Major Cultural Issues in Fashion

Since ancient times, fashion designers have incorporated stylistic components from many cultures into their designs, and the appeal of conventional designs with an “ethnic” twist is still as strong as ever. The idea of “cultural appropriation” is hazy. It is possible to define it as the act of a person from a relatively dominant culture using a traditional cultural expression without the owner’s consent, acknowledgment, or payment and repurposing it in another situation that harms them. The fashion industry is about to go through a significant transition as a result of the public outcry brought on by several accusations of cultural appropriation. Around the world, there are requests for fashion designers to respect other cultures’ traditions by offering products that are respectful of their customs. Despite the ambiguity surrounding the phrase “cultural appropriation,” intellectual property (IP) unquestionably plays a part in preventing this damaging activity.

Misinterpretation of Culture

Designers can misuse traditional cultural expressions in ways that ignore or distort their cultural meaning, which is unfortunate because it causes significant harm to the people who originally created the expressions. Even unintended harm can have severe cultural, societal, and economic repercussions. For instance, the American sportswear brand Nike placed pe’a, a traditional Samoan male tattoo, on women’s exercise leggings in 2013. Nike removed the leggings from sale and issued an official apology in response to a backlash against the derogatory and disrespectful use of the term “pe’a.”

In reality, a lot of traditional clothing has deeper meaning and is an integral part of the identities of the Indigenous cultures that wear it rather than being only decorative or useful. Because of this, replicating designs without taking into account their underlying cultural importance can undermine a community’s sense of identity. Furthermore, cultural appropriation frequently results from colonization’s aftereffects and serves to deepen existing rifts as well as keep oppression and dispossession patterns alive. Additionally, creating traditional clothing is a source of revenue for many Indigenous peoples and local communities; therefore, cultural appropriation can deal a serious economic blow, undermining communities’ capacity to make a living by displacing the sale of genuine goods.

Mimic Approach

The fact that copying is so common in the global fashion business helps to explain many cases of cultural appropriation, at least in part. Even if fashion design exhibits an astounding degree of ingenuity, imitation continues to be a key factor in the conceptualization process. Many call this the “piracy paradox” because rapid copying ensures continued consumer demand for ever evolving designs.

As new trends from high fashion quickly filter down to fast fashion, designers are increasingly adopting a multicultural perspective and looking to a wide variety of cultural influences to create a constant flow of new and innovative looks. It’s nothing new, really. Since ancient times, fashion designers have been stealing style components from various cultures. From the late Middle Ages onward, foreign dress styles have influenced European style. Rich merchants all over the Old Continent benefited from the growth of trade with the Americas and Asia, particularly via the Silk Road, which supplied luxurious materials and cutting-edge fashions. In the early 1990s, designers began embracing traditional, ethnic, and folkloric elements and infusing patterns and motifs from Indigenous civilizations into their works of art. Traditional patterns continue to be popular now, just as they always have been. Fashion magazines are filled with articles of clothing and accessories that have a distinctly “ethnic” feel.

A Complicated Legal and Policy Environment

Cultural appropriation is the subject of intense controversy because it involves a complex web of legal and policy considerations. To begin with, not all cultural appropriation is bad. It is crucial to protect the right to free speech in a multicultural society and to avoid impeding innocent cross-cultural interactions. As a result, limiting cultural appropriation in fashion does not mean completely forbidding all uses of conventional cultural representations. Fashion develops and thrives because of a range of cultural influences, and a respectful interpretation of the world’s cultures can enable all cultures to mutually enhance themselves and result in real advantages for society.

Cultural appropriation is a grey area where legal inspiration can cross over into illegal appropriation, which makes it even more complicated. Depending on the level of protection that WIPO’s member states decide upon, the concepts of misuse or misappropriation at the core of WIPO’s programme of work on IP and traditional cultural expressions, which includes the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee (IGC) negotiations on the protection of traditional cultural expressions, may or may not overlap with what is understood by “cultural appropriation.” Up until that time, a lot needs to be done to explain the concept and make the general public and fashion designers aware of the harm that cultural appropriation may lead to.

How to Abolish Cultural Issues from the Fashion World?

Traditional cultural expressions aren’t covered by current IP laws and are instead placed in the public domain, leaving them open to appropriation and undermining the customary norms and customs that govern who can access and use them and how. In order to stop cultural appropriation in the fashion industry, it is crucial to carefully consider how IP legislation can be amended in order to better serve the demands of the owners of traditional cultural expressions in terms of how their culture is portrayed by fashion designers. Fashion designers can interact with different cultures and utilise traditional cultural expressions while working within the current legal framework without falling victim to the cultural appropriation trap by adhering to four guidelines that are: recognising and honouring those who practise traditional cultural practices; reinterpreting and respectfully transforming historic cultural expressions; recognising and honouring those who possess traditional cultural expressions; requesting permission from owners of traditional cultural manifestations and forming cooperative relationships with them.


Differentiating between distinct groups of people is the biggest drawback of cultural appropriation in fashion. A lack of racial equality is shown in society. Is it acceptable when a white customer is wearing it? Celebrities in advertisements and celebrities in general are making other cultures look down on them more frequently. The impacted cultures’ histories are not given serious consideration. Sometimes, even when there is no intent to disparage a culture for lacking diversity or understanding, logical fallacies are employed to make the argument seem convincing to the audience. Even when fashion industry advertisements tilt more toward cultural awareness, they unintentionally undermine cultural appropriation.

Updated on: 23-Nov-2022


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