Fashion Has a Big Problem With Cultural Appropriation, but Not Yet a Solution
Kendall Jenner’s ‘Afro’ hairstyle left her and Vogue accused of cultural appropriation. The familiarity of such controversies suggests a fashion world that doesn’t want to learn.
When James O. Young published his book Cultural Appropriation in the Arts in 2008, he believed it was too late.
The philosopher and professor spent the 1990s and early 2000s studying how artists and musicians took influence from minority cultures in their work. But as the aughts came to a close, Young felt that the once fiery debate over appropriation and appreciation had lost some of its fervor.
“I thought, ‘No one is covering cultural appropriation in 2008. No one is ever going to read this book,’” Young told The Daily Beast. “I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Fortunately for Young’s book sales, but unfortunately for anyone who doesn’t appreciate getting a Google Alert any time the Kardashians step out in cornrows, it feels like everyone in the fashion world wants to cover cultural appropriation.
Just last week, Kendall Jenner drew Twitterati ire for wearing her hair in what many described as an Afro for a Vogue photoshoot.
The magazine did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, but it did release an statement to E! that read: “The image is meant to be an update of the romantic Edwardian/Gibson Girl hair which suits the period feel of the Brock Collection, and also the big hair of the ’60s and the early ’70s, that puffed-out, teased-out look of those eras. We apologize if it came across differently than intended, and we certainly did not mean to offend anyone by it.”
Dana Oliver, beauty director of Yahoo Lifestyle, believes that Vogue’s apology was unnecessary and stoked controversy rather than quelling it. “Just so we are clear: That wasn’t a ’fro, and everyone I know who is aware of that didn’t link it to cultural appropriation,” she told The Daily Beast.
While nothing unites our fractured republic quite like hating on Kendall Jenner, the model is hardly the only one to face viral eye-rolls. Remember the explosion of controversy around Karlie Kloss’ Vogue “geisha” shoot of 2017, for which Kloss apologized?
Whatever the nature of the perceived transgression, all cultural appropriation controversies now quickly blow up to a similar loud volume online.
Two weeks before Jenner’s snafu, beauty vlogger Jeffree Starr courted controversy by wearing green feed-in braids. This summer, Nicki Minaj was accused of fetishizing Asian stereotypes while promoting her single “Chun-Li,” which featured the rapper wearing red neon chopsticks in her hair.
Jenner’s half-sister Kim Kardashian West, who is frequently accused of capitalizing on black culture, was dragged for wearing Fulani braids to the MTV Movie Awards in July.
In late 2016, Marc Jacobs’ NYFW show featured white models in dreads, a move he stood by on Instagram, writing the tell-tale “I don’t see color or race—I see people.” (A year later, Jacobs backtracked, telling InStyle he might have been “insensitive.”)
Every controversy (or, when the Kardashians are involved, Kontroversy) follows a predictable news cycle: A celebrity, publication, or designer is called out for cultural appropriation. Cerebral wars are raged over social media, and everyone is encouraged to “do better.” An apology may or may not follow, and then fashionistas move on—until it happens again.
While Young isn’t sure what prompted the appropriation renaissance, he has a few theories. “We’re living in a time of pretty heightened political sensibilities, and I think the rise of concern over cultural appropriation is part and parcel of the deeper division in America,” he explained.
Plus, just about anyone can post their own woke fireside chat in 140 characters or less: “People are free to pontificate on these issues, and they don’t hesitate to do so before they do a little bit of research.”
Young believes it’s “impossible” for artists not to absorb a foreign influence into their work. “We live in a society where people are constantly bumping up against each other,” he explained. “You can’t help but notice what other cultures are doing and wearing.”
But noticing and paying homage are different from outright stealing and claiming it as new. Part of what makes cultural appropriation debates so contentious is that many view mainstream fashion attempting to “legitimize” or whitewash styles that existed long before Kendall Jenner showed up on set.
Given that the cycle of these controversies shows no signs of abating, what is the fashion world doing to address them, learn from them, or change its ways? And does it want to? Racism and a lack of awareness in the fashion industry, whether on the runway, at a magazine shoot, or in the experiences of people of color who work in fashion are long-ingrained.
Celebrity hairstylist Tym Wallace remembers that for most of his career, it was a liability to be known as a “black” hairstylist.
Wallace, who counts Taraji P. Henson and Tiffany Haddish as clients, recalled how “I was told that I needed a majority of white girls in my book [portfolio] to be considered a good artist. I thought for a long time that I had to shoot with white models and have the white girls show how great I am.”
Similarly, when Oliver was a teenager, she noticed how white girls at her high school would try out wearing finger waves or pin curls for prom, only to go back to their “fresh blowouts or ponytails” the next day. “They never, or rarely, endured the side-eyes or sly comments” that black women are forced to endure, Oliver said.
Years later, “Designers and hairstylists have culturally appropriated looks that are deemed ‘unkempt,’ ‘unprofessional,’ or ‘ghetto’ when worn by black women. Suddenly, these styles are ‘it’ or ‘trendy,’” she said.
Kyle Malone, a New York hairstylist and Fashion Week regular, said he’s observed art directors “cracking down” on appropriation and admits that he has rethought certain ideas that could be insensitive.
Two years ago, Malone styled a New York Fashion Week show. He considered sending white models down the runway in Afros but ultimately refrained because he “knew it was going to get weird.”
Instead, Malone “toned that down and did different shapes and textures so that it didn’t spark up any controversy. You don’t want to be perceived as the hairstylist or the makeup artist or the stylist who is trying to make people upset,” he said.
That said, stylists aren’t always willing to give up on their creative autonomy so quickly. “If I’m given the freedom to do something that might offend someone, I’m not going to do it unless I feel strongly that it’s the direction I want to take,” Malone said. “You can’t please everybody. It’s up to the the artist to do things in good taste, which I hope I do.”
It’s hard to imagine white editors of fashion magazines, or even the ever-polarizing Kendall Jenner, sitting around in plush leather seats trying to come up with egregiously disrespectful ideas.
So why does it keep happening? Could it be a mixture of insensitivity, ignorance, and a failure within editorial structures—especially when it comes to a lack of diverse staffers—to recognize problematic content?
The Daily Beast sought comment from editors at Teen Vogue, Vogue UK, Allure, Elle, Marie Claire, and The Fashion Spot, a news site that publishes annual reports on diversity in the industry. All outlets either declined to be interviewed or didn’t respond to repeated requests.
The fashion world is a notoriously elitist institution, where loyalty is valued and NDAs reign. For artists who have spent their careers vying for a byline or credit, fears of insubordination or coming off as difficult can make it tough to vocalize concerns.
“There are some [people] who just want to be at the table so badly that they don’t care,” Wallace suggested. “It’s a crab in a barrel mentality—everybody’s fighting to get to the top.”
Oliver said it’s her “mission” to teach junior staffers and interns to speak up when they’re uncomfortable, although it shouldn’t be down to the one black or LGBT or female member of staff to point out something suspect or not right.
Oliver acknowledged that white colleagues have passed responsibility on her to double check their work, just because she’s a black woman.
“It’s tokenizing and tiring, but I realize that I have an immense responsibility as a black beauty director to use my voice to educate my white colleagues,” she said.
Let's hope they’re listening, learning, and understanding, and not just waiting to get the OK from a minority co-worker before going on with their day.
Young thinks people who get loud about potentially insensitive editorials are missing the point. For him, what a model’s hair looks like on the cover of Vogue is much less harmful than the violence, bigotry, and institutionalized racism minorities face every day.
“Those are things to get upset about, to resist and fight,” he said. “Hoop earrings are so trivial.”
But what about when a look, such as the Afro Jenner may or may not have been channeling, is more than just a look? “Afros are not a hairstyle—they were a movement,” Wallace said. “It was so much more than a cool hairstyle to us.”
This is what fashion editors and taste-makers need to understand. Until they do, the cycle of cultural appropriation controversies will continue.