During the last year and a half of the still ongoing pandemic, I, like many others, have found myself spending more time inside, and doing more of what I used to do in person online. Like most of the people who are likely to be reading this blog, I try to shop secondhand where possible, so this consequently moved online as well. Scrolling through apps and websites which offer preloved clothing, I began to notice something that I found disturbing and upsetting. 

Many of these listings included adjectives which are problematic to say the least. An oversize wrap labelled “kimono”, a colorful print called “tribal”, a blouse described as “oriental”, these are just a few of the instances that I couldn’t stop seeing. Once I noticed the pattern, I started to dig into this practice of misuse of culturally significant terms and cultural appropriation in the description of clothing items. A small part of me wanted to hope that a few uneducated people had simply made mistakes, but of course, it didn’t take long for me to realize that this is yet another flawed and destructive practice common in the fashion industry.

The inappropriate use of culturally significant language and the inherent cultural appropriation is especially egregious when examined in conjunction with the inhumane working conditions under which the clothes are being manufactured, the waste involved in the manufacturing process, and pollution that comes from packaging and shipping the items. All of these environmental and human tolls are exacted before the items are marketed in a way which exploits and reinforces stereotypes, marginalizes cultures, and perpetuates a cycle of xenophobia, racism, and cultural appropriation in the fashion industry. 

Cultural appropriation refers to the practice of using aspects of non-dominant culture, typically for profit, while failing to understand, respect, or credit the culture, and reinforcing stereotypes and systematic oppression. This practice takes many forms in the fashion industry, including but not limited, the use of culturally specific terms to market clothing, adaptation of culturally significant garments for mass production and consumption, and styling of outfits for marketing campaigns.

The systematic exploitation manifests in use of specific diction, imagery, and design, with the intention to make a profit, without respect for and benefit to the people with whom this diction, imagery, or design is most closely associated. This practice falls into a larger pattern of taking advantage of marginalized populations, which reveals yet another failing of the fashion industry at large.

 

Describing Garments:

Fashion labels cannot continue to describe their products with such problematic terms. Continued use demonstrates a lazy and contemptible unwillingness to make even the most basic of changes. The fashion industry requires extensive changes in supply chain, marketing, approach, impact, and other destructive practices. This change, however, would require little more than a few keystrokes to change the branding and labeling of products from something which causes harm to something which does not.

Definitely not a kimono.

Furthermore, use of more accurate terms actually benefits the consumer. For example, a loose drapey robe might be called a “kimono” on a fast fashion website. This label appropriates Japanese culture, but it is also simply inaccurate. This flowy polyester item shares no common traits with an elaborate silk garment in terms of print, material, construction techniques, intended use, etc. Other descriptive titles I might suggest: flowy robe, cozy robe, lounge robe. Maybe they want to get zany and call it the “summer drape” or the “evening breeze robe”. All of these are accurate, none of these are offensive, and, most importantly, none of these actively seek to profit off reductive stereotypes of cultures. I highlight the mislabeling of random drapes and robes as “kimonos” because this is a particularly tangible example of orientalism. There are a myriad of resources from a variety of scholars and thinkers on this issue, and I’ve linked a few articles at the end of this post.

Photography: Mikael Jansson
Styled by: Phyllis Posnick
Hair: Julian D’Ys
Makeup: Hannah Murray
Model: Karlie Kloss
Publication: Vogue, March 2017
This is not intended as a specific attack on any individual. Rather, this image exemplifies appropriative practices in the fashion industry.

Marketing Campaigns & Editorial Choices:

This systematic failure of the fashion industry to recognize instances of cultural appropriation and correct it manifests in other ways throughout the marketing, branding, and advertising processes of brands, as well as in editorial choices by major fashion publishers. Cultural appropriation might look like the use of hairstyles, makeup, props, scenery, or other details. These design practices rely heavily on stereotypes and exoticization, which ultimately is harmful and reductive. High-end magazine editorial spreads have a notorious history of perpetuating racist stereotypes – take, for example, this Vogue photoshoot from 2017, which undoubtedly fueled the fast fashion “kimono” trend. Finally, rather than simply produce higher quality clothing items, many brands seem to be more interested in shilling their cheaply made items under a thin racist and xenophobic veneer of “otherness.”

What can you actually do about it?

As a consumer, you don’t have the power to independently reshape the entire fashion industry. It feels heavy handed to repeat myself every week, but I will do it nevertheless. The systematic issues with the environmental and social impact of the fashion industry must be addressed at the macro level, holding multinational corporations responsible for the vast footprint of their processes. However, like most activism, the burden falls at the door of individual consumers, who may try their best, in their own ways, to mitigate some small part of the massive problem.

A few options present themselves to consumers for methods of addressing the issue of appropriative labelling. The easiest solution is perhaps the most obvious: Act with your spending power as a consumer. Obviously at Thrift 2 Fight, we encourage shopping vintage/second hand whenever possible. Seek out options which do not use problematic language in the description of clothing.

If you are going to purchase new clothes, take action with your dollars and refuse to give them to corporations that are perpetuating the exploitative cycle. If you see yourself adding a skirt that is called something like “geisha wrap skirt” to your cart, stop, close that tab, take a second to reflect on why that marketing was appealing to you, and then go shop somewhere else.

In your own description of your clothes, both in conversation and on social media, do not use these terms. Be creative. Capture how a garment looks, feels, or makes you feel. Developing a new mindset and new vocabulary to describe clothing takes work and may feel uncomfortable at first. 

Please stop calling fabric “tribal print.” This term is fairly pervasive in marketing. However, unless you purchased an item from an artist or creator who is a member of a specific tribe, this term is unlikely to be accurate or meaningful as a way to discuss the piece in question. Educate yourself and find better ways to communicate about the clothing and accessories that you purchase, wear, and discuss. Examine how and why you find these terms meaningful to describe clothing, and learn new ways to think about and enjoy the fabric in your life.

Definitely not tribal print.

Appropriative Clothing:

The issues involved with appropriative clothing are profound. Scholars, experts, and humans with different lived experiences than myself have written books, articles, and blog posts on the topic. We can all continue to learn, grow, and move forward with the goal of minimizing harm to others. It would be remiss of me to leave this article on appropriative labeling without highlighting that some clothing has an appropriative label because the clothing is, itself, culturally significant to another culture. A polyester robe never shared any similarities with a kimono, so changing the way we refer to it can solve this issue. Relabelling a piece of appropriative clothing does not solve that issue.

Some clothing truly does belong to another culture. Consider a feathered headdress for example. Calling it a “festival headband” does not make it any less of a significant cultural clothing item. Renaming garments does not erase the harm caused to the cultures from which these garments have been stolen. Educate yourself on the cultural significance of the item, research, and listen to the perspectives of other people, even if they make you uncomfortable. Your preference for or attraction to an item which does not belong to you will never outweigh the importance of the culture and the people to whom the garment does belong. It is especially important to consider the viewpoints and preferences of people to whom the clothing is culturally significant. We can all benefit from raising up voices which are not always included in the dialogue. For further reading, Jillian recommends Aja Barber’s book Consumed which discusses cultural appropriation in detail.

We can not tolerate xenophobia, racism, and cultural appropriation from the fashion industry titans. The use of appropriative language in clothing descriptions is not an oversight or error, but rather a manifestation of a culture which rampantly capitalizes on exploitation and reinforces stereotypes. Eschewing the practice in our own lives and seeking out others who do the same is one small step toward righting the many issues with this industry.

Further reading:

https://www.ajabarber.com/book

https://dismantlemag.com/2019/07/22/dress-code-kimono-cultural-appropriation/

https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/orie/hd_orie.htm

Eleni Georgiadis

Eleni Georgiadis is a classically trained horn player currently residing in Kentucky. Outside of music, she enjoys knitting, sewing, composting, kombucha brewing, and spending time outdoors. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her thoughts about sustainability and inclusivity in fashion, weaving together her technical knowledge, passion, and research.