A Piece of The Pie: On Aesthetics, Cultures, & Identity

Artwork by Jenn Solo

Artwork by Jenn Solo

Aesthetics are a peculiar thing. So much historical context, culture, and identity can be packed tightly into seemingly small and insignificant visual intricacies that grow synonymous with certain communities’ visual imagining. Certain styles become synonymous with representations of communities and certain cultures become inextricable from visual imagining of marginalized communities, like the way hip-hop is a definitively Black art form, with visual aesthetics that cannot be imagined separate from the Black resistance from which it arose. When you think of hip-hop, the image that almost always comes to mind is of hair styles, fashion, and language representative of the Black identity.

When we think of an aesthetic, we are thinking of what theme or context the eye gives to a certain visual. When we look at an individual we see what our imagination has been trained to associate with certain ways of dress, haircuts, and essentially, ways of being. Different communities, whether intentional or subconsciously, use visual aesthetics in a myriad of ways to train society to associate certain visual descriptors with their culture. An aesthetic or a visual representation can deliver so much to the eye to give to the brain to resonate with the heart. This communication, this transferring of information, seems to be disrupted or challenged when placed into the wrong hands or onto the wrong body. We associate feathered headdresses with Native Americans, and rightfully so, because it has long been used as a symbol of their culture as well as their resistance to forced assimilation into whiteness. So when someone outside of that culture, especially a white person whom represents what that culture often struggles against, decides to step into that aesthetic, it disrupts and muddles the intended message.  

An example of this disruption and muddling of cultural significance can be found in the early 2000s, when Gwen Stefani decided to adorn herself the title of “Harajuku Girl.” While using four Japanese women as mere props, rarely letting them speak and positioning them as almost puppet-like pawns in her videos of performances for several years of performing, she stuck out like a sore thumb, yet was still able to build a career off of this appropriative performance. Harajuku culture is one of a deeply unique and context-specific Japanese street fashion which values the rise of fast fast fashion and artistic individuality, and Mrs. Stefani decided she belonged and even fit into this Japanese culture, all while looking more like they’re awkward, white, mediocre colonizer. Whatever message of punk, underground unique fashion disruption Harajuku culture was meant to transfer or translate becomes disrupted, muddled, and commodified when the entire aesthetic merges into synchronicity with a white woman named Gwen Stefani.

So what does it mean, given the cultural significance a certain aesthetic can carry, when members of the dominant or hegemonic culture in a society begin to adorn themselves with marginalized communities visuals? Beyond them simply appearing out of place — looking very Malibu’s Most Wanted most of the time — they often profit from, belittle, and disregard cultural significance, and this often happens seemingly independent of that specific marginalized community’s socioeconomic conditions.

For an example of this, let’s meditate on the Muslim oppression/fashion nexus. Muslim fashion and visual aesthetics are widely popular in the US, and wonderfully influential in US fashion in ways people don’t even realize. We know that Muslim women, especially Black Muslim women, are responsible for influencing much of our western concepts of “modest fashion.” Non-Muslim women, non-Black women wearing headwraps in particular styles and ways in which can be seen as traditionally Muslim have gone mainstream now, with modest fashion becoming a mainstay in department stores and fast fashion houses. Muslim women are leading what Aina Khan of the Guardian describes as a “modest fashion revolution,” and Muslim women/women who wear hijab are leading marketing campaigns for the likes of H&M, Forever 21, and other large scale powerhouses. This interest and described fashion revolution of sorts is great, but happens while US drones are still dropping bombs daily in Muslim-majority countries. The US is still exploiting, pillaging, and often completely destroying Muslim-majority countries while simultaneously wanting to be representative and adopting of our cultural, visual aestheticism.

This obsessive Muslim oppression/fashion nexus is not lost within the adoption of Muslim men’s traditional aesthetics, either. Beards and drop-crotch pants have grown highly popular in the fashion world; in 2010 and 2011, designers Yves St. Laurent, Dolce&Gabbana, and Comme des Garçons (among others) decided to embellish their runway shows with (mostly white) models wearing drop-crotch pants of various materials and (scraggly) beards of varying lengths. Since then, fast fashion world staples like Zara has latched onto the drop-crotch jean aesthetic which is inspired by a long history of loose-fitting pants and below-the-waist fashion Muslim men have worn for centuries as both a statement of modesty as well as simple protection from heat in many countries. Of course, now that the fashion world has gwen Stefani-ed Muslim aestheticism, that does nothing for our oppression. While a re-invigoration of fashion-forward beards and drop-crotch pants (shouts out to MC Hammer) have lined up at the forefront of US fashion trends, along with headwraps and undeniably Muslim-inspired modest fashion for women, Muslims are still facing alarming increasing rates of islamophobic-fueled hate crimes. The oppression/fashion nexus is paradoxical in nature: at the same time our home countries are bombed, and Muslims, as well as those mistaken as Muslim because of their visual presentations, are facing heightened interpersonal violence, they also want to dress and appear in ways we’ve taught them.

We can also look at the ways in which the cishet (cisgender, hetersosexual) gaze has in recent years turned its focus onto the queer community’s aestheticism for rendering and appropriation within fashion. So much of the dominant culture’s popular language, visuals, and fashion senses are taken from the queer community, especially the Black queer community, without credit; erasing the previous mentioned messaging our aesthetics are meant to transmit. Let’s think of drag queens for a moment. I once stated that Nicki Minaj is one of the world’s greatest drag queens; the wigs, the makeup, the outlandish outfitting clashing against Black skin, ment in its entirety to be a performance of gender and sexuality. Much like drag queens, female rappers are concerned with performing gender and sexuality usually to make a political statement, and much of this performance is done through carefully crafted visuals. What better place to draw inspiration for a performance of gender and sexuality meant to expose and critique power dynamics, than from the world of drag, which originally started as a means of liberatory art for trans women?

Keeping this obsessive eye on the drag world, as fueled by female rappers without many folks even realizing it, fashion has also joined in pulling up from the underground the cultural markers of the queer community for the mainstream. Something as simple as using makeup to create a hard contour —an act that, as a drag queen I can assure you, is the best way to turn a butch queen fish— has been adopted into the popular makeup and fashion lexicon. Runway superstar designers like Marc Jacobs are placing exaggerated, drag queen-esque contours on their models before they hit the stage, and staple queer performers such as Azealia Banks, FKA Twigs, and Brooke Candy have been the center pieces voguing as models wearing white designers’ clothing walk around them at runway shows. Do they know these designers and makeup artists know the exaggerated contour is often associated with drag queens because it is a statement on the performative, over-the-top essence of gender within the queer community? Do they know the voguing they’re hiring performers to do at their fashion shows as wealthy onlookers gaze in awe comes from an underground scene that was about denying, or challenging, the normativity and refusal of autonomy on the queer body through expression? (We can also talk about how Young Thug is oft praised for his attempted disruption of gender binaries via his fashion choices while simultaneously perpetuating homophobic, sexist lyrics, but who has the time?)

And of course Blackness, especially where it intersects with queerness and Muslimness, is always up for grabs for the dominant culture to steal. We can see this in the way hip-hop culture, one rooted in anti-racism, anti-respectability, and an essential reject of assimilation into whiteness has slowly crept into the public sphere of acceptability. That rappers Pharrell, kanye West, and Jay-Z were seemingly allowed to run fashion for a decade between 2005-2015 should be telling of the intent of white onlookers. Of course they were allowed to make several collaborations with white-owned brands and we went through endless tired karl Lagerfeld shout outs in rap songs, because that then allows for these fashion powerhouses to heavily profit from selling Black clothing to white masses without being called out for appropriation. And we can’t ignore the words and phrases that the black queer community gave the world that were almost unavoidable in Forever 21s and Urban Outfitter. See: “yasss,” “werk,” “muva,” and the myriad of variations of that language that went through the Instagram feeds of Beyonce and Amber Rose eventually before making their way onto tacky sweatshop-made clothing brands.

And, like other marginalized identities whose cultures are ripped off and watered down, they want the looks without the consequences. They want to “look hip-hop” without fearing for their life from police officers. They want to invest in Muslim-inspired modest fashion without having to worry about being harassed in department store. They want to wear drop-crotch pants with beards and Arabic tattoos for the aesthetic, but don’t want consistent problems boarding planes. They want to contour like a drag queen, but don’t want to face violence like the queer community, particularly trans women of color, do. They want to take the things that are significant to our cultures, including the places where they intersect, and replace whatever messages about who we are and what our culture offers to communicate their own message: profit. Aesthetics are a peculiar thing. What’s more peculiar is how much is revealed when a culture’s aesthetics are ripped off. The oppression/fashion nexus is an appropriation, or even fetishization, of different oppressed communities’ visual aesthetics which occurs at the same time they’re oppression is heightened. A wound is created, often called mainstream fashion, in which history, purpose, culture, and identity are lost.