Alright, it’s time to talk about the elephant in the figurative fashion industry room: cultural appropriation.
I haven’t written about cultural appropriation on this blog yet because everything that could be said on the topic has been said, and, well, it’s exhausting as a person of color to explain to someone why cultural appropriation sucks.
But as an ethical fashion blogger, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tackle one of the most controversial issues in the fashion industry! Even sustainable and ethical brands end up appropriating, but we can—and have to—do better.
Disclosure: This post was generously sponsored by MATTER Prints, which means I received a fee for my writing, photography, styling, and other creative work. As always, all opinions are my own, and this topic in particular is near and dear to my heart, so thank you to MATTER for enabling me to write this!
Cultural appropriation: What it is and why it sucks
I know what lots of people think: It’s just clothes. Fashion is meant to be fun and culture is meant to be shared. What’s the big deal?
To understand why cultural appropriation is such a big deal, one must first understand that it’s not just about taking or using aspects of someone else’s culture. It’s about the power dynamics involved.
I really like this clarifying definition of cultural appropriation from Everyday Feminism:
“A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”
To take an example from my own lived experience:
The only time I’ve worn a qipao, a traditional Chinese dress worn for special occasions, besides maybe as a child, was when I found one in a thrift store and tried it on. It was a beautiful dress, similar to the one controversially worn by a white girl to her prom, but the dress that made her feel pretty and confident and cultured made me feel like a caricature.
Why? Well, just take a look at how Asian people are depicted in American media, and imagine growing up in a country that constantly asks where you’re from—no, where you’re really from. Me wearing a qipao looks, to the American public eye, like a foreigner and a target of ridicule; a white woman wearing a qipao looks cute and fashionable.
I wouldn’t wear traditional Chinese garments in public, because I’m afraid to be a target of hateful comments or actions (which are, btw, on the rise for Asian Americans). It’s not right that a white girl can wear a qipao, just thinking of it as a pretty dress, and feel beautiful, while I’d be made to feel self-conscious and be targeted for bigotry.
When I, and many other Asian Americans, see “Asian-inspired” or “Oriental” clothing that reduces our cultures to fashion trends, it doesn’t feel great. I mean, how gross is it that the heritage we’ve been forced to distance ourselves from in order to be accepted as American is now being commercialized for the profit of Western fashion corporations, to be worn and enjoyed by the same people who think “slanty eye” jokes are funny?
Other people of color have similar experiences with cultural appropriation (holy hell, this entire country’s pop culture is built on the appropriation of Black culture, but that’s a whole dissertation unto itself), and cultural appropriation has a ton of nuances that I don’t have the time to explore in this post.
What I do want to talk about is how the fashion industry can move forward in a thoughtful, respectful way.
How can fashion practice cultural appreciation, not appropriation?
I don’t believe that cultural fashion, textiles, garments, and artisan traditions shouldn’t be shared; we just need to share them in a way that respects and centers the communities from which these traditions originated.
That means that the inspiration taken from cultures not our own needs to be recognized and honored, in a thoughtful and informed way. Designers creating culturally-inspired pieces need to educate themselves thoroughly about the significance of the garments and the artisanal crafts and skills needed to create them. Culturally “appreciative” designs should empower and uplift the communities that inspire them, as well as the people who wear them.
I’m really excited to introduce you to a sustainable and ethical brand that I think is setting an amazing example of how fashion brands can practice cultural appreciation, not appropriation!
MATTER Prints: Empowering generational artisanship through timeless, heritage-inspired design
MATTER Prints cultivates the artisan craft traditions of South and Southeast Asia to create beautiful designs inspired by the cultures of the region. While their designs are absolutely stunning, it’s their philosophy that I love the most.
MATTER’s focus on generational artisan craft, timeless design, sustainable textiles, and respectful designs that modernize traditional South and Southeast Asian garments demonstrates a thoughtfulness that is truly unique, even in the sustainable and ethical fashion space.
They work with artisans who have been taught by generations before them, helping to preserve traditions at risk in a world of mass production. Their design process is collaborative, involving designers, artisans, and the internal team to create prints, styles, and more. And their ethically made designs are inspired by South and Southeast Asian textile heritage and cultural garments, which are modernized to look at home in any city while respecting the original garment and culture by telling the stories of where and why they’re made.
I love what MATTER had to say about how they develop respectful, culturally appreciative designs:
“We choose to pay respect to the designs by conducting research and deep understanding of the intention behind the original design, and whenever possible, working with designers of that specific culture.”
MATTER also brings this thoughtfulness to their sustainability efforts, using natural and organic materials and minimizing waste with good design.
Fashion industry, take note. This is how you practice cultural appreciation.
Oh and btw, I really love my MATTER pants!
Yes, hello, I really wanted to pop in here and let you know that MATTER generously gifted me their Classic Wideleg + Leharia Champagne pants, and that I love them!
They’re inspired by the “flow and elegance of the Vietnamese ao dai,” the traditional silk tunic and pants combo that Vietnamese women (and sometimes men) wear. Having never worn an ao dai, I cannot really compare the two, but the silk trousers are indeed quite flowy and elegant! They’re also stunning; I don’t think I’ve ever had an easier time shooting an outfit, because these pants look great in every shot.
I like that MATTER created a modern, yet timeless design inspired by the ao dai and recognizes that cultural influence. This sets it apart from cultural appropriation, which would look more like copying the traditional garment without recognizing the cultural heritage or just selling it as a pretty piece of clothing with no regard for its cultural significance.
Made of silk, they’re temperature-regulating and keep my legs cool as the days warm up, but will also keep me warm when it’s cool out. They fasten with these pretty ingenious buttons that allow you to adjust the width of the waistband. Also, I probably don’t even need to say that they’re ridiculously comfortable, but they are.
Sizing note: I picked a size 1 (they only have a size 1 and 2 due to the adjustable button thing), and found that it is ever so slightly loose around my waist on the tightest setting. I think the size 1 would fit great if you’re normally a size 4-6.
Bralette: Proclaim (another awesome brand empowering WOC!) (brand feature, review & discount)
Pants: MATTER Prints Classic Wideleg + Leharia Champagne pants
Cardigan: Grana (get 10% off your first purchase)
Sandals: Nisolo Isla slides (review, get $25 off $100)
Earrings: bought at a local boutique
Choker necklace: Etsy
Until next time,
Note: If you have more questions about cultural appropriation, as it’s quite a nuanced topic, definitely check out this article!