Cultural appropriation in fashion & what you should do instead

Misappropriation of cultural elements, symbols, and practices in fashion may be offensive to marginalized communities. Learn to celebrate and appreciate cultural diversity and be responsible when engaging with other cultures.

There is a thin line between Cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, but that thin line is where respect and understanding do the balancing act.

Am I doing cultural appreciation or appropriation ? – this is the confusion of a lot of people, including me.

What I have understood about it is this – cultural appropriation is when you use real-world cultural elements or traditions in a way that disrespects or misrepresents a particular culture. According to Brittanica, “Cultural appropriation takes place when members of a majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical way.”

In fashion, this involves borrowing clothing designs that have connections to a specific culture without appreciating the culture, emphasizing cultural stereotypes, and sometimes even disrespecting the cultural connection in some way.

It is cultural appropriation, even if you appreciate the designs but refuse to acknowledge the culture behind it.

Understanding and respect in mind and actions differentiate cultural appreciation from cultural appropriation.

Examples of cultural appropriation

Brands using religious symbols in a fashion context.

In 2013 Urban Outfitters came under criticism for printing the image of the god Ganesha on socks. Lord Ganesha is one of the most worshipped deities in Hinduism, and this was appropriation without caring about the sensibilities of the worshipers.

A US-based online retailer was accused of hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus by selling footwear with the Om symbol. The Om symbol is a sacred symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Those brands who do this use these symbols for commercial gain without consideration for their spiritual importance to others. They act ignorant that religious symbols of another culture is very important to them. Disrespecting the symbols by using them in inappropriate places is no less than a crime. The least they can do is to use them in a respectful and reverential manner instead of using these on beer bottles and shoes.

That does not mean that these symbols can never be used. But they should be used in such a way that it celebrates the symbol’s significance.

Stereotyping and misrepresentation of minority communities

Some minority communities are stereotyped as exotic, and their customs are used by members of a dominant culture quite inappropriately. They are misrepresented in movies and runway shows in a certain way. This stereotyping trivializes the cultural significance of the whole community. The only aim is to Profit from the culture of others.

What you can do is to stop perpetuating stereotypes about certain communities.

Adopting some culturally significant practices as their own

A very popular topic in this regard is that of dredlocks. Those who protest against the adoption of this style argue that those who get their dredlocks in local parlors couldn’t care less about the importance this has on a different culture. They may be disapproving of the people of that culture using it. The same is the case with other hairstyles like cornrows. When black people or the Romanians use these styles, they are not approved of and may even be discriminated against. Then the same style is adopted by others quite carelessly.

This is, as I said, a tightrope walk. It is all about discrimination, equality etc, and many people have differing opinions about it.

For, eg. Can we never wear a Kimono because Japanese or Chinese people may think it offensive? Would Indians protest if someone out of their culture wore Sari? As far as I know, noone raises any issues, so long as there is no disrespect of the culture.

In fact trying the traditional costumes is a part of the tourist attraction in South Korea and other countries. They offer opportunities for tourists to experience their traditional costumes.

costume adaption by tourists in South Korea

Do we stop wearing jackets and pants because they belong to another culture?.

What about cosplay? Does this include cosplay? In cosplay, we adopt fashion designs of many cultures, mostly that of fictional characters. So it is argued that there is no cultural appropriation involved – usually.

But those who wear clothes of other cultures should avoid using the traditional attire as a mere costume and give the respect that it is given by that community. Learn the history and meaning of the cultural elements you will be using. Use them appropriately, not out of context.


There is no escape from cultural inclusiveness – as humans, we grow by assimilating cultural elements from around us. Cultural exchange and adaptation are a part of human evolution. But where is the borderline?

Those who feel strongly against cultural appropriation would associate strong words like exploitation, disrespect, exclusion, etc. But I wish that going forward, words like inclusivity, empathy, understanding, and respect would be associated with borrowing cultural elements. If there is an environment where people from different cultural backgrounds feel welcomed, respected, and included, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, language, gender, sexual orientation, or other cultural attributes, the term appropriation would not even be used.

What is your experience about cultural appropriation?

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Hi, I love sewing, fabric, fashion, embroidery, doing easy DIY projects and then writing about them. Hope you have fun learning from sewguide as much as I do. If you find any mistakes here, please point it out in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Cultural appropriation in fashion & what you should do instead”

  1. Thanks for the article about cultural sensitivity and appropriation. I found it only glosses the surface, which I believe was your intention, rather than an exhaustive study of the concept. When talking about clothes design and fabric design, it is next to impossible not to incorporate elements of different cultures. Even the ways clothes open and close are deeply rooted in history. (Think zippers, snaps, buttons, frogs etc.) I took weaving on a 12 harness loom when in art school and borrowed heavily on Danish weaving books that I couldn’t even read. I had to rely on the schematic drawings of the way warp threads are put into the heddles and tied to the lambs. The fabric was beautiful with a raised honeycomb weave, but certainly is borrowed from another culture. Yet, I had great respect for the artists I was learning from. Anyway, thanks again for the article. Barbara

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