Sloane Applebaum

Cultural Appropriation in 2017: Haven't We Learned Our Lesson By Now?

Yesterday evening, my friend Nina and I continued our annual tradition of watching the Superbowl of fashion: the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Hosted this year from Shanghai, the show featured a slew of gorgeous designs accompanied by the musical stylings of Harry Styles, Miguel, Leslie Odom, Jr., and Jane Zhang. It also, sadly, featured longtime VS Angel Alessandra Ambrosio's final curtain call (the end of an era, TBH).

This year's show wasn't particularly out of the ordinary, aside from the bit of drama in the Porcelain Angels set when model Ming Xi tripped and fell (and gracefully recovered). But then, just as the show was nearing its close, the second to last set took to the stage, and cultural appropriation once again found its way on the VS runway.

The collection, titled "Nomadic Adventure," was a strange mix of Native American jewelry, African-inspired colors and prints, and all around distasteful designs. Check it out for yourself:

At this point, it's almost expected of the company to clumsily depict marginalized cultures in some shape or form. In 2012, Karlie Kloss walked the VS runway in a full Native American headdress. The look was actually cut from the final broadcast, as it attracted so much backlash between the show and its televised airing a few weeks later. Victoria’s Secret apologized, not for their decision to include this look on the runway, but instead for the fact that the look had “upset individuals.”

And to prove that they haven't learned from the errors of their past, VS again in this year's show sent a model down the runway in a similarly offensive headdress:

There is a line that is often drawn in fashion and other art forms between appropriation and appreciation. And to be fair, it's a blurry line. But Victoria's Secret consistently crosses this line by a mile and rarely pays homage to or provides context about the cultures and communities that "inspire" so many of their designs. And this is why I'm so upset. In 2017, there seems to be a widespread fascination with marginalized cultures; we see it all over in fashion, music, TV, and more. But most of these cases rarely get called out because they hide behind the shield of “cultural appreciation.” Even some responses on Twitter to last night’s VS show praised the company for “providing a platform” for oft-forgotten aesthetics of lesser-publicized cultures. But to label Victoria's Secret's incorporation of beaded tribal jewelry as “appreciation” is wildly misguided and insulting. And explain to me how Victoria’s Secret can truly consider this an “appreciation" of the historical context of indigenous culture:

This isn’t appreciation, and what perplexes me is that, year after year, VS continues to commit this crime with little remorse. How have they not learned their lesson by this point? Part of me believes that the company is just too big to fail. Think about it: we know they have this issue, we basically anticipate it, and yet what girl can honestly say she hasn't walked into a VS store in the past year? Maybe, no matter what they do, VS will never be brought down by a cultural appropriation scandal because the reality is most consumers are sadly apathetic.

So my question is, what does all this say about Victoria's Secret's accountability? Not only are they unable to properly apologize for an offense they've committed so many times, but they are also unwilling to change their ways. Is profiting off of the traditions of underrepresented cultures so important to this mass market retailer that they would rather offend than push a more progressive agenda? And what responsibility does a brand like Victoria's Secret's really have, anyway?

Every year, cultural appropriation is found along the runways of high-end fashion brands. Just this past summer, Gucci was slammed for plagiarizing designs from Harlem-based 1980s fashion king Dapper Dan. When the luxury brands get accused of appropriation, something different happens in the narrative. These high-end offenses often get pushed under the rug because, let's be real, who even shops at Gucci anyway? But when Victoria's Secret, one of the single most important players in the global fashion industry, boldly and explicitly commits this offense on a world stage, it signals an international complacency among consumers, and it does little to promote cultural education and equity.

For those of you who know me well, you’re probably aware of how much the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show means to me, as it is part of what inspired me to pursue an academic concentration in fashion. I’ve always cited this show as the most unique and significant annual event in fashion because of its global reach and influence within and beyond the fashion industry. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is a career-maker; it dictates which up and coming models will be the next “big thing” (see Grace Elizabeth’s story of how modeling in the 2017 VS show led to her booking 29 runways in a single year). It also, believe it or not, signals emerging trends that extend beyond lingerie and into our everyday wear (this year’s PINK collection confirmed that the reemergence of athleisure is not going away any time soon!) But with all this influence comes responsibility and accountability, and we, the consumers, must force Victoria's Secret to rethink their ways.

Here's my (unsolicited) advice. The only way we can dismantle appropriation in mainstream media is by understanding the line that separates appropriation and appreciation, and by educating ourselves and calling out companies when they commit this offense. It’s on all of us to stop this systematic cultural appropriation that has become so widespread and so accepted within fashion. No, ladies, I’m not asking you to completely stop shopping at Victoria’s Secret (although we seriously should have organized & boycotted when they raised the price from 5 for $25 to 5 for $28!! Who okayed this??) But what I am asking you all to do is educate yourself. Understand why this issue matters and learn how to talk about cultures, aesthetics, and traditions that you might not know much about. Maybe even take a course at your university that puts you a bit out of your comfort zone but might teach you something new (here are some Spring 2018 options for Cornell Students: AMST 2660 Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong: Unlearning Native American History, ANTHR 2400 Cultural Diversity and Contemporary Issues, RELST 2247 Cultural Diversity and Contemporary Issues, ASRC 2452 Dress Cloth and Identity, COML 4001Aesthetics of Authenticity, ASRC 3550 Modeling Race, Fashioning Beauty, FSAD 2190 Fashion, Beauty, and Society).

The more we know, the better we will be at recognizing when appropriation is mislabeled as appreciation, and the closer we can get to fighting off corporate-driven cultural insensitivities. Maybe by next year's show, Victoria's Secret will have learned their lesson, but by staying vocal and informed, we as powerful consumers can drive these brands to consider their accountability and change their narrative.



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© 2018 by Sloane Applebaum.

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