Marc Jacobs’ bold choice to don his models with colorful dreadlocks during the September New York Fashion Week show has caused quite the uproar, both in the fashion community and in the social justice community. Many are claiming that his use of the traditionally African hairstyle is cultural appropriation and he should be reprimanded for such a move. But others, including Jacobs himself, have retaliated saying that the term and standards of so-called “cultural appropriation” are stepping on the toes of the all-important first amendment—the right to freedom of speech and expression.
What is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is a broad and complex subject, explained by law professor Susan Scafidi from Fordham University to Jezebel.com as, “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” Dreadlocks are a hairstyle–”cultural expression”–with roots firmly in African tradition. Marc Jacobs, and the majority of his models, are not of African descent, so Jacob’s took a hairstyle from one culture and placed it onto women of another culture.
But, you may ask, isn’t this what black women do when they relax their hair or wear weave? Jacobs had the same reaction, saying on Instagram: “funny (sic) how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair.” The difference lies in which racial group is borrowing from another. When the minority population takes part in a cultural expression of the majority group, this is called “cultural assimilation.” However, when the majority group uses a cultural expression from a minority group, it’s “cultural appropriation.” In terms of hair, it’s culturally assimilative for black women to straighten their hair, but culturally appropriative for white girls to wear dreadlocks, bantu knots, or box braids (a la Kim Kardashian).
Olivia Culver, a Wheaton College student of color, says on the difference between cultural appropriation and assimilation: “In order for black women to successfully participate in society, they have had to assimilate to “white” hairstyles by straightening their natural kinky curly hair texture. It’s not a stylistic choice, but rather one done out of social obligation.”
“Crying Cultural Appropriation”
She, along with many others who have voiced their distaste on social media outlets, finds Jacobs’ dreadlocks choice culturally appropriative—and therefore problematic—because, in Olivia’s words, “is benefiting from black hairstyles while black women are punished and not allowed to wear those same hairstyles [due to being historically socially unacceptable and unprofessional.]”
However, just as many are biting back–including Jacobs himself–claiming that his colorful dreadlocks (and many other instances of what some call cultural appropriation) were completely appropriate, and claiming otherwise is infringing on “freedom of speech,” according to Jacobs. The designer claims that he “doesn’t see color” (which he later corrects to “Of course I do “see” color but I DO NOT (sic) discriminate”) and that he “wholeheartedly believe in freedom of speech and freedom to express oneself th[r]ough art, clothes, words, hair, music… EVERYTHING (sic).”
…and I thank you for expressing your feelings. I apologize for the lack of sensitivity unintentionally expressed by my brevity. I wholeheartedly believe in freedom of speech and freedom to express oneself though art, clothes, words, hair, music…EVERYTHING. Of course I do “see” color but I DO NOT discriminate. THAT IS A FACT! Please continue to express your feelings freely but do it kindly. Nothing is gained from spreading hate by name calling and bullying.
These thoughts were published to Instagram, and many commented with supportive vigor, agreeing that anyone of any race should be able to wear any cultural expression they desire, eliminating the concept for cultural appropriation.
Neither side in this controversy is backing down. But at last until his next show in 2017, Jacobs seems willing take a stand for free speech in the fashion world.