For this post, we challenged ourselves to put together the most *American* outfits we could without doing any online research to see how much influence other cultures have on our sense of style.
In short, we failed. Miserably.
Literally none of the styles we chose originated in America. Then, we did some more research and found that the only styles that truly got their start in the United States are blue jeans and western wear.
This exercise was truly eye-opening because we saw firsthand that if we hadn’t taken styles from other cultures, there essentially would be no fashion in this country.
So, that brings us back to the idea of cultural appropriation. When is it okay to take ideas from other cultures and when is it disrespectful?
I remember people getting upset about things like the name, “The Washington Redskins,” or even more recently, not liking that Kendall and Kylie put their faces on t-shirts with the names of Tupac and other African American artists, but I didn’t realize there was a name for it: cultural appropriation. The definition of cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.
As someone who is half Puerto Rican, I do understand this on a personal level. Particularly when people use bits and pieces of Spanish without really knowing what they mean, like adding “el” before certain words and “o” after them , like “el car-o” to be funny and make those words sound Hispanic.
It’s not that big of a deal to me because I know most people who do this are just trying to be funny and aren’t trying to be disrespectful, but I understand why it is offensive to some people. Taking some aspects of a language and using them improperly is not respectful to that language and the people who speak it.
As we all know, America is a melting pot of different cultures. With so many different types of people coming to the States, cultures and lifestyles are bound to mix and take on aspects of other traditions. There are definitely reasons to tread cautiously when it comes to clothes, art, or anything from other cultures, but without this amazing conglomeration of people and ideas, we would not have things like Chicago-style pizza or New York Fashion Week.
I was researching cultural appropriation for this post because I actually didn’t even know what it was before Sabrina brought it up to me. I found this incredible article on how to approach cultural appropriation in a positive way, and I could not have put it any better myself:
“In the 21st century, cultural appropriation—like globalization—isn’t just inevitable; it’s potentially positive. We have to stop guarding cultures and subcultures in efforts to preserve them. It’s naïve, paternalistic, and counterproductive. Plus, it’s just not how culture or creativity work. The exchange of ideas, styles, and traditions is one of the tenets and joys of a modern, multicultural society. So how do we move past the finger pointing, and co-exist in a way that’s both creatively open and culturally sensitive? In a word, carefully.”
-The Atlantic, “The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation”
If we limited ourselves to just ‘American’ culture and didn’t share with others, we would not have much at all. Blending cultures and lifestyles is what makes America, America.
So, if you like good music, good food, and good fashion, we should probably keep mixing cultures (respectfully).
To be completely honest, I did not understand why people got upset about cultural appropriation until fairly recently. I thought that people should be happy and feel honored if another culture borrowed one of their ideas and showcased it. (Boy was I wrong.)
I finally understood why people got upset about it when girls started wearing shirts and toting coffee mugs with the phrase, “Nama’stay in Bed,” emblazoned on them. Namaste is a Hindi greeting, and one time when I asked a girl wearing one of those shirts if she knew what “Namaste” meant or even what language it came from, she had no clue. As someone who is half Indian, that’s when I got a little offended and realized that there’s a right way and a wrong way to borrow from other cultures.
It is acceptable to borrow another culture’s idea if you know the meaning behind it and you treat it respectfully. Such as, if a clothing company used tribal print on one of their artisan-crafted handbags and also told a story about creator of the bag and the origin of the print in the description, this would be acceptable. On the other hand, if a company put a Native American headdress on one of their Caucasian, underwear-clad models for a runway show, that is not okay (ahem, Victoria’s Secret).
Sharing between cultures is something that is unavoidable–and honestly desirable–if we want to bring cultures closer together. But, there is a right way to do it by honoring the history of the cultural idea and the people who came up with it, and a wrong way to do it, which is ignoring everything except the aesthetic value of the idea.
Learn before you wear.
Photos by: H+L Creations