cultural appropriation, yes or no?


Perennial concerns about cultural appropriation seem to be heightened in today’s political climate. I often think we might be focused on the semantics too much and too little on the intentions or the artistic expression. If one takes some aspect of a culture that is not one’s own, simply to exploit by appropriating, that’s shameful. But…

Intelligent people have always appropriated.

It’s one aspect of what being “cultured” means. You’ve read a thing or two, you’ve traveled a bit, you’ve experienced some aspects of other people’s cultures and you want to keep re-experiencing them. Still, I cringe these days when I see yet another woman dressed in, say, “Frida Kahlo” fashion

Really, another flower crown, penciled on eyebrows, and Mexican “peasant” shirt?

On the other hand, Frida was brave, a unique talent, and a memorable beauty, and what we do when we imitate her is to pay homage to her beauty and style. When we dress like her we’re appropriating not just her Mexican culture, we’re also trying to grasp her magic, and what’s wrong with that?  

In a society as multicultural as ours, we have access to a banquet of influences, and if we choose to respectfully adopt some aspect of a culture that is not our own, there’s nothing intrinsically harmful in that. However, like most things in life, the intention behind and manner in which we do things matters.

The American southwest abounds in white ladies who love dreamcatchers and fringed moccasins.

It’s a style I don’t especially appreciate, but if you dig moccasins and respect Native American culture, wear them. If, on your trip to Jamaica you want to have your blonde hair braided and beaded, go for it. (Though, maybe it’s just not a great look for you, and maybe you should realize why you’re only paying a few bucks to get it done.)

I would rather raise questions about exploitation than appropriation here. 

I once wore a red Chinese “Mandarin” style dress to a wedding in San Francisco; it seemed appropriate, and I did it with respect for one of the city’s predominant cultures.

It’s funny how we don’t call eating the food of another’s culture appropriation. Who would call eating lasagna or matzo ball soup “appropriation?” Who’s going to question the “homemade” matzo ball soup, made by the Irish owner of Joe’s diner? Unless of course it’s lousy soup.

Then there was Trump’s “taco bowl” incident last year on Cinco De Mayo.

Attire is different. The “native” apparel of people has always been special to them, sacred even. People will share their food, but they are not always willing to share the things they wear and how they decorate their bodies, especially if these are reserved for special occasions. In the homogenized western world, we, with our ubiquitous jeans and t-shirts, don’t always comprehend or respect those boundaries.

The funny linen shirts and strange hats, the feathers and fringes, are just costumes to us, but to those who wear them they’re intimate connections to their culture. Perhaps even, to a dying culture. 

One of the more recent controversies about cultural appropriation was instigated by the March issue of Vogue magazine. (Which was also controversial because of the cover picture featuring Ashley Graham; but that’s a topic for another day.)

Supermodel Karlie Kloss was seen in an editorial, either celebrating or appropriating, depending on your take, Japanese culture. Complete with Sumo wrestler and kimono type garb, the editorial is a typical one for Vogue.


Some of the questions about this kind of appropriation are simpler than others: first and foremost, couldn’t they really find a Japanese model to do the spread?

Surely there are Japanese models equal to Kloss and ready to work for Vogue.

A Japanese model would have made the piece at least look more authentic. As far as authenticity goes, the garments themselves are not authentic. They’re by Dries Van Noten, Marni, Alexander McQueen, and Haider Ackerman; neither vintage nor the work of modern Japanese designers.

The Vogue spread is stylized, that’s all. It’s a nod to certain elements of Japanese design. 

I don’t think it’s especially well done, it’s just another pretty, Vogue editorial. I think they could have found a more interesting way to do the thing. But they chose Karlie Kloss and some really great Western designers. To me, this was not an appropriation to be offended by, but then, I’m not Japanese. What do you think? 




  • Haralee says:

    I am not Japanese either but I have a hard time with appropriation of cultural dress. If you are not of the tribe it is not yours to wear is my thinking. Influences sure, but not a pure appropriation.

    • Anita Irlen says:


      It’s tricky, isn’t it? I think that maybe sometimes “influences” can look more like “stealing” than pure appropriation does… Yep, complicated. As always, thanks for the comment. A.

  • Melanie says:

    My thinking has usually been, if it’s in the public realm, it’s open for interpretation. What we see can’t help but sink into our expressions.

    I have not been offended seeing Japanese teens dressed as square dancers when I was in Harajuku or people in India wearing jeans, for example. Does that make it okay for me to wear a sari or a kimono? Does it only go one way? Who defines what is symbolic or emblematic of a culture? It’s an exhausting topic which I have long considered.

    I have a winter hat that others have said looks like an Afro wig when I’m dressed ’70s style. When I’ve worn it another way, it becomes Russian style. Very tricky. Is one okay and the other not? I will think hard before I wear it again.

    A lot of it I think has to do with whose culture is in the majority when a direct appropriate happens. If the majority is appropriating from a minority, there is ample room for conflict and insensitivity.

    I hadn’t even considered the food angle. !!!???

    I think the designer didn’t want a Japanese model – he wanted to show his cross-over of the aesthetic. I would have liked a more subtle approach here. The design stands on its own.

    A post with lots of food for thought.

    • Anita Irlen says:


      I mostly lean the way you do. Such a good point regarding majority, minority question and that’s when respect is a must, when you are the majority. It’s funny and fascinating how seemingly small things, like afros and Russian hats, can, in a charged environment, become huge. R-E-S-P-E-C-T
      I really appreciate your perspective. A.

  • Leah says:

    I agree with Melanie that it comes down to issues of power – who is in a position to “take”? Usually when you hear about dustups like this it is the dominant culture (very often white people) doing the taking from a culture that has been in some way marginalized or oppressed.
    Another aspect of appropriation I often hear people in minority cultures lament: people in the culture of power can “play” with clothing or hairstyles they happen to like, enhancing themselves with aspects of a minority culture while taking on NONE of the burden (i.e. racism in all its manifestations) that goes with being a member of that minority culture. That really hit home for me (a white woman) so I try to avoid appropriation, although I’m sure I sometimes make missteps by having no idea of the history behind some garments/styles and where they come from… more opportunities to educate myself!

    • Anita Irlen says:


      Great points! Playing with clothing is fine, but yes, my God, there is so much burden associated with certain clothing, hairstyles etc. Just thinking about white women getting a tan to get “brown” and what that might mean… Thanks so much for the comment!

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