Cultural Appropriation: Past & Present

artwork by Faye Orlove

artwork by Faye Orlove

By Glendon Francis and Blair Imani

Cultural appropriation is the harvesting of cultural practices, often for profit, combined with the taking credit for the culture and dismissing the people who created it and often suffered for it.

This phenomenon appears in many ways in the present whether it is Vogue Italia’s use of a non-Black model, Gigi Hadid, to depict the beauty of Black features or Marc Jacobs use of Black hairstyles like locs while failing to use any Black models to portray the look.

It goes without saying that the beauty of Black women and the African diaspora are important influences on the world of fashion. However due to anti-Blackness and misogynoir Black women rarely benefit from the presence of Black culture in the realm of fashion. A prominent example of this is the way “fleek” is used by multi-million dollar companies absent any acknowledgement of the term’s creator Peaches Monroee.

Cultural appropriation is not a new phenomenon. It’s history and present is inextricably linked with the history of colonization, imperialism, and white supremacy. The life history of Saartjie Baartman demonstrates the historic roots of the practice of cultural appropriation.

Saartjie Baartman was a South African native, born in 1789. At two years old her mother passed away and tragically her father passed away shortly thereafter. In adolescence, Saartjie was forced to sign a contract by Hendrik Cesars and William Dunlop to participate in a circus. Some historians assert that she wasn't forced because she signed the contract, however we must remember that Saartjie was illiterate and enslaved.

Humanity was not afforded to Saartjie even prior to this ordeal. At the circus, she was put on display and made to wear nude-coloured clothing adorned with feathers for the pleasure of others. She was forced to perform private shows for wealthy individuals and was ultimately forced into prostitution which led to her untimely demise.

Saartjie's body, stature, and features were fetishized and later mimicked. Some say that women like Saartjie Baartman birthed the Victorian era. While the Victorian era was coined after Queen Victoria of England, the newly sought after physique very clearly resembles Saartjie’s natural figure.

During this era, wealthy women began to wear uncomfortably tight corsets and tailored gowns which made their behind appear larger. It's been said by many admirers of the Victorian era and historians that this era in fashion directly copied the rather unique physique of enslaved African women.

During this era, African women were simultaneously belittled and constantly demeaned for their voluptuous figures -- not unlike modern day. The Victorian era trends were used to create direct replica of Black women's innate and unique beauty.

Today's fashion trends range from Bantu knots, full lips, box braids and locs. Black women sport these "trends" regularly as protective hairstyles and natural features but are deemed as undesirable or unprofessional while non-Black women are hailed as edgy or beautiful for engineering the same looks. 

Black women often discuss on the harms of appropriation, but are often silenced. The usual rebuttal is, "it's just fashion."

Essentially, it has never just been fashion, especially when society has been telling Black women that what they innately possess and do is unacceptable. It is unacceptable to mimic a culture while simultaneously silencing and oppressing the people from which the culture originated.