As an ever-changing industry, hairstyles, clothing and makeup techniques go in and out of style in the blink of an eye. Though it may seem as if trends are born out of thin air, they are often born of the appropriation of styles from marginalized communities toward the creation of mainstream fashion, according to Women's Wear Daily.
Cultural appropriation is as much a part of the modern fashion industry as is innovation, and it can take the shape of just about any form of self-presentation. While many white, cisgender, heterosexual celebrities, along with other normative people in our society have benefitted from the appropriation of non-mainstream fashion, the marginalized communities that those fashion sensibilities originated from are left without the appropriate credit or compensation for their labor, according to Frankie Flores, director of the University of New Mexico LGBTQ Resource Center.
“It makes us feel invisible. I think that this appropriation makes us feel like we are once again valued only for our labor and not for our actual production … We are left devalued and we are left reminded that the ways that we dress, and the ways that we talk and the language that we use are available for white consumption with no thought of Black or brown reciprocation,” Flores said.
Just as designers have pushed fashion forward across the years, so have everyday people who exist outside of mainstream culture, according to Andrea Mays, an American studies professor and member of the Feminist Research Institute at UNM. Cultural appropriation has played a very specific role for people considered “normative” by societal standards.
“Historically, particularly for marginalized communities, this has been the case with issues of clothing, fashion and style. What has been perceived by the mainstream as transgressive choices about attire have been deployed by sort of normative, mainstream folks as an expression of their nonconformity,” Mays said.
Mays identified the act of dressing the body as a performance that signals belonging, and that messages of nonconformity conveyed by dress are not inherently harmful on their own, though they can quickly become problematic and appropriative.
“When I say that mainstream culture often appropriates what's considered transgressive or marginal fashion or clothing choices … First and foremost: clothing, fashion, makeup and all of that is personal expression, right? It's all about how you want to display yourself publicly. It's, ‘I'm hip, I'm cool, I'm nonconforming, etc.’ and I think that’s fine. But it can be troubling when marginalized and stigmatized groups get heat, targeted or stereotyped for applying those same fashion sensibilities in their lives,” Mays said.
In combination with the process of cultural appropriation being wielded as a form of social gain for normative individuals, Mays also positioned power and control as being at the center of the issue. She said that those with the most power — whether that be racial, social, gender or class power — set the terms for what are and are not acceptable modes of self-expression.
“Who controls what you can wear? Who sets those terms? Who controls the discourse around what's appropriate? Who has the money and the power to say, ‘You know what, I'm going to put lip liner on, or I'm going to wear dreadlocks, or I'm going to do whatever because I have enough societal approbation to do what I want to do, including adopt what are considered unconventional or transgressive fashion choices.’ But at the bottom of it, it's the same. It's power,” Mays said.
Flores also said that with the appropriation of various styles created by marginalized communities comes a new sense of restriction and exclusivity that causes the originators of these styles to no longer have to access them.
Another critical component of this phenomenon is that while a certain clothing or makeup style might eventually be seen as exclusive or high fashion on some bodies, on its originators it often retains the certain negative connotation that made it transgressive in the first place. In reference to this point, Flores commented on the highly coveted “clean girl” aesthetic that has recently arisen on the social media platform Tik Tok.
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They critiqued this aesthetic by noting its origins in Black and Latinx communities and how some of the markers of this trend, including hair slicked back into a bun, were signifiers of low economic status and working in fast food or custodial industries. They stated that for people in positions of privilege, appropriation is like trying on aesthetics as if they were costumes without having to deal with the repercussions that marginalized people face.
“The Mad TV skit, 'Bon Qui Qui,' it was a skit with a woman who was Latina and she had slicked-back hair and she would wear hoops and lip liner with lip gloss and the joke about it was it was ghetto … There’s a real cultural and socioeconomic signifier with this, and now we have people like Hailey Bieber who is looking cute, and fresh and flirty, right? And it's not. You want to appropriate lower socioeconomic status, but you don't want to acknowledge the trauma that is there,” Flores said.
Flores also spoke about the importance of giving marginalized people the credit they deserve for their fashion and presentation choices, while also allowing them to dress in ways that make them feel comfortable and confident.
“When I can feel comfortable and proud of the way that I look, I can navigate this world in much more effective ways. I can go to class, I can get my homework done, I can finish my degree, I can do all of these things. So, the ways that we dress and the ways that we show ourselves are more than just an aesthetic: it is a lifeline for so many of us,” Flores said.
Though the fashion industry may have a frivolous connotation attached to it, fashion and self-expression are far deeper than some might think, and as consumers of fashion we have a responsibility to be mindful of how our choices impact not only ourselves, but those around us.
Sierra Martinez is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sierraaspen11