Inappropriate Appropriation

A man wearing a Native American headdress, an example of cultural appropriation (Wikipedia image).

12:00 p.m.– Friday, January 5, 2018. The halls of my high school flooded with groups of friends buzzing in eager anticipation of the release of Coachella tickets. Each person with a computer open, finger hovering over the keyboard, ready to press the button to buy tickets.

Later that night, my classmates started posting pictures from last year’s Coachella, their excitement for the music festival illuminating my phone screen. However, amidst all the elation, I couldn’t help but notice the troubling cultural appropriation that also filled the pictures. In the backgrounds of nearly every photo I saw, there were young women wearing bindis and feathered headdresses, and young men wearing war paint. Unfortunately, this insensitivity to and misappropriation of cultures is not specific to Coachella, nor is it a new problem in fashion.

In 2015, mostly white women in cornrows walked the Valentino Paris Fashion Week show in the brand’s collection inspired by “wild, tribal Africa.” Valentino then promoted the collection as “primitive, tribal, spiritual yet regal.” With the use of the “yet,” Valentino set the cultures and traditions of African people in contrast with regality. To top it all off, out of the 87 models in the show, only 8 were black.

In 2016, Marc Jacobs sent many white models down the runway in wool dreadlocks. Last year at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, models wore headdresses inspired by Indigenous cultures and necklaces and robes inspired by the Maasai tribe of Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania.

For years, fashion designers have created collections by taking from other cultures and completely disregarding the significance of cultural symbols, jewelry, hairstyles, and clothing from which they draw “inspiration.” What’s more, they almost never give credit to the source, much less express appreciation for where these things came from.

With designers constantly modeling cultural appropriation as an “it trend,” it has infiltrated many aspects of society: social media, music festivals, and even Halloween. It seems that there isn’t widespread understanding that misappropriating a culture trivializes its history and the oppression of minority and marginalized groups. White people taking what they deem beautiful and valuable from people of color, and then ignoring them at best and contributing to their ongoing oppression at worst, is a story that far predates any fashion week, but we can so clearly see the continuing manifestations of this phenomenon in the fashion industry.

Additionally, seeing the high level of cultural appropriation combined with a clear preference for white models over models of color, illuminates the lack of representation for women of color in the fashion industry. White people are taking from the cultures of people of color, while simultaneously denying people of color opportunities.

There needs to be a reckoning in the fashion industry when it comes to cultural appropriation, and soon. With more and more people recognizing this problem and pointing it out, continuing to do it is just plain tone-deaf, and totally unacceptable. Brands need to realize that other people’s cultures are not there to be cherry-picked and made into the latest fashion trends.

When Coachella arrives this year, I will no longer be a silent observer to this phenomenon. We need to learn how to actually appreciate and honor cultures by putting an end to cultural appropriation. 

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Heller, Sofia. "Inappropriate Appropriation." 19 February 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 24, 2024) <>.