ENTITY discusses whether fashion brings cultures together or pushes them further apart

First, let’s be clear about what I mean by fashion. Fashion is not to be confused with style.  Style is personal. Fashion is universal. Although used interchangeably, style refers to the individual, whereas fashion refers to society. 

Since fashion is universal, rather than personal, it can tell us a lot about how people within a certain society view and relate to one another.

Sometimes we see fashion uniting people, other times it divides people.  Because fashion is something external we put on, we literally wear our commonalities and differences on our sleeves. Let’s look at a few instances of when fashion has brought us together and when fashion has torn us apart.

entity discusses both the unifying and divisive nature of fashion

Politics and Fashion

When people want to bring about change their first step is to consider what will have the most impact. Political dressing is one sure way to effectively get your point across because you are wearing your beliefs on your sleeve.  Political dressing is a concerted effort by a group of individuals to call attention to a social issue. This ultimately causes fashion and politics to bring people together through a common cause.

Exhibit A: The Black Panthers

image via Twitter/@bobbysealecom

In the 1960s and 70s, The Black Panther Party’s uniform had an “urban militant” look. By presenting themselves through fashion as a military, the group exuded a sense of strength. Their clothing supported their mission of protecting the rights and interests of African-Americans by “any means necessary” during a time when the government was failing to protect its darker-skinned citizens. The Black Panther uniform became iconic. It represented the Black Power movement and the strength it took for one marginalized group to obtain equality.

The Black Panther uniform is so iconic that even Queen B. herself took inspiration from it. Beyonce referenced the Black Panthers’ political dress to pay tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement during her 2013 Superbowl performance.

ENTITY discusses fashion and culture

While we’re talking about Beyonce, let’s not forget how she brought down the house at Coachella this year when she saluted Historically Black College and Universities (HBCU) everywhere by rocking Black Greek letters. We all wanted to be Beta Phi Bey in that moment!

ENTITY discusses fashion and culture

Exhibit B: Hollywood Stars Dress in Black to Support the #TimesUp Movement

After the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault and harassment scandal shined a light on Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, many believed there needed to be a next step. There needed to be a way for victims of sexual assault to find an action-oriented solution. A group of over 300  Hollywood women started the #TimesUp movement,  a national call to change for women dealing with sexual harassment and inequality. By wearing black during the Golden Globe awards, the women of Hollywood used political dress to stand in solidarity. Although Eva Longoria tells the New York Times that this “is a moment of solidarity, not a fashion moment”, there’s no denying that fashion is the tool people are using to make a political statement. This was a powerful instance where women of all cultures used fashion to come together.

entity discusses fashion

image via Instagram/@metootimesup

Fashion and Art

Not everyone can travel. Art is an important way for people to see into other cultures and people. As an imitation of life, art will always be a distinct aspect of fashion. Movies and Broadway bring fashions from different parts of the world center stage to show us cultures we wouldn’t otherwise know about.

Exhibit A: Stage

Designers see fashion as one of their biggest inspirations. If you have ever seen a play, you will notice how the fashion sets the tone for the time period. From Ancient Rome to the Medieval Period to the 1980s Punk, street looks and trends influence some of the most incredible costumes on the stage.

Exhibit B: Film

Movie costume and looks also inspire us. Phenomenal women like Diana Ross and Marilyn Monroe became fashion icons through film roles. In Mahogany, Ross plays a poor design student who makes it big as a fashion designer and no one can forget that timeless purple look. Similarly, Monroe forever changed white dresses in The Seven Year Itch. Both of these movie costumes will come down as two of the most iconic looks in fashion history. Women from all around the world and of all different cultural backgrounds find inspiration from these classic looks.

Left to right, Diana Ross (via Instagram @violetcityvintage) and Marilyn Monroe (via Wikipedia)

Cultural Appropriation

When many different ideas are brought together through cultural exchange, elements of the minority culture get adopted by the dominant culture, usually without permission. When this happens, it is called cultural appropriation. 

Fashion thrives off of color, shape and cultural references. Fashion often gathers inspiration from around the world. However, sometimes the way the fashion industry finds “inspiration” looks more like stealing.

Cultural appropriation is taking another’s culture and calling it your own or adopting their traditions under the assumption that it is appropriate for you. Every culture is fascinating and unique. But you shouldn’t take elements of one culture and claim it as your own or claim that you’ve invented a “new trend.”

We can’t forget how the esteemed fashion brand Marc Jacobs tried to take credit for creating the African hairstyle Bantu knots by renaming them “twisted mini buns.” While there was major outrage from the black community over this thievery, it also brought awareness to the age-old African style as people nationwide were able to learn where the fashionable hair trend truly originated. The problem was not that white models sported the hair trend, but that the designers did not acknowledge its roots.

entity discusses fashion

Image via Instagram/@johnthefame

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first or the last case of cultural appropriation. The fashion industry has been taking ideas from marginalized groups without giving them credit for years.

Take it from the indigenous community whose sacred prints, leatherwork designs, and beaded appliqués have been thrown together and copied for centuries without them receiving credit or asked permission. Vogue covered a group of six indigenous designers taking a stand for native fashion. Designer Bethany Yellowtail of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribe says: “The biggest misconception about indigenous design is that it’s all the same. Crows are very different than Navajos, and Cheyennes are very different than Ojibwes. It’s really important to tell those stories through our design.”

Photo via Instagram / @byellowtail

For decades the western fashion industry has taken notice of Chinese fashion and innovative trends. After realizing how Western fashion fetishizes the East as “this culture of unbridled inspiration and creativity,” Andrew Bolton, head curator of a museum in China, said, “Many designers tend to look to other cultures, even their own cultures really, on a very surface level. It’s about aesthetics really, and they often don’t engage with the cultural context.”

Inspiration Without Appropriation

Is imitation the same as appropriation? Not exactly. Fashion designer Carolina Herrera explains that  “Fashion has always been a repetition of ideas, but what makes it new is the way you put it together.”

It is not wrong to gather inspiration from other cultures. Nor is it wrong to want to wear what they’ve created. But it is important to respect the cultural context of the fashion and acknowledge its origins. When mainstream fashion attempts to disguise the origins of its inspiration or wrongfully claim trends of other cultures as their own, that is when fashion creates division.

While the fashion industry must take greater strides to respect different cultures and avoid appropriation, its power to initiate positive change has an important unifying influence that brings cultures together. Let’s use fashion responsibly so that it is a force for unity not division.

Edited by Chloe Lew

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