Halloween just passed, and for many of us, so have the slew of conversations surrounding cultural appropriation and political correctness that typically accompany it. In the fashion industry, however, the conversation is on a seemingly endless loop. Seldom a month passes without some designer or celebrity being accused of cultural appropriation, and for good reason. Both high fashion designers and style icons are indisputably dependent on possessing a degree of novelty. In fashion, what is old and worn out is effectively worthless, and in an age when true originality is nearly impossible, many designers look to other cultures for inspiration.
Most recently, Mark Jacobs was accused of cultural appropriation at New York Fashion Week in September after parading an overwhelmingly white group of models down the runway in woolen dreadlocks. The decision was controversial for obvious reasons, and Jacobs soon took to Instagram to dispute the claims. The designer argued that “all who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race or skin color wearing their hair in any particular style or manner—funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair. I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race—I see people,” Jacobs said.
The statement, which is problematic for multiple reasons, highlights one of the central misconceptions that leads designers to this kind of controversy. Jacobs took an all-too-familiar approach to the issue, essentially deciding to ignore the historical and cultural context of his stylistic decision. Logically, his argument might make sense: black women wear traditionally white hairstyles, so why shouldn’t white women be able to wear traditionally black hairstyles? But, as soon as one acknowledges the contexts of each, the argument essentially loses all validity. Through the years, black women, and all women of color, for that matter, have been pressured to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards. In contrast, white women and designers have notoriously appropriated styles from historically oppressed groups without acknowledgment of their significance.
Ask any fashion designer and they would likely say that fashion is art. What is it that gives art its significance, though? There’s a reason that not every artist that splatters paint on a canvas or throws a pot on the spinning wheel is renowned, and the reason goes beyond technique. Great art is great because it plays into or against its own cultural and historical context, and great fashion does the same. For a designer to deny that there is any context is for them to deny the significance of their own work.
One could argue the flipside to this and say that art is permitted to be offensive, and they would be entirely correct. There are many beautiful and important works of art whose intrinsic value and appeal feeds off of the internal tension that observing them brings to the viewer. There is one key difference between such works and Mark Jacobs’ dreadlock debacle, though: intention. While some art is created with the express purpose of making its viewer uncomfortable, Jacobs’s intent was clearly not to be offensive. His collection isn’t made more powerful by its provocative nature. Rather, the controversy detracts from it.
Ultimately, the only way for a designer to ensure that they won’t find themselves in a situation similar to that of Jacobs is by being both educated about and aware of the significance of the stylistic aspect that they are borrowing from another culture. In the case of Mark Jacobs, the dreadlock controversy could have been avoided by either including more women of color in the show or acknowledging the contribution in some other manner. In the end, fashion is art, and even truly excellent art has its critics. This is certainly not the end of Jacobs’ career, though, hopefully, it serves as motivation for him and other designers to enlighten themselves to the important interplay between historical and social context within high fashion.