Cultural Appropriation: How appropriate are your accessories?

Emily Horgan discusses the increase in cultural appropriation in latest fashion trends

Cultural appropriation is defined as “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group who may eventually become the new face of said cultural practices, passing the illusion that certain cultural practices are authentic to them.” So after that mouthful, what does it really mean? Even more so, what does it really mean when it comes to fashion and our potential (and often unintentional) involvement?

The fashion industry has been put under scrutiny recently for exactly this issue, after Givenchy’s stunning yet controversial showcase at Paris Fashion Week earlier this month. The models’ hair and makeup were said to be inspired by a ‘Victorian Chola’ look, with ‘Chola’ being the word that sparked the controversy.

Chola is a term used to describe Mexican woman who are stereotyped by their appearance. Recognised by dark lined lips, pencilled in eyebrows and curled and gelled hair, Cholas (with Cholo as their male counterparts) are generally seen to be part of all women gangs in urban Mexico. So when Givenchy used this term to describe the looks of their models for the show, it raised some eyebrows as to whether the term was appropriate to use in the given context.

In general, this eyebrow raising controversy never really comes to a definite conclusion. Givenchy and other designers often take their inspiration from different cultures and heritages without the intention of malice or degradation of the lifestyle. However, the line gets blurred when one considers that often the cultures or religions they tend glamourise on the catwalk are usually those that have struggled or are sacred to its people.

The issue that we are facing today is that cultural appropriation has gone from catwalks, which tend to be a more accepted platform due to the artistic and cultural setting, to everyday life. Festival fashion has recently become littered with Native American headgear, bindis and henna tattoos which, in certain cultures, represent ancestral struggles or are reserved for very special religious occasions. Of course, one cannot assume these trends are insulting or inappropriate unless actually part of the ‘targeted’ cultural groups, which often makes it difficult to make a decision.

It also has to be considered that if we choose to accept some trends as being appropriate and not others, could that be considered a form of racism or prejudice on our part? As always, an educated decision is always the best decision. Below are the historical and cultural backgrounds of many trends that are cropping up in our stores recently which could alter your perception on their place in your wardrobe.


When mentioning the word Geisha, people generally have a clear vision of what they look like – pale complexion, red lips, slippers with white socks and kimonos. Geisha are traditional symbols of Japanese culture who entertain and perform various Japanese arts for a male audience. Originally, geisha women were young girls whose families were displaced during troubles in Japan in the 600s. Often tied with prostitution, Geisha women were also highly educated in skills like calligraphy, poetry and the arts. The severe pressure of beauty standards within the Geisha culture tied with the auctioning off of Geisha’s virginity and elements of sex slavery meant that many vulnerable young Japanese women were often coerced and trapped in these roles. Many often admitted to simply ‘existing’ in the karyukai (the Japanese form of a brothel). Around the time of World War II, Geisha arts declined as most of the women were needed for factory work.

Geisha fashion is inspiring high street and couture trends alike with singers like Katy Perry adapting the look to be included in her world tour.



Turbans are customary headwear worn by men in many cultures, but most predominantly with Sikhs, where it is called a Dastar. In Muslim religious customs, men wear turbans which are referred to as Sunnah Mu’akkadah. They are worn as a symbol of nobility, and with Sikh’s it is made very clear that it is not just a piece of religious paraphernalia, but a symbol that carries immense spiritual significance. It is also worn as a mark of respect to the Sikh Guru’s who wore them at the formation of the faith.  Stretching across all forms of religions and stages of history, even being mentioned in the Old Testament, the turban has always been held in high religious and cultural esteem. However, it has recently become a fashion statement in modern culture by young women.




The bindi, a small jewel or red dot placed between the eyebrows on a person’s forehead, is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has a big religious significance. Sometimes referred to as the ‘third eye and the flame,’ it is an auspicious religious and spiritual symbol. The reason for its significance is because the forehead area between the brows is thought to be the sixth chakra – an energy point and node on the body, which represents hidden wisdom. It’s seen to increase concentration, but when painted in red, represents honour, love and prosperity. Although bindi’s are not restricted to certain religions or regions in the world, it is certainly most popular with Hindus and is symbolic in parts of India. In modern western societies, young women are wearing bindi jewels and paint to festivals and parties as a fashion accessory.



Henna is a dye that is used to create temporary tattoos that usually last between 5 to 7 days. Originally used by Egyptians for aesthetic purposes, henna has been adopted and reserved by religions for sacred festivities like marriage. The Night of the Henna is a ceremony held by Iraqi Jews a few nights before a wedding where close family and friends of the bride would come to celebrate the separation of the bride from her family. Henna night is also a big part of Muslim and Islamic wedding customs. Referred to as Mehndi, it is held on the night before the wedding and includes rituals like brightening the Bride’s complexion with turmeric paste and the application of henna on the hands and feet of the bride. Nowadays, henna is used for short term tattooing for festivals and general aesthetic purposes with young people in all countries.



Rosary beads are a physical method of keeping count of the number of prayers said. Without the need to worry of keeping count, it allows the person to focus mainly on being closer to their religion. Each Rosary Bead usually contains five sets of ten small beads, with a larger bead encasing each set of ten. The larger beads represent the Lord’s Prayer, which is traditionally said before and after each decade of the Rosary. The ten smaller beads represent each Hail Mary to be said. The user holds the beads between two hands of prayer and slides the beads along with each prayer said.  Rosary Beads are very important symbols of religion for Catholics and Christians, often carried around by Catholics for a form of spiritual protection. Now, they have been adapted into male fashion trends as necklaces and can be bought in most high street stores.





The Keffiyeh is a cotton square of patterned fabric which is worn as a traditional headdress or scarf by Arabs, Kurds and some Turks. The colour of the Keffiyeh is representing of the people who wear it, with red reserved for Palestinian nationals. It is symbolic for different reasons, depending on the colour and who is wearing them. Red symbolises Palestinian nationalism during the Arab Revolt during the 1930’s. The black and white Keffiyeh was later seen to be ironically connected with the Palestinian politician, Yasser Arafat who founded the Farah political party in the late 50’s. If the Keffiyeh is draped over the right shoulder, it was seen to be a mark of respect to historic Palestine. It has now been adapted by large groups teenagers in America and Tokyo in particular as a popular fashion accessory worn as a scarf.