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Culturally Inappropriate Hairstyles on the Runway Highlight a Need for Greater Diversity

by Emily Jarecki

Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons showcased its Fall/Winter 2020 line in Paris Fashion Week on January 17 with white models wearing cornrow wings. The label has been under fire for cultural appropriation and have expressed their apologies for the mistake. African hairstyles like cornrows, box braids, dreadlocks, and afros are protective hairstyles for textured hair; they are not just an aesthetic for designers to play with.

Cornrows are strongly linked to African American culture, where they are more than just a trend. Still largely worn in West Africa, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa, they can signify age, religious beliefs, kinship, wealth, and a form of self-expression. By incorporating this into their designs, designers appropriate the cultural traditions; these traditions' significance becomes superficial and meaningless.

One main issue for designers is the ferocious rate at which fashion trends change. This leaves designers with little time to learn, appreciate, and understand the elements of different cultures they want to incorporate into their own visual style. Designers are provided with hundreds of opportunities to depict other cultures that are unknown to the majority. Although it may be cultural appropriation, it provides them with fast fashion and easy new trends.

In 2018, Vogue featured Kendall Jenner wearing an afro intending to bring back the big, teased hair that was popular in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s not surprising when there is a reappearance of old styles as designers often draw inspiration from trends set decades ago. However, the audience reception of Kendall’s look was harsh; many did not see it like a flash to the past; instead, they saw it discrediting black women’s natural features.

The question was asked: why didn’t they use a black woman to portray the afro?

The answer: because African American models are often encouraged to ‘westernize’ their natural hair. Model Tyra Banks lost her first opportunity to become a Victoria’s Secret model because of her natural hair that was “too frizzy” for the hairdresser. She recounted, “I was sent home the first day because the hairdresser didn’t know what to do with my African American hair.” To get the job as a Victoria’s Secret model later on, Tyra had to do her own hair before coming to the studio.

It is increasingly evident that models of color face discrimination in the fashion industry. This discrimination leads to a lack of diversity, which is the root cause of designers appropriating the African American culture.

Comme des Garçons posted on Instagram an explanation for their wig choice, claiming they was inspired by the style of an “Egyptian Prince,” and it was not a conscious decision to appropriate any culture. This reinforces that this issue comes from a lack of awareness and diversity; it is not intentional malice and can be cured with education.

Is it possible to include hairstyles from African American culture into the fashion industry without criticism? Simply speaking, yes, but it would require the fashion industry to increase its diversity on the runway. This would allow white women and women of color to flaunt their unique traits respectfully. After all, there is nothing more beautiful than women feeling confident in their own skin. What better place to celebrate that than on the runway?

Emily Jarecki is an editorial write who finds importance in stories that encourage one to stand out and be themselves whether it be in fashion, ambition, or lifestyle.


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