Fashion’s 5 Biggest Cultural Mishaps In 2014

By Giselle Defares

The drama in the microcosm of the fashion industry has been the gift that keeps on giving in 2k14. Blisters have formed on the fingers of fashion writers who hastily tried to churn out their witty think pieces. Whether it was orientalism in the Topshop collection, feminism-lite on the runway of Chanel, the “This is what a feminist looks like” tees from Elle, the reinstatement of enfant terrible John Galliano at the helm of Maison Martin Margiela, or the assimilation aesthetic of Ralph Lauren.

What stood out in 2014 was the cooperation of styles on the runway that have been worn for years within the “urban” community a.k.a. by people of color. The line between appreciation and appropriation was often crossed. Friend and foe generally agree that the status of fashion is highly ambiguous. The paradoxical nature of fashion is simultaneously its raison d’ être. Sure, I get it. Social imitation is a part of the fashion process. After all, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but sometimes it’s just blatantly copying. Designers are influenced by the world surrounding them and fashion doesn’t only contain reproduction, but also resistance, opposition, revolt. Fashion is inherently cyclical so we can never speak of a final moment. The battle is constantly to be fed and renewed. Ultimately, fashion is not just dialogue, it is also a debate.


1)    The Exotic Prop

The British model Edie Campbell took a high fashion trip for W magazine to “The Golden Land” of Burma. The editorial was shot by fashion photographer Tim Walker, and highlights the white model against the background of the “exotic” nation and its citizens. How original. This is not the first time that W magazine has shot an insensitive editorial. In 2008, famed photographer Bruce Weber shot Local Color with Kate Moss and Sascha Pivovarova clad in traditional sarees against a backdrop of anonymous Indian locals. As Ayeshda Siddiqi writes, cultural appropriation occurs “across a matrix of power: the power of visibility, the power to define what is ‘ethnic’ in the market.” W removed one photo of Campbell from their Instagram, presumably in light of the negative comments, but the editorial is still up on its website. The short article consists of four paragraphs including the gem: “[T]he concept of a fashion shoot is so foreign to the locals that enlisting their help was often an exercise in making lemonade. Walker asked for six nuns in traditional pink robes; one monk in orange turned up.” Ah, a nice touch of cultural imperialism. That being said, there was almost no backlash for Edie Campbell and W.


2)    Columbusing

According to urban dictionary, the definition of columbusing is “when white people claim they have invented/discovered something that has been around for years, decades, even centuries.” This can be applied to the copying of styles that were worn by Black and Latina women.

  •  In September, the LA Times thought to be on trend and published an interesting “trend” piece where they heralded cornrows as the latest do for fall 2014. Writer Ingrid Schmidt does my head in when she penned, “Move over, Bo Derek. [..] Cara Delevingne, singer Rita Ora and actress Kristen Stewart [..] Madeline Brewer in ‘Orange Is the New Black’ was another forerunner of the trend.” OK, so no people of color were named in the piece. How’s that for being on trend…
  • DKNY—and subsequently Dazed mag—gave us the goods during New York Fashion Week when backstage photos popped up where the models posed with slicked down baby hair (cough, it’s not even real gelled down baby hair as seen by FKA Twigs or Chilli from TLC). DKNY’s show was titled “New York Nation” and aimed to celebrate the city’s “color, culture and creativity.” As if.
  •  And your favorite retailer Nasty Gal introduced the Nasty Gal’s Vegan Leather Du Rag. I kid you not. For a mere $50 you can look on point or as they say “ Sometimes you’ve just got to du-rag you”. No further comment.


3)    Native American Headdress

Oh, Pharrell. The enlightened—apparently part Native American—crooner got a truck load of criticism when he donned a faux native headdress on Elle UK’s July 2014 cover. Twitter never fails to disappoint and started the hashtag #NotHappy. Pharrell saw the error of his ways and wrote a statement: “I respect and honor every kind of race, background and culture. I am genuinely sorry.”


4)    Urban Outfitters

The fast fashion retailer Urban Outfitters never fails to disappoint. Fast fashion is subject to constant change. The new replaces the old, and is only appreciated for its newness. Because it involves a change just for the sake of change the emphasis is on the temporal, fleeting, and this is just why fast fashion is appreciated. Nevertheless, Urban Outfitters honored its name when they opted for the Lord Ganesha Duvet Cover. The duvet cover angered the Hindu community. Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, said in a statement, “Lord Ganesha was highly revered in Hinduism and was meant to be worshipped in temples or home shrines, and not to be slept upon.” At this point, it seems that it’s just their PR strategy to garner attention for their brand, as sales are declining. According to BuzzFeed: “Urban is also worried that it’s gotten too young. Richard Hayne, CEO of the parent company, said in March that the brand is trying to win back its core demographic of 18- to 28-year-olds after drawing in too many 14- and 15-year-olds customers.” Right, offending the Hindu community is the way forward.

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5)    Timberlands

According to the fashionistas at Elle, Timberlands are the new Birkenstocks. Timberlands are the new rage because “cool girls are wearing Timbs, from Cara Delevingne to Rihanna to Gwen Stefani.” They forgot to mention the boot’s history as a staple of hip-hop. Twitter saved the day with the hashtag #EllesNextHeadline. Elle writer Chaédria LaBouvier reflects on the post in a personal essay, “When I wore Timberlands, it was coded as being ‘ghetto,’ ‘hood,’ and all of the other pejoratives that short-circuit to ‘Black.’ But when White people wear them, it’s ‘new,’ ‘edgy,’ and ‘trendsetting.'” She argues, “I felt that the people who made it cool for Cara Delevingne and Khloe Kardashian to want to trade their Louboutins for a pair were being unnecessarily left out of the narrative. How can you talk about the sexiness of Rihanna’s Timbs without talking about how much they were a part of Aaliyah’s tomboy ingénue? Before we label Gwen Stefani’s red Timbs (with the tag intact) pioneering, let’s take a moment to acknowledge Cam’ron’s much-copied pink Timberlands from 2003.” That would be an end to the saga but no in December Vogue recycled Elle’s Timberland story. Apparently they didn’t get the memo.

Let’s hope 2015 will ignite change.

Just kidding, prepare yourself for the 2015 Met Gala: themed “Chinese Whispers”…


About Giselle

GiselleGiselle Defares enjoys googling random things like it’s academic research but her grandma Hilda had a premonition of a great future. So, there’s that.


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