’s meaning to that culture.

A quote that really helped me understand the harm of cultural appropriation was from the film A Huey P. Newton Story:

“White people in America are a trip. They exterminate the Native American and then try to dress like them. What kind of necrophilia is that?”

When a person wears a headdress because it is “trendy,” tribe significance is completely lost. It does not promote cultural understanding, either. It just embodies how a white person can wear it and be seen as in-fashion, but when the headdress is seen in its correct, cultural context, it is still rejected.

Cultures are not costumes.

Via Huffington Post
Lady Gaga, via Huffington Post

Especially over the past couple of years, celebrities culturally appropriating as a “trend” has grown exponentially. Lady Gaga’s “Aura” is a prime example — in her complete misunderstanding of Muslim culture, she wears a burqa while singing the lyrics, “Do you wanna see me naked lover? Do you wanna peek underneath the cover?” In her attempt to make a controversial statement, she devalues the profound meaning of the burqa to Muslims, sexualizing a traditional, religious garment. It is meant to be a way to defy male gaze, not encourage it. Because of her influence, her fans even began coming to her shows with burqas on as well, seeing it as a tie to Lady Gaga rather than a symbol of Islamic faith. Again, it is seen as “cool” when a famous white person wears it but does nothing to erase the rampant prejudice in America.

You have stores and stores lining the streets of SoHo, limitless online shopping and endless Ebay listings to choose from. Are you sure you still want to buy that shirt with Ganesha on it?

Hannah Treasure is deputy features editor. Email her at

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