When Cultural Fashion Inspiration Turns into a Stereotypical Mess

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, right? This may ring true when adopting a trend seen during Fashion Week, but there is nothing flattering about a brand imitating other cultures for popularity and sales.

Each culture holds its own unique style , which may be perceived differently around the world. In order to generate new ideas to appeal to a constantly-changing audience, many clothing brands look to global cultures for inspiration.

Although this bold move puts a new edge on a brand’s clothing line, imitating another culture’s fashion usually backfires on the brand and offends some part of their audience.

Victoria’s Secret has faced multiple issues with cultural imitation. The popular lingerie brand has received negative backlash for sexualizing various cultures. During the 2012 Victoria Secret Fashion Show, model Karlie Kloss sported a Native American inspired ensemble that included a feathered headdress, turquoise jewelry and a fringed belt. Native Appropriations, a blog examining representations of indigenous people, criticized the outfit by writing, “So Victoria’s Secret, now is the time to apologize. It’s not too late to cut Karlie’s headdressed outfit out and leave it on the editing room floor. This isn’t “fun,” this isn’t a “fantasy” character. This is about our cultures, our bodies, and our lives. Native people demand and deserve far more respect than this.” Victorias Secret listened to Adrienne, the author of this blog along with thousands of other furious Native Americans by removing the outfit from the televised event.

But this was not the end of the company’s cultural shaming.

A lingerie piece titled “Sexy Little Geisha” was seen on Victoria Secret’s website with the caption, “Your ticket to an exotic adventure: a sexy mesh teddy with flirty cutouts and Eastern-inspired florals. Sexy little fantasies, there’s one for every sexy you.” The outfit itself is stereotypical enough by highlighting chopsticks in her hair and a paper fan in one hand. The additional comment generalizes Asian culture, calling it “Eastern-inspired” and referring to the look as a “fantasy”.

Sexy Little Geisha outfit, Victoria’s Secret

The lingerie can be found on Jezebel’s blog , along with a quote from Mimi Nguyen, associate professor of women’s and Asian American studies at the University of Illinois–Urbana Champaign and cofounder with Minh-Ha Pham of the Threadbared fashion blog . Nguyen flags the collection as a set of “stereotypical images that use racist transgression to create an exotic edge,” pointing out that all of the models wearing the Go East lingerie are non-Asian. “Asians can’t wear things like the ‘sexy little geisha’ outfit without looking ridiculous,” she says. “But it’s a way for white women to borrow a racially exotic edge for a moment’s play.”

Just like the Native American incident, Victorias Secret removed their “Sexy Little Geisha” lingerie line after receiving outrage from fans, claiming the collection was “sold out”.

Similarly, Dolce and Gabbana, an Italian luxury brand, showcased earrings depicting African American slaves during last year’s Spring Fashion Week. The Huffington Post refers to the earrings as “Blackamoors”, known as black figures dressed in turbans and jewels, which is usually considered collectible art, but can still be very offensive.
Like Victoria Secret’s “Geisha” mishap, there were not any African American models seen on Dolce & Gabbana’s runway, which raises questions about the company’s purpose.

Urban Outfitters, an American clothing brand, has even faced legal action for pulling inspiration from the Native American culture. Navajo Nation sued UO for using their trademarked name on clothing and accessories.

Urban Outfitters
Navajo clothing & accessories, Urban Outfitters

Racialicious, a blog that relates race to pop culture, addressed their anger for the products in an open letter to Urban Outfitters stating, “ In all seriousness, as a Native American woman, I am deeply distressed by your company’s mass marketed collection of distasteful and racially demeaning apparel and décor. I take personal offense to the blatant racism and perverted cultural appropriation your store features this season as “fashion.”

Ouch. You’d think Urban Outfitters would learn from this controversy. But they didn’t.

The Week highlights 13 instances Urban Outfitters has angered fans.

I applaud all the bloggers criticizing these acts of offense toward different cultures, and hopefully their efforts will end cultural shaming in fashion.

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  1. Wow. I had no idea that this was even something that went on in the fashion world. It seems like a pretty thin line to walk (the line between inspiration and racial tension). It seems like there are a lot of fashion brands that have taken inspiration for fashion (i.e. the whole aztec print trend from last summer) that haven’t gotten any negative feedback. If I was a fashion company, I would definitely be scared to release anything.  

  2. I was just talking about cultural appropriation a little while ago! If you don’t know the meaning behind something then don’t wear it or just look up what it means. I found a post the other day that talked about an Indian girl seeing the same girls that bullied her for her Indian food wearing a Bindi as a fashion statement and calling it cool. They didn’t make fun of her for that but they make fun of other parts of the culture? That’s not cool.

  3. I really enjoyed this piece because this is a hot topic issue that alot of people don’t talk about. The cultural appropriation in the fashion world is something that is often overlooked, so thank you for voicing your discomfort about this issue and how harmful it can be to people and their traditions. I will definitely share this piece with my social sphere to keep the conversation going. Keep on fighting the good fight!

  4. I really found this article interesting because it is such an important topic right now. especially with the trend of people wearing headdresses to music festivals and concerts.  Your article is very well written and was definitely eye opening for me.

  5. I remember studying the urban outfitters shirt in my PR class last semester when it first came out and discussing how they have had a history with pulling stunts like this. I also learned about cultural appropriation (stealing aspects from other cultures and calling them your own without credit) and that seems to apply here too!

  6. There is a lot of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry that often upsets the public, but it’s still happening! It’s so frustrating that the designers aren’t getting the message!

  7. I knew about the distress over the Native American headdresses but I had no idea that so many designers and brands were continuing the issue. You would think that since this is such a hot button issue, stores and designers would hear what the public is saying and retract these items. 

  8. I don’t know if Urban Outfitters will ever learn. It’s concerning that these companies don’t learn their lessons when it comes to offending others cultures.

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