Appropriating fashion isn’t offensive, it’s just embarrassing

Image credit: Kaique Rocha

Other than White Feminists making what they presumably consider funny, self-deprecating jokes about their own privilege, I don’t think there’s anything that makes me cringe more at Cambridge than a rich boy in an Adidas three-stripe. I don’t necessarily despise him for it; he’s not necessarily a classist for his fashion choices, but it’s certainly embarrassing to watch. This is not to say that appropriation isn’t offensive in certain circumstances – if not disgusting. When a swap theme is “dress like you come from a council estate”, and people ask you for advice on “how to dress road”, you know for sure that Cambridge students may be somewhat intelligent, but boy can they take ignorance to a whole other level without batting an eyelid.

In most instances, however, the “trust me, I bought this at Oxfam” aesthetic, while it prompts an inevitable eye roll from me, is not directly harmful. It’s not necessarily helpful to force people into restrictive categories, to say that certain brands are off-limits if your parents vote Tory. In fact, fashion right now is a ‘borrowing’ industry and it’s probably one of the least problematic aspects of it. Although their efforts can often backfire – notably the Vogue cover featuring a host of slender models of token ethnicities and one plus-size white model – editorials are being forced to increase representation by the efforts of young people, who are buying into social change as the new ‘cool’ and representation as a necessary prerequisite in the fashion and beauty industries.

Nevertheless, blatant forms of cultural appropriation, barring those which are specifically derogatory or insensitive, are an embarrassment to all. I mean, honey, that ‘Bollywood’ crop top would look better on my grandma than you. But when students get particularly caught up in attacking the highly-questionable fashion choices of their peers, I personally feel that deeper issues which need addressing at the University are being compromised.

It seems as though there is such an emphasis on issues revolving around appropriation, on calling out inappropriate bop themes and dress-codes, rather than standing up to discriminatory behaviours of academics which have such a severe impact on the experiences of BAME and working class students.

I understand that this perhaps stems from the fact that cultural appropriation has now been widely accepted as problematic; however, that doesn’t negate the reality that, in my experience, few students in a position of privilege at the University are willing to voice an opinion when it comes to directly tackling prejudice in academic situations. I suppose it is much easier to share ‘woke’ memes and convince yourself that you’re doing your bit.

In a broader sense, I think people often – and rightly may I add – take offense to cultural appropriation when it comes to fashion and beauty because it becomes clear in many cases that the individual is reaping all the aesthetic benefits of what they deem an ‘exotic’ or ‘street’ accessory without acknowledging or having any appreciation of the centuries of injustice and socio-economic difficulty which certain minority groups have been continuously subjected to. But I take a problem with some of the logic I see in the backlash too.

One particular example I can’t seem to shake is Kylie Jenner, who has, on multiple occasions, been called out for appropriating African-American standards of beauty for her lip and butt injections along with her insistence on braiding her hair in cornrows. A lot of the rhetoric surrounding the outrage is that of stolen beauty: why are these trademarks of African-American beauty suddenly desirable as a mainstream beauty ideal when a white woman is ‘enhanced’ by them? I would argue that, specifically on account of her attempts at appropriation, Kylie Jenner looks, quite frankly, like a hot mess. It is evident that her face, body, and fashion choices all form part of a meticulously constructed lie, which we can all see straight through. It’s safe to say that the features which are ours to own are those which suit us best. I don’t know if you saw the unedited pictures of Kim Kardashian’s backside, but those injections have had some hideous consequences. I reckon that’s payback enough.

It’s possible to change beauty standards simply by making decisions according to what common sense dictates; maybe having an Indian model on the cover of Vogue India rather than dressing Kendall in a sari. There’s not a doubt in my mind that this would be the most obvious and appropriate choice. I for one, would find it less embarrassing. However, let’s not count on the fashion industry – notoriously problematic in every conceivable sense of the word – for productive change at anything more than a snail’s pace.

On a similar note, aggressive Instagram comments left on celebrity posts aren’t going to have any significant effect on their behaviour – but ignoring or boycotting their endorsements probably will. The Kardashians can largely attribute their fame to public attention-seeking, without which they have little, if any, control over our lives. If it means unfollowing certain individuals on Instagram, refusing to read clickbait articles about what Kylie’s done to her hair now, and boycotting appropriative reality shows. There are methods of reclaiming cultural heritage and the forces dictating what is beautiful simply by refusing to take them seriously or give them any consideration whatsoever.

But such lifestyle choices, although in my opinion beneficial and necessary, are tiny adjustments which do not even come close to addressing matters as simple as establishing that discriminatory academic practices at the University are unacceptable. I don’t mean in a social environment where the academics can’t hear you; I mean speaking up in a supervision rather than sitting there looking at your shoes in a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt.

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