Sanaa Hamid Fashion Cultural Appropriation - bindiPhotographs by Sanaa Hamid

Cultural appropriation is the expression of privilege wherein one dominant group (economically, racially, etc.) takes on the trappings of a disadvantaged culture for their own use and pleasure. We see examples of cultural appropriation in fashion everyday, from Urban Outfitters’ foray into Navajo print underwear to those cool kids on the corner wearing the keffiyeh as a scarf.

Beyond the insult of cultural commodification, the mainstreaming of subcultural icons divorces the items from their more specific and special meanings, and it often comes with a healthy dose of double standard. In an interview with New York’s Daily News in June, artist Sanaa Hamid stated,

If a Western person is accepted and applauded as ‘quirky’ and ‘cool’ for wearing a keffiyeh and a Middle Eastern is labeled a terrorist or ‘towelhead’ and dismissed as such, then no, that’s absolutely not okay.

In 2007, Nicolas Ghesquière sent Balenciaga’s take on keffiyehs down the runway. That season they were touted as the year’s must have accessory.

Sanaa Hamid Fashion Cultural Appropriation - keffiyehPhotographs by Sanaa Hamid

Sanaa Hamid Fashion Cultural Appropriation - turbansPhotographs by Sanaa Hamid

Ms. Hamid’s series gives us a good jumping off point for a larger discussion. Though she concentrates mostly on the ways eastern traditions are used in the west, her photos are a microcosm of what happens to any minority culture.

Last year, the band No Doubt caused controversy when the music video for their single “Looking Hot” placed lead singer Gwen Stefani in Native American costume.

No Doubt - Looking Hotimage via Mirror

In February last year, the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit against the mass retailer Urban Outfitters, alleging trademark violation for labeling several products, including underwear, as “Navajo.” The name Navajo is a trademark protected by the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. The tumblr blog, My Culture Is Not a Trend, writes,

Being a Native comes with a history of decidedly un-trendy events, such as the cultural genocide of an entire continent, residential schools, racism, stolen generations, and the eradication of entire tribes of people and their cultural traditions.

Urban Outfitters Navajo Cultural AppropriationImage via Clutch

Cultural appropriation is not limited to ethnic or religious contexts, though. Economic contexts are just as vulnerable. Recently, images have popped up on street style blogs of models and entertainers wearing apparel with ironic twists on luxury brand names, essentially knock offs of knock offs. We see model Tobias Sorensen walking down the street in red sweatshirt that reads “Homies, South Central” [Hermès] or Khloe Kardashian in a neon yellow “Ballin” [Lanvin] shirt. This is almost the purest form of appropriation: the economically privileged playing as economically oppressed without the need to live the experiences that economic oppression produces.

All this being said, one can never assume the ethnic or economic origin of someone else. Take it from personal experience that the half-Asian looking guy in the pancho at the Halloween party might actually be Mexican-American wearing the pancho his grandfather wore as a teenager. If you feel uncomfortable, open and honest discourse is encouraged. Sensitivity to issues like this can be the beginning of a more egalitarian fashion industry and society.

Let’s continue the conversation in the comments: what is your take on economic and cultural appropriation in fashion?