Posted on January 22, 2020

Are Rows over Cultural Appropriation a Dastardly PR Ploy?

Arwa Mahdawi, The Guardian, January 22, 2020

Is cultural appropriation the new black? It certainly seems to be the hottest trend in the fashion industry: every other week there is a row over the subject.

The latest offender is the Japanese fashion house Comme des Garçons, which has been criticised for putting white models in cornrow wigs. In an apology, the stylist, Julien d’Ys, seemed to suggest that the wigs weren’t meant to be cornrows – a traditionally black hairstyle – but a nod to Egyptian pharaoh hair, to which the internet replied: why not use Egyptian models?

Is it problematic for white models to wear cornrows or “wigs like an Egyptian”? The answer is: “Sometimes; maybe; it depends.” What constitutes cultural appropriation is complex and nuanced. Alas, the conversation around the subject is frequently anything but.

On one hand, you have a small group of vocal people who enjoy taking offence at everything – remember when Lena Dunham suggested that bad cafeteria sushi was cultural appropriation? On the other hand, you have bigots who seem to think it is clever to say things such as: “Non-white people wearing suits is cultural appropriation.” The concept has lost all meaning and become a straw man to be kicked around in the culture wars.

Comme des Garçons doesn’t have the most politically correct history. In 2018, the fashion website Heroine noted that the brand hadn’t used a black model “in a women’s presentation” for 24 years (although it started using them again soon after).

Parading white models with black hairstyles down the catwalk was spectacularly thoughtless. Or perhaps it wasn’t. The frequency of cultural appropriation controversies makes me suspect that some brands are deploying them as a PR tool. After all, no publicity is bad publicity – comme les Kardashians are well aware.