Expressive or Exploitative?
A fierce group of girls strut down the runway at Fashion Week in Paris, modeling Givenchy’s upcoming Fall line. Their unique look has been referred to as Victorian Chola, black and lacy fabrics, paired with bold jewelry, and gelled baby hair around the model’s faces.
The look was striking, but received a lot of criticism. Many people are calling it cultural appropriation. (Cultural appropriation refers to members of one ethnic group stealing inspiration from another, generally without understanding the underlying history. In its most common form, it’s exploitive; seeing affluent cultures taking from marginalized ones.)
Historically, the term ‘chola’ was used by European colonizers, referring to South and Central Americans. In the 1960s, it was reclaimed by Mexican Americans, and became a celebration of Mexican culture. More recently, the elements of chola style have related to a specific subculture of Mexican American girls.
A chola girl embraced hip hop music, lowrider cars, and may have been involved in a gang. The style was all hair and attitude; baby gelled hairs framing the face was arguably its most characteristic look.
And herein lies the problem. Because if you saw one of these girls on the street, you might make assumptions about who she is and where she comes from, or even be intimidated by her presence, assuming her a hoodlum and gang member. And maybe she’s all of those things, or none. But when a wealthy European designer takes from Mexican middle/lower culture, adding ‘class’ to the look by putting it on the runway – with not a Latina model in sight – feathers are going to be ruffled.
(What message is this sending?)
In fact, every model in the show was caucasian, with the exception of this girl, whose picture I had to go out in search of, as she was missing from most of the articles I perused.
So how do we draw the line? When can we joyfully draw inspiration from other cultures, and when do we risk hurting them?
The body modification industry is built upon a rich culture, spanning the globe for thousands of years. Are we exploiting polynesian culture when a white dude gets a tribal tattoo just because he thinks it looks neat? Is it cultural appropriation when a girl gets a nostril piercing, having no knowledge of the rights of passage it can represent in India?
There seems to be a moment when a culturally specific style reaches a tipping point. It becomes generally accepted across cultures, and embraced by all. With or without significant meaning. And that’s alright. But maybe the trade off for that privilege can be more acceptance. Next time you’re met with an unfamiliar beauty trend of the world, instead of judging, making assumptions, or mocking, you can ask questions and learn something.
You never know, one day it might be a part of your culture too.