Whose style is it, anyway? Fashion and cultural narrative

Source: Google Images

Fashion is a political narrative. What we wear does more than make a statement: it embodies a story. For those chuck-on-yesterday’s-bolognaise-stained-tee kinds of guys, stay with me. Fashion is an art form and a two-trillion-pound global industry, and in virtue of both is powerful.

Sometimes fashion is overtly political – wearing rainbow laces says you’re all for love and love for all, wearing your fro fat and jacket black symbolises the Black Panthers, a star-studded beret represents Che. Even in your everyday get up, you’re telling a story. Your Rachel-cut and mom jeans, your Top Gun aviators, your Land Army cords, are all cultural references.

Black Panther gathering for a funeral
from the book “Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers” by Stephen Shames

It’s important to look at these cultural references through the lens of ethnicity. (NOTE: I know that ‘culture’ and ‘ethnic’ are euphemisms for ‘coloured’ or ‘exotic’ when the press is talking about Meghan Markle, but white counts as an ethnicity with associated cultures too). Ethnic cultural narratives are often warped, reclaimed, and warped again by the dominant narrative, allowing a quick airbrush of history.

Enter: cultural appropriation *readers either roll eyes dismissively or nod vigorously at the sight of a liberal buzzword*. Let’s break it down. Essentially, cultural appropriation means making a claim on a narrative that isn’t yours to make. Central cases in fashion occur when a style is taken from a marginalised group and crudely brought into the mainstream. On a macro-scale, co-opting these narratives to gain credit or make money cheapens, misrepresents and tokenises that culture. On an individual level, it can be painful. A Black friend of mine was bullied mercilessly for wearing big ‘ghetto’ hoop earrings, until of course, a white girl came into school with her totally adorable totally original silver hoops, making them the next big thing. (NOTE: we’re focusing on ethnicity here, but let’s briefly tip our hats to the appropriation of working class culture – the phenomenon of Eton boys in Doc Martens and Dickies).

‘High fashion’ is what we call those outfits that look like they’re pulled from the trash or from a 70s sci-fi flick, exhibited on the runway. Designer items are incredibly expensive, because they’re valued as art. High fashion is a killer for cultural appropriation, a classic example being Black hairstyles. Black people wearing braids and dreadlocks face stereotyping, bullying and work-place discrimination, but when adorning a cat-walk Kendall Jenner, those same styles are celebrated. Dreadlocks have a rich heritage in Rastafari culture and beyond, braids have an intimate role in Black culture – but this new narrative says, “Look at this quirky thing Kendall’s trying out! Don’t worry, it’s not real: here today, gone tomorrow.” She’s missing the roots.

Embed from Getty Images

These high-fashion designs then get translated into a less wacky format that’s easily reproducible on a mass scale. High-street fast fashion is incredibly cheap because the labour is predominantly phenomenally exploitative. Clothes sold to the West are made in factories just distant enough that the consumers don’t care anymore (let’s not pretend that Leicester is the only place where boohoo are mistreating workers). Of the five imports into the UK at highest risk of having modern slavery in the supply chain, ‘apparel and clothing accessories’ has the highest value. Source countries include India, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brazil and Argentina.

Fast fashion boosts runway appropriation into hyperdrive, diluting a garment’s origins so much they’re barely visible. These days, anyone on the beach with some hot-pink fabric draped over her shoulders is wearing a kimono. Mission accomplished – the narrative has successfully been warped and its nuanced Japanese heritage is long gone.

What about the shiny new millennial branch, ‘conscious fashion’? Beginning with groups like Fairtrade, it attempted to make high-street products while still paying fair wages, and the movement (thankfully) is spreading. (NOTE: Please don’t get this mixed up with H&M’s ‘conscious’ range, which is little more than barely legal propaganda justified by a tonne of small print). Fairtrade attempts to champion creations of workers from around the globe. However, it often attracts yet another niche of white consumers with thick dreads, who looooove “African-print” headscarves and adooooore harem (‘gap-yah’) pants. This isn’t quite the sensitivity we were looking for.

Fairtrade is not the saviour of the clothing industry, but it is still a significant improvement. We also need to be wary of our economic privilege, and thoughtful about our priorities. It’s likely that a factory worker in Bangladesh cares much more about unionisation than appropriation, and this calls for our solidarity. But as well as designers and creators, fashion also has an audience, for whom cultural tokenisation is just one more way in which they are forced to the side-lines. What we want is genuine recognition of international high fashion, so that the stories of our clothes can be told in full.