Cultural Appropriation at Fashion Week? The sharing of ideas and styles should be celebrated not demonised

Fashion Week is upon us and the designer winning the attention for the current controversy is Marc Jacobs, who chose to create multi-coloured fabric strands that resemble dreadlocks. As a result, Jacobs has become the latest sacrifice for the self-appointed priests of culture and in this instance, it’s all about Cultural Appropriation.

The crucifixion of so-called cultural appropriation sinners has already begun in New York. London is still having its Fashion Week and we will wait to see if anyone will be similarly criticised for having a pale-skinned person wear the ‘wrong pattern’ or the ‘forbidden style’.

Some will connect their hair style to their identity so the politics of black hair is a sensitive subject. Thus, the importance of hair moves beyond follicles on a scalp and stands as a statement of power. However, it’s hard to believe that the narrative about hair should always be connected to race and identity.

To claim that engaging with any style popularly related to a specific group is automatically offensive is in itself offensive. It assumes all black people have somehow been offended, thereby automatically giving them a victim status. Participation of a particular style is a natural human desire and mostly stands as a form of celebration and appreciation as opposed to theft and disrespect, which is what Jacobs’ accusers have wrongly condemned him for.

The notion that any group can have a monopoly on a hairstyle purely because many in that group have worn that hairstyle is anti-intellectual and thus destructive. In an age when we have made a lot of progress in race relations it’s insulting to the effort of many activists. It’s also a waste of time to create an issue where there is none as there are many issues facing black people (especially in America) that actually warrant attention.

Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner, among others, are the models on ‘trial’ with Jacobs. The purpose of the artwork and the fashion message for that collection has to some degree been overshadowed by the feelings of some ‘culture lecturers’ who claim that what appears to be a hybrid of pastel-coloured play dough and cotton candy (at least in looks) is indeed an intentional insult to black people. Unfortunately some equate skin colour to culture, so the consensus within the Cultural Appropriation Judges is that Jacobs and his models have disrespected and stolen from all black people. The fallacy of their argument is so blatant that it is difficult to understand why they feel their stance is defensible.

Their lack of business or artistic understanding within the context of New York Fashion week is remarkable. The stone throwers – the accusers of Jacob et al – provided their advice to the established designer via Twitter along the tune of ‘you should have used a black person with Dreads’. What they either fail or refuse to understand is that designers plan their vision for each Fashion Week years ahead. They work with models and retailers to develop a relationship that will lead to a high turnover once the collection is adapted from the runway to the stores and online.

What benefit would it bring to a designer to use an infamous model who will not yield the required interest even if he/she had dark skin and naturally-matted hair? The decision to use the models Jacobs chose transcends race and political statements. The choices of models and hair styles are creative and business decisions. What these crusaders don’t recognise is that most people don’t view others through the lens of Melanin Levels.

Jacobs has explained that he was inspired by Lana Wachowski’s colourful hairstyle but his accusers are having none of it. Their anger ignores the fact that countless women of colour wear straight hair extensions, colour their hair blonde and chemically process their hair from a kinky texture to straight one.

It’s historically inaccurate to say that dreadlocks belong to black people. Dreadlocks or Jata hair originate from Hindu spirituality, as seen in the idol Shiva who had matted locks. This matted hair form was steeped in the practices of spiritual men in India before it was adopted by people of black origin. As for evidence relating to ancient texts, The Pharaohs wore dreads and the Biblical historical figure Samson is said to have had matted hair as a Nazarene.

The style was then embraced by the Ethiopian culture as seen in Spiritual leaders like Haile Selassie. It was later adopted during the political transformations in the 20th Century in Jamaica as a form of collective activism against the oppression of minorities.

Moreover, anyone can have dreadlocks. Although there are still dreadlock-wearers who embark on this journey for spiritual purposes or as a political statement, the majority of people, regardless of their skin colour, wear it purely as a personal style. One only has to avoid combing and washing their hair and it will naturally become matted and the strands will lock at the roots. This is a universal process, not something that happens only to people of colour.

So even if dark-skinned people invented dreadlocks, we must be mindful that although culture is important, it is not sacred. It embodies the philosophy of a group of people and, yes, it is usually on the bedrock of ethnicity, but it moves beyond countries and skin tones to purely an interest in shared values and ideas.

The Cultural Appropriation Priests need to separate their personal opinions from facts and from the science of hair. They must acknowledge that humans have engaged in the sharing of ideas and styles for centuries and this is a practice to celebrate – not demonise.


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