An Essay That Was Once About Cultural Appropriation
General Remarks on Cultural Appropriation
I thought the idea of cultural appropriation would be a simple one to define—concise, clear, and easy to apply. There are no definitions of cultural appropriation, at least none that I believe encapsulate the concept. More so, there are theories on cultural appropriation, speculations put into print by academics. Hariette Richards outlines the various conversations donated to defining cultural appropriation: Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright argue that to appropriate is to steal, that it is the “process of borrowing and changing the meaning of cultural products, slogans, images, or elements of fashion.” This conceptualization is not without its own problems—can people borrow as intangible of a construct as culture? Jonathan Arac argues that “the defining anxiety at the present moment is the emphasis on culture as a form of property to be owned rather than lived.” Elazar Barka and Ronal Bush speculate that to discern “bad” appropriation, “the producer culture takes no benefit and the value of the property at its source may be diminished or may be seen to be diminished by the corruption of its “authenticity” (Richards). There are so many simultaneously provided arguments for what defines cultural appropriation, but center to every claim is this oppressive and silencing confusion over property, identity, and authenticity. Property, identity and authenticity are just as hard to pin down as “cultural appropriation.” So, now, not only is the term itself just as smoky as the near ten-year-old memory of learning to define “penny loafers,” but the building blocks of the theories blow away in a puff of air as well. Then, like the murkiness of defining appropriation, the implications of cultural appropriation are just as elusive. The potential for distortion of the original sentiment, the cultural affiliations one is trying to make, the sometimes-interpretive nature of fashion: all these aspects confuse and alter my understanding of cultural appropriation. I wonder, however, if a lack of concision on the idea of cultural appropriation is a bad thing. Why do I want to lock down the definition so much? Why must I make a meal when the ingredients are just as worthy of attention? This prompted a new idea in tackling the idea of cultural appropriation—tackle some of the ingredients instead. This paper delves into the muddy example of the jogger’s appropriation of the zoot suit, my ungraspable identity, and the personal authority that I now cultivate.
A Question of Appropriation: The Zoot Suit and the Hipster Jogger
I begin with zoot suits and joggers because it is my clearest case of confusion. It is a case of devil’s advocate in which I have no blurry lines. It is what helped me find my footing within the entangled mess of cultural appropriation. Fashion’s ability to operate on a subconscious, irrational level to subversively comment on society grants cultural appropriation such unavoidable confusion. This form of communication, personal style, is elusive. People wear clothing; they don’t wear the sentiments. These sentiments are gleaned through an integration of context and knowledge. An epitomical case of this lack of clarity is the contemporary hipster’s appropriation of the zoot suit in the form of modern day joggers. Duane Gilson wrote an in-depth investigation into the zoot suit/jogger significance, titled The Revolution in Our Pants: Hipsters, Race, and American Fashion. Gilson explains the zoot suit’s origins: Made famous by Malcom X, the zoot suit’s overwhelming fabric was an anti-white and anti-black bourgeois statement—emphasizing the black community’s ability to participate in the superfluousness of white consumer culture. Gilson further breaks down the sentiments of the zoot suit to be: “a denot[ion of] nonchalance, the implication that its wearers had the luxury of time: to hang out and ‘cool it’” (Gilson). The Black activist community operationalized the zoot suit to be anti-White, anti-Black bourgeois; however, they did so because it played on the idea of “leisure,” something the slave-based United States withheld from the Black community.
I could argue that the hipster jogger is an example of the appropriated US Black culture of resistance. I could argue that the shift from zoot suit to joggers is like that of calling cornrows “boxer braids,” that there is a misplacement of the style’s ownership, that the harkening back to Malcolm X’s intent in wearing zoot suits is lost, that the deliberate expression of sentiment through style is absent. Yet, this argument would hang in the air as incomplete.
If we re-evaluate the hipsters’ adoption of the zoot suit, it gains distance from appropriating the culture of protest and rebellion and gains proximity to the original sentiment of the zoot suit: leisure and mocking the “dominant culture.” This is the problem with fashion as a form of communication: we wear clothes and we don’t specify the sentiment. The hipster jogger is then an expression of youth counterculture; independence of race, or ethnicity, or identity group; that challenges the established culture and its expectations of the individual the same way the zoot suits did from the beginning.
You may then be wondering, what becomes of the argument that they have lost the name “zoot suits,” the hipsters now claiming the fashion under the name of the “jogger.” You may be wondering why the lack of a deliberate reference to the sentiments of the suit is not clear evidence of appropriation. That is the thing with fashion, it grows and it evolves, it morphs with time to fit the time. They are not called zoot suits because they are not zoot suits. They are contemporary interpretations of the similar frustration with the dominating culture. As well as lacking stagnancy, fashion also tends to lack deliberance. On the surface, we attribute our gravitations to certain styles to be the simple fact that “I like it.” But, fashion is not isolated and we do not see it as so. When we see styles around us, we see them in different contexts, on different people, and expressing different ideologies. Whether we explicitly acknowledge that or not, it influences our attitude toward that fashion. The power of the zoot suit/jogger controversy does not, then, come from any conclusion reached, but from the many conclusions not reached. It is appropriation, but it is also not. It is deliberate, but it is also not. Identity lies at the core of this confusion. It is both deliberately and unknowingly accumulated. I later seek to see where my identity resides within my desire to try these “at-risk” style choices.
White Girl, Take OFF Your Hoops
While individual instances of appropriation are given attention, attention must also be brought to the trends of cultural appropriation. In August of 2017, Vogue described an up-do and gold hoop pairing to be the ultimate summer trend. Three months earlier in March, three Latina students at Pitzer College in California had painted in the street “White girl, take OFF your hoops” (Hosie). The struggle between high fashion and the Latina community over the hoop earring is fraught with negotiations on cultural appropriation. The Pitzer mural opened up the conversation, as evidenced by the many articles on the incident and greater implication, as to what was at stake for the Latina community by the trend of hoop earrings.
The problem with the trend of the hoop earring is just that—the trend. The fact that countless consumers of fashion publications such as Vogue are going to immediately don an up-do and hoops to engage in a fashion trend, not in the Latina culture. In Vogue’s article naming the hoop the new trend, a densely-packed paragraph of models named as evidence of the trend includes not even one culturally Latina woman or model: Emily Ratajkowski, Taylor Hill, Jasmine Tookes, Bella Hadid, Yara Shahidi, Lily Aldridge, Carolyn Murphy, and Hailey Baldwin (Valenti). Nowhere else does the Latina population get mentioned in the article. The Latina women to whom this style belongs, have been effectively barred from the “trendiness” of the trend. The exclusive nature of trends is a messy dynamic of what styles do for different groups. When white women wear the hoops, they are edgy, hip, chic, high-fashion. When Latina women wear the hoops, they are ghetto. The problem with the cultural appropriation of hoops then becomes not so much about the actual act of wearing the hoops, but the exclusionary manner in which it is done.
The fashion phenomenon of gold hoops is again a negotiation of identity, identity ownership, and the formation of unique identities of fashion items when portrayed and represented in the wrong way. Cultural appropriation becomes a battle-ground to assert identity and character unto inanimate objects of expression. I enter that complexity by being unaware what side of the battle I take, what the fight is for, and what I have at stake to lose. A fatal flaw when the internal understanding of identity is the foundation upon which an understanding of external identity is built.
The “I” in Identity
I have never known what is and what is not “American culture” at its heart, when everything almost always finds its traces to some specific population group that found a home in the United States or that disseminated to find a home in the United States.
Tigilau Ness, a member of the reggae band Unity Pacific and thus inundated with the appropriation of the Rastafari culture of protest, remarks,
When you have people without a culture, who have been robbed of their culture, the next best thing is to pick up on the topmost culture that’s around. We must delve into our own histories and find out where it connects. (Richards)
I have never known what my culture is. My family consciously seeks to assert their identity-based privilege—whether it’s linguistic prescriptivism (“anyway” should never have an “s” on the end), strict rules of etiquette (Emily Post, I’m looking at you), or the “symbols of success” my family literally wears (i.e. a gold lump of a signet ring, a diamond cross when not one member of my family is religious). I struggled a lot with that “identity.” It was not me; It is not me; It will never be me. So, I ask myself, what is my culture? Am I resigned to Levi’s jeans and white t-shirts the rest of my life? Even that is problematic—white often being essential to American culture because it demonstrates the low chances of getting dirty and therefore not doing the manual labor or “lesser jobs” (hence “white-collar” jobs). Ness’s quote resonates with me because it lends me an understanding of why I’ve always been drawn to other cultures’ trends, to other cultures of resistance. My culture was never robbed, but I am unsure if I ever even had a culture to rob.
Yet, I do have a culture. I am American. Other people see that when I travel—I look like an American; I sound like one; I think like one. That’s the thing when you are a member of the majority living within a culture largely dictated by that same majority. Without explicitly knowing what that culture is, I prescribe to it. Perhaps that is where the White American propensity to appropriate comes from. While acculturation of minorities varies—it can be integration, assimilation, separation, or marginalization—more often than not, these minorities still have a tangible culture that they can reach out to, draw from, and make executive personal decisions upon.
The culture of a nation or region or people is like air. It is all around us, an inherent part of ourselves, but we don’t truly notice it until it is no longer there. The American culture is a breathable gas made up of diverse elements that were brought here and one that I have never gone without long enough to be able to discern.
Fashion has then become, in the most literal sense, a way to try on different identities and slowly whittle down to what is at the core of who I am. The delicate matter is how to do so without provoking frustration, pain, or insecurity in those from whom you learn from and are inspired by.
The conclusion I come to is swift and unsatisfactorily vague: We must stop thinking of clothes as lesser than they are. They are something that must be as deliberate as the words we speak and that is a reality we must be forced to accept. Learn the language you speak everyday through the ways we present ourselves. Know your stuff. Listen to the people around you. Cope. You may not be able to do or wear whatever you’d like, and that’s a hard reality to stomach when you have lived with the privilege to be unaware, to operate without the soul wounds that are an epidemic in the diverse populations of the United States. Come to your own conclusions. Be confident, but flexible and understanding. Learn and grow. Wear things with yourself and with others in mind.
It is peculiar to me, looking back on my introduction, the coexisting processes of thought that exist in a writer. In reflecting on the topic this memoir-like academic inquiry and toy personal thoughts and narrative within that, I have created a dual-process of realization: the one that brought me to the conclusions on cultural appropriation I have made, and the self-reflective one that I have cultivated in writing it. When I set out to write this I had one plan in mind: to try to come to an understanding, or personal peace, about what cultural appropriation is, what it is not, and how to approach it. When I type the last word of this essay, it will have been to navigate the overbearing confusion that clouds this paper, the internalization of my identity, and a reclamation of my authority.
Fashion has subtlely proven itself as a means of identity ownership for me. My family is proper, poised, and prepared to preserve that. My father rarely strays from his work suit; My mother’s collection of elegant clothing is extensive; My sister, in the midst of my mother, dresses like a J-Crew catalog (yes, I do mean this in the most mom-ish sense); My brother puts on what is in his drawers—what my mother puts in his drawers. My sense of style has never been so definable—I went through a bohemian phase, a sk8r boy phase, a preppy phase, and eventually found my current style (which I will not even attempt to concisely define, but my tattoos and nose piercing in a conservative family should provide some amount of insight). My insistence on certain wardrobe choices was a way to assert my individual when I was younger, and here, now, it is my mechanism to reclaim it.
My individual had become lost in the academia—every thought or opinion I had, I combatted it with what the “intellectuals” were saying and attempted to do as they told, rather than listen to myself. The pressure of my own values and the consistent values of my peers here at my university told me to devalue the voices that didn’t have these “explicit” permissions to speak on the topics of race, poverty, and sexual identity. I transitioned that to myself and that is what I have truly explored in this “essay on cultural appropriation.” Thankfully, I have reached a quasi-conclusion on both of those things: cultural appropriation and authority; and both of them are simple. Cultural appropriation: Wear with intent, question the sources, know your stuff. Come to your own conclusion. Be able to argue it. And, authority: Listen to what people say you have no voice in. Be okay with taking the back seat and confident when you take the wheel. Prove to them, prove to yourself that your voice is just as clear. Be comfortable in confusion—it does not mean you have nothing to say.
- Gilson, Duane. "The revolution in our pants: Hipsters, race and American fashion." International Journal of Fashion Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2017, p. 35+.
- Hosie, Rachel. “Hoop Earrings Criticised as Cultural Appropriation.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 17 Oct. 2017, www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/hoop-earrings-cultural-appropriation-latina-ethnicity-race-white-women-fashion-a8004381.html.
- Richards, Harriette. "Dreaded culture: The appropriation of a culture of resistance in Aotearoa New Zealand." Fashion, Style, & Popular Culture, vol. 4, no. 2, 2017, p. 215+.
- Valenti, Lauren. “Why Updos and Gold Hoops Are the Ultimate Cool-Girl Summer Pairing.” Vogue, 2 Aug. 2017, www.vogue.com/article/gold-hoops-emily-ratajkowski-bella-hadid-updo-summer.