Cultural Appreciation vs. Cultural Appropriation

by Khalilah Jones | Featured Image by John Visions
Model: Micah Washington
Wardrobe Styling: Khalilah Jones

Listen, we all know that trends come and go, especially those related to fashion. More often than not, people will take up a unique new fashion trend without a thought as to where it has come from. As a person that feels that my clothing and personal style are a means of self expression, I understand that for many cultures, there is usually a deep-rooted history behind why and what they choose to wear. This is where cultural appropriation comes into play.

Fashion and style, particularly within the Black culture, has such a deep history and meaning. I for one have definitely rocked my Sunday’s Best “for the culture”. Think Black Panther opening, Juneteenth celebrations, Black History Month and even just a random Melanin Monday (okay, I made that one up but you get the gist). I am a strong proponent of cultural appreciation over appropriation. With that being said, I really encourage people to educate themselves to know why we have worn the things we have in the past. It’s such an in-depth thing that I wish people would understand more. 

As we discussed our plans to attend a concert, I was once asked by a non-person of color, why Black people dress up for everything and nothing? I had to explain to her that it is deeper than an “outfit”. We have to go 10 times harder in absolutely every aspect of our lives and STILL are overlooked and undervalued. Our appearance and image are the one thing that we can absolutely own with a je ne sais quoi that others try to emulate (usually unsuccessfully).

As a Black woman, I know, but so many do not even realize, that a significant number of the trends that circulate around the world of fashion began within the Black community.

From tracksuits to bucket hats and even bodycon dresses, many of the items that are considered heavily “stylish” and “trendy” now were not always thought of in the same light. Trends that begin within the Black community cycle to mainstream fashion after the novelty has worn off and they have lost association with Black culture. 

As a young Black girl skipping thru elementary school playgrounds and then strutting through high school halls, a lot of the things that we did to our hair like beads, braids, bobos and barrettes or adorned our bodies with such as oversized cross-color pants with cropped tops or clothes worn backwards a’la Kris Kross, were made fun of. Inevitably, it was something that we were made to feel silly for. We really had to work to accept ourselves and own these looks. That is why people are drawn to what is different and eye-catching. Not even recognizing that ultimately, they are drawn to the confidence and swag that can only be cultivated from a deep, radical, unapologetic self acceptance rooted in culture! It is so disheartening because a lot of times, that same “trend” or “style” will be praised once adopted into white culture.

Photo by Tuff Got a Shot

I am not going to lie, as a Black woman in the wardrobe styling and image consulting world, watching fashion trends explode onto the scene can be incredibly frustrating. This is a pain point, not only because our community was often the one to wear an item first but also because many Black designers are not at all as widely praised, compensated or recognized as their white counterparts when it comes to designing the items.

It is extremely difficult to watch something that was once mocked when our culture introduced the style, become “all the rage” when it is taken up by mainstream culture.

There are countless fashion trends derived from Black women and Black people in general.

Fashion trends, like bucket hats and shoulder bags, were popularized by Black women so many years ago but were reintroduced as a mainstream fashion trend.

The difference between how the trends are perceived is just how it’s associated with Black people. As soon as Black people are erased from those trends (much like the intentional erasure and white washing in school books, but I digress), it’s a popular trend and becomes the new thing, but when it’s popular in our community, it becomes weird and ghetto.

While it would seem the popularity of trends coming up from Black culture would seem to be all positive for the community, there are challenges that arise from having our original ideas be taken, manipulated and used in ways we did not intend.

Photo by Tuff Got a Shot

There is such a dichotomy and it is super complicated because on one hand, the popularity definitely does sometimes bring more awareness to Black designers and their brands and we are not hating that!  But on the other hand, there are also so many white designers that create the same product and those are more popular because they catapult to the mainstream much quicker, which takes away well deserved money and due credit from the Black designer.

The idea of cultural appropriation is not an easy one to understand. When it comes to clothing, most individuals just want everyday people to have a slightly better understanding of where their clothing comes from. It is a tough pill to swallow knowing that they love our swag, style and je ne sais quoi and all the good and exciting aspects of the Black culture but refuse to fight the good fight with us when it is most important.

What makes it such a challenge with clothing is the fact that you can’t necessarily say a culture “owns” a piece of clothing, even if the culture made it popular. I personally feel frustrated to know that so many people did not appreciate these trends when we were wearing them but then changed their mind as soon as they transcended to mainstream and ultimately minimized the significance of our contribution to pop culture.

More intentionality and research is what our communities that so often have their trends used with absolutely no context or not a lick of homage given back to the rightful owner, is what we seek.

If nothing else, I would like for others to understand that as Black people, when we talk about fashion, it’s not just about textiles, colors, fit and style. A lot of times, this is such a bold and necessary act of self expression and is a prominent part of who we are. Put some respect on it. Embrace appreciation over appropriation.

Until next time…

Stylishly yours,

 

 

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