Paris Fashion Week ended less than a week ago, but some prominent themes and trends have already crystallized. One of the most ubiquitous elements running through the collections was a tribal theme. This brings about serious questions regarding cultural appropriation in fashion and how it relates to body image. I spoke with Gillian McGhee, an anthropology student, to get her thoughts on this particular aspect of the season.
The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Martin: How do you feel about fashion appropriating the dress or aesthetic of other cultures?
Gillian: I don’t think it can always be a negative thing. A lot of times we see, Halloween is a great example, you dress up as a different culture and it’s branded as racist. But I don’t think it always has to be this venomous cultural appropriation. I think there are ways of incorporating a different culture’s fashion into your own that isn’t offensive and it can be used as a learning tool. Then it makes it more familiar to you and it’s not scary.
M: When it’s done poorly, what do you think makes it an inappropriate reference?
G: I think if the people’s culture you’re appropriating from take offense to it then you’ve done something wrong. A lot of times you find…some people just get offended off the bat as soon as you bring a different culture into fashion and say ‘that’s racist.’ If the original group doesn’t take offense to it and it’s not being used in a derogatory manner, generally, I don’t see a problem with it.
M: How do you think fashion affects our culture’s understanding of itself?
G: I think fashion is a really important medium that can reinforce and express different cultural values in a way that is very individual because you use your agency to choose what you wear and it also shows, as a collective, what group you belong to within a society and in society in general. I think fashion’s a really cool identity marker for a culture and for a person and that’s why I think we place so much emphasis on it, and it’s also an art form.
M: Do you think that that marker or identification system brings more people together or is more divisive?
G: I think a lot of the time it can be divisive, at least in American culture because we focus so much on ‘I’, the individual and what ‘I’ do. We want to each be separate and unique from one another. Clothing is something people bond over all the time so I think it can do both.
M: How do you think fashion affects how people perceive body or conceptualize body image, either their own or in general?
G: If we want to talk about the fashion we’re bombarded with in media, I think because we have these body types, these models, who have relatively unachievable body types for the average American woman, just seeing those clothes—the clothes that are made for them, the clothes that look good on them—doesn’t necessarily look good on other women, but we want to consume those items of clothing. But what I think fashion can do, it can liberate you from those constraints. I think you can find what fits your body type—finding a dress that you look good in or a blouse that is really flattering—that can really boost your confidence and your image. I think it’s all about finding what fits each person.
M: How do you think it differs for men and women?
G: I think because men aren’t hyper-sexualized the way women are, to the same degree at least, I’m not saying they’re not sexualized because they are, there’s less pressure to conform to that norm that isn’t even a norm for men. Just the way clothing is designed to fit men is not necessarily skin-tight. You can get away with a large beer gut with a large T-shirt and there’s less of a revealing factor for men. Men are covered up for the most part in day-to-day living. Going to the beach is a different story. And I think the way clothes are designed to fit men in this culture kind of gives less pressure to look a certain way, but men are still susceptible to all the pressures from media. Even in celebrity culture you see women swooning over these men that have a certain look and are a certain way and not being able to conform to that can be negative.