When Does Inspiration Turn Into Cultural Appropriation?

I see it in every other fashion headline, with every other outlandish re-invention of a pop star, with the smallest details of a shirt that’s supposed to lend you a notion of cool—cultural appropriation.

In an article in The New York Times, cultural appropriation is a damaging topic tied to the white man’s privilege, “a word now associated with the white Western world’s co-opting of minority cultures.” It happens when a high-end luxury French brand turned an aboriginal tool into a thousand dollar collector’s piece. It happens when Kylie Jenner decides to release camouflage pieces for her clothing line, the word popped up when Marc Jacobs sent white models with dreadlocks down the runway.

But appropriation can be confusing especially when we think about inspiration. Every piece of art, every fashion trend, and every other story whether told through book pages or on-screen has been influenced or inspired by another piece that came before it. Pablo Picasso is oft ascribed to the saying “Good artists copy, great artists steal” and the same thought permuted from T.S. Elliot to even Steve Jobs.

So where does one draw the line between being inspired and culture? And what can we do to reprimand the people who cross the line?

“The idea of cultural appropriation is a deeply rooted issue, but something that should not be demonized, when it is a contribution to the arts in the contemporary world, and through cultural appropriation, certain critical ouvres and masterpieces have been created,” says Jean Cruz, a cultural worker for a museum. She cites what we’ve established earlier in how the great artists continuously influence modern works. “Cultural appropriation by way of a transferral of ideas from culture to culture, according to James Young (a philosopher who did a study on cultural appropriation) had given conception like Jazz, or the works of William Shakespeare through subject appropriation in his plays—whose elements of drama have been appropriated by cultures around the world.”

In this we find another definition of cultural appropriation: an exchange of ideas and concepts to enrich one another. Jean cites how there are events such as the International Festival of Extraordinary Textiles that is “entirely dedicated to the intercultural exchange of crafts and textiles, marrying the themes of cultural history, tradition, and the preservation of heritage.”

But things get sticky when entertainment, mainstream fashion, and money get into the mix. For example, when Chanel released a boomerang with their iconic logo and sold it for $1,325, the price wasn’t the only thing that got eyebrows raising. It was when it sent a message that wasn’t taken quite well. The boomerang became just a throwaway piece (no pun intended) meant to display the ridiculousness of luxury. It didn’t loop back to how it meant so much to the aboriginal Australian culture. It then looked like a designer house was belittling a symbol of cultural heritage of a certain group of people.

When something is made into a trend, that thing is calibrated to something that is passing. This is why it is insulting when a certain cultural feature, which people have adapted and used in their different struggles, is reduced to the must-have item for the season. Or the whim of a superstar’s costume. It’s why Katy Perry had to apologize for donning a geisha costume for her AMA performance (among many other similar cases of cultural appropriation) Mic writes, “Between the lack of Asian women on stage, the heavy-handed use of bowing and shuffling around in the choreography, and the ethno-confused set and costume design, Perry presented her viewers a one-dimensional Eastern fantasy drawn by a Western eye right out of the gate.”

But cultural appropriation just doesn’t occur in the gaze of Orientalism. Take for example how sisters Kendall and Kylie Jenner suffered major backlash for superimposing their faces on hip-hop icons and rock stars. Local streetwear designer Rik Rasos weighs in,“Fashion should be fun and we don’t have to take ourselves seriously all the time. But people are very passionate with what they believe in, especially their idols. Maybe people think that these girls have not earned their stripes yet to do that.”

From what culture you’re drawing a reference from to who is doing the reference and if they are doing it right, a lot of it can be avoided with just one word: research. Rik says that an inspiration crosses the line when “you don’t immerse yourself in the culture and understand it completely.”

Almost the same thing rings true for designer Jeffrey Rogador, who loves using Filipino symbols in his runway creations, “We should always be sensitive and careful about everything especially when we do things that deal with race, color, religion, and gender. As a designer, it’s good to be updated and to keep up with modern times but we shouldn’t disregard our values and ethics.”

With social media, our world is growing smaller and it may lead us to believe that we’re “discovering” new things—like the girls at Coachella who found Native American headdresses the perfect way to cap off their cutesy ensemble—but this shouldn’t be your excuse. Next time you find something unusual to you or a novelty in your wardrobe, look closer and think: Is there a bigger story behind it?


Art by Anfernee Dy 

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