Fashion, Opinions

Is it Cultural Appropriation to wear an item from another culture?

Without the proper respect? Yes, it is.

words by: Natasha Marsh
Mar 9, 2021

Like many Black women I know, my bathroom is filled with bonnets, scarves, and turbans to protect my hair. I wear one of the three every night to protect my strands from any breakage and to hold the moisture and natural oils in my hair, from keeping it from drying out. Although hair coverings could benefit multiple hair types, they were made for the Black community — not for fashion but for protection.


When I see women not of color frolicking around in turbans or scarves in the name of fashion while on vacation in Morocco, Greece, or other cities — I can’t help but feel some type of way. Why you ask? Because, more times than not, they don’t understand the significance of the item and the impact they have on the culture. More times than not, our culture and inventions are copied into white culture and then profited, or made famous, with no credit (or coin) ever coming back to Black culture.


Cornrows, for example, worn by Black men and women for centuries now, became part of “mainstream culture” when actress Bo Derek wore them in the 1979 movie, 10. All of a sudden, white women were getting “Bo Derek braids” and crediting the style to the American actress. Fashion latched onto this new “urban hairstyle” trend by styling models in cornrows for high fashion runway shows, later to be seen on Kim Kardashian, Fergie, Katy Perry and more. Was this culture appropriation? Because these styles were created by African American communities in order to affirm our identities and voices, I would say it was.


The fact of the matter is: Black culture is idolized. We are seen as cool, trendy, chic and innovative. It’s not surprising that our style is often copied. What’s frustrating though, is when appropriators fail to speak about the racism that comes along with the Black identity. Blackness is not an accessory you can slip on and off when you please. What’s not appropriation, is someone who appreciates the culture and is politely borrowing the item — which leads us to culture exchange.


Culture exchange is when someone has done a bit of research on the product and/or culture and is wearing the item as an act of cultural solidarity. They might do a Google search to see what the item symbolizes, as well as what it means when outsiders wear it. However, it’s 100 percent culture appropriation if the wearer is sporting the look to intentionally offend or assert power of the community.


The thing is, each culture has the authority to give permission to share a cultural tradition, or not. And to be clear, I don’t speak for all Black people — we don’t all share the same views about every single issue out there.  I am simply speaking as someone who has irritatingly seen too much appropriation and ignorance over the past few years. In college, when I wore my bonnet or turban out in public, I would get stares and hear it being described as, “ghetto”, “dirty” and “unprofessional.” Meanwhile, a white person could do that and it’s called fashion. She doesn’t have to think about her wardrobe choices as much as I have to, and this is why culture appropriation is so frustrating.


The line between culture appropriation and exchange is always going to be blurred. I am not saying you are only allowed to wear items from your culture. That would be ludicrous. I am saying, if you’re thinking about wearing something outside of your culture, give the respective culture their flowers by honoring what you are borrowing. Period.


Photo via Kevin Mazur/Getty Images