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Fashionably Informed: Cultural Appropriation & Stereotyping in Retail Fashion


Welcome to College Fashion’s biweekly column, Fashionably Informed. As a CF reader, it’s clear that you love fashion. But have you ever wondered about the drama that goes on behind the scenes? To keep you up to speed, this column aims to inform you about important issues and controversies in the fashion industry.

In case you missed them, see past posts on Retouching & Photoshopping, Tanning Promotion in the Media, Hypocrisy in Beauty Marketing, Racism in the Modeling Industry, “White-Washing” & Skin Lightening, and Homosexuality in the Fashion Industry.

Urban Outfitters

Urban Outfitters’ “Navajo”-Inspired Clothing Line | Photo Credit

For this week’s post, we are returning to our series on racism in the fashion industry. Over the past few months, we have discussed Racism in the Modeling Industry and “White-Washing” & Skin Lightening. This time, we are tackling a slightly different topic: cultural appropriation and stereotyping of culture and ethnicity in retail fashion.

This topic idea was derived from a suggestion by CF reader Amanda. She commented on the last article in our series on racism, saying:

I would be interested in seeing an article on the appropriation of other cultures in the fashion industry. Especially prominent right now is the appropriation of Native American and Asian cultures. Anyway, thanks again!

Thank you, Amanda, for your excellent suggestion. Just last week, media outlets went wild about Victoria’s Secret’s “Sexy Little Geisha” costume, but we will get to the topic later in this post.

The Victoria’s Secret controversy is just one example among many: Numerous retailers have offended consumers by portraying races and cultures in stereotypical and negative ways, or trivializing cultures by turning them into “trends.” Native American and Asian cultures are perhaps appropriated and stereotyped the most in the US, however this issue affects a wide range of cultural groups. 

Given that today is both Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day, it’s an ideal time to raise awareness about the topic, in hopes that we can all recognize these acts when they occur and work together to change the way cultures are portrayed in fashion.

While stereotyping and appropriation happen across the industry – in magazines and ads, and on the runways – today, we’re going to focus on controversies surrounding popular retail stores.

First, a Few Definitions

Before we get started, let’s define a few terms so we’re all on the same page.

According to Wikipedia, “cultural appropriation” is defined as follows:

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and artreligionlanguage, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held.

When we refer to “stereotypes,” we are using the following definition, again from Wikipedia. (Note the differences between stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination):

Stereotypesprejudice and discrimination are understood as related but different concepts. Stereotypes are regarded as the most cognitive component, prejudice as the affective and discrimination as the behavioral component of prejudicial reactions. In this tripartite view of intergroup attitudes, stereotypes reflect expectations and beliefs about the characteristics of members of groups perceived as different from one’s own, prejudice represents the emotional response, and discrimination refers to actions.

Although related, the three concepts can exist independently of each other. According to Daniel Katz and Kenneth Braly, stereotyping leads to racial prejudice when people emotionally react to the name of a group, ascribe characteristics to members of that group, and then evaluate those characteristics.

Now that we all understand what these terms mean, let’s talk about some recent examples of appropriation and stereotyping in retail fashion. Below, I’ll lay out a few different incidents affecting a number of cultural groups.

Urban Outfitters

Urban Outfitters has been accused several times of portraying cultures in a negative or inappropriate manner. Each time, they have stated that they had no intention of offending anyone. In many cases, UO has ended up removing the offending items from stores.

“Navajo” Clothing Line

About a year ago, Urban Outfitters came under fire for their “Navajo”-inspired clothing line. The fashion retailer featured several designs that they labeled as “Navajo” (see top photo above). These included a “Navajo Hipster Panty” and a “Navajo Print Fabric Wrapped Flask.”

While numerous people found these items offensive, perhaps no one was more insulted than the Navajo National Government. They were firstly offended by the portrayal of their culture as a mere fashion trend. However, an additional problem was that these “trendy” items were labeled “Navajo”.

According to The Globe and Mail, the Navajo National Government  “holds a dozen trademarks on the name, encompassing clothing, textiles, household products and other items.” Consequently, the Navajo Nation Government sent a cease-and-desist letter to Urban Outfitters, demanding that they remove the trademarked name from the items in question.

In a statement to the Associated Press, the tribe’s attorney said,

“When products that have absolutely no connection to the Navajo Nation, its entities, its people, and their products are marketed and retailed under the guise that they are Navajo in origin, the Navajo Nation does not regard this as benign or trivial. It takes appropriate action to maintain distinctiveness and clarity of valid name association in the market and society.”

Along with the Navajo National Government, numerous Native Americans across the country were deeply offended. On the news blog, Racialicious, guest contributor Sasha Houston Brown wrote an open letter to Urban Outfitters’ CEO. In it, she said,

In all seriousness, as a Native American woman, I am deeply distressed by your company’s mass marketed collection of distasteful and racially demeaning apparel and décor. I take personal offense to the blatant racism and perverted cultural appropriation your store features this season as “fashion.”

In response to the demands of the Navajo National Government and other offended individuals, Urban Outfitters told the Associated Press,

“Like many other fashion brands, we interpret trends and will continue to do so for years to come. The Native American-inspired trend and specifically the term ‘Navajo’ have been cycling through fashion, fine art and design for the last few years.”

While Urban Outfitters denied any wrongdoing in their statement, they subsequently removed the word “Navajo” from the products in question. The Hufington Post reported that the offensive items were renamed.

Despite Urban Outfitters’ actions to re-name the products, according to The Guardian, the Navajo Government filed a lawsuit against the company. The fashion retailer removed the “Navajo” name from the products on their website – however, the lawsuit asserted that the names remained in other places. The Guardian explains:

But the lawsuit claims that products with the Navajo name were still being sold through other company brands, such as Free People, in catalogues and retail outlets.

The lawsuit is still ongoing, as is the controversy.

“Jewish Star” T-Shirt

Urban Outfitters'

Urban Outfitters’ shirt featuring “Jewish Star” | Photo Credit

Earlier this year, Urban Outfitters featured a shirt on their website that deeply insulted the Jewish community and others. The problem was that the shirt (pictured directly above) had a patch on its pocket that bore a strong resemblance to the Star of David, which Jewish individuals were forced to wear during the Holocaust.

The Huffington Post reported that the star outraged the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of Philadelphia. In their statement about the controversy, ADL’s regional director wrote,

We find this use of symbolism to be extremely distasteful and offensive, and are outraged that your company would make this product available to your customers.

The shirt was deemed offensive due to the Star of David’s connection to the Holocaust and Nazism. However, the brand, WoodWood, who produced the shirt, denied any intentional representation of the Holocaust. In response to ADL’s statement, WoodWood stated the following:

First of all the graphic is not the Star of David, and I can assure you that this is in no way a reference to Judaism, Nazism or the holocaust. The graphic came from working with patchwork and geometric patterns for our spring/summer collection ‘State of Mind’. However when we received the prototype of this particular style we did recognize the resemblance, which is why we decided not to include the star patch on the final production T-shirt. I assume the image people have reacted to come from Urban Outfitters´ web site. This must be a photograph of an early sample, which is of course an error. Here is the actual T-shirt as it is in stores. I am sorry if anyone was offended seeing the shirt, it was of course never our intention to hurt any feelings with this.

As you can see from the statement, WoodWood denied that the star was a reference to Judaism, but also claimed that the shirt published on Urban Outfitters’ site was an early sample of the t-shirt. To WoodWood’s credit, the final product did not include the star in any way.

However, this was not the only time Urban Outfitters offended members of the Jewish community. According to the ADL, UO produced another shirt that many found offensive. This shirt included the phrase, “Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl,”  surrounded by dollar signs. After a largely negative response, UO pulled the shirt.

St. Patrick’s Day Collection


Urban Outfitters' St. Patrick's Day T-Shirt

Urban Outfitters’ St. Patrick’s Day T-Shirt

Urban Outfitters also came under fire for their portrayal of the Irish community, specifically because of their St. Patrick’s day mechandise. The fashion retailer was accused of supporting negative stereotypes of Irish and Irish-Americans. The offending collection included tanks and t-shirts with sayings such as “Kiss Me. I’m Drunk, or Irish, or Whatever.” (pictured above) and “Irish I was Drunk.”

Members of the Irish community demanded that Urban Outfitters pull the items, which they deemed offensive. According to Politicker, Joe Crowley, the co-chair of the legislature’s Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs, wrote a letter to the company’s CEO demanding the products be removed. In his letter, Crowley explains the effects of the clothing items:

We recently learned of images used by Urban Outfitters in its St. Patrick’s Day clothing line that depict severe and negative stereotypes of Irish and Irish-American people as well as may promote binge drinking. We strongly urge you to end the sale of these items.

Urban Outfitters has not responded to this controversy.

Abercrombie and Fitch

Of course, Urban Outfitters is not the only brand to come under fire for their portrayals of cultural groups. Abercrombie and Fitch caused outrage when they began selling t-shirts that featured what some deemed a stereotypical portrayal of Asian individuals and culture. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the shirts featured “caricatured faces with slanted eyes and rice-paddy hats.” One of the shirts also included the phrase, “Wong Brothers Laundry Service — Two Wongs Can Make It White.”

Abercrombie’s representation of Asian culture, to many, demonstrated the historic stereotypes often placed on the Asian community. This stereotypical representation outraged numerous people and many demanded the removal of these shirts. Despite the negative response, a spokesperson from Abercrombie’s PR firm told the SF Chronicle,

“We personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt. We are truly and deeply sorry we’ve offended people”

In a follow-up article, The SF Chronicle reported that after protests and threats of boycotts, Abercrombie and Fitch removed the shirts from their stores and website.  

Victoria’s Secret and the “Sexy Little Geisha”

 Victoria's Secret

Victoria’s Secret “Sexy Little Geisha” Costume | Photo Credit

Last week, numerous media outlets reported about the controversy surrounding Victoria’s Secret “Sexy Little Geisha” costume (pictured above). The costume includes a sheer and floral printed body suit, a fan, and chopsticks meant for your hair. The lingerie company was accused by many blogs and news sites of perpetuating stereotypes of Asian women by selling this costume.

Racialicious cited the important historical context that surrounds this costume and the idea it represents. They stated,

Donning a “sexy Geisha” outfit to get the ball rolling in the bedroom remains offensive because it confirms a paradigm in which Asian people and their culture can be modified and sexualized and appropriated for the benefit of the West. This particular kind of racism has existed for a long time, and we’re far from moving beyond it.

The Frisky also refered to the long-standing stereotype of the “sexualized” Asian woman, saying,

It’s an entire outfit — a sex costume, really — based on the accoutrements of the Japanese geisha to make your lingerie “exotic” and signify the sexual submission and exploitation of Asian women.

Numerous other blogs and articles echoed Racialicious and The Frisky’s comments about the controversy. While the representation of the stereotype of Asian women as hyper-sexualized and submissive caused outrage, many were also upset by the use of the term “Geisha.” The Frisky pointed out the not-so-glamous past of geishas,

Considering the complicated history of geishas, repurposing the “look” for a major corporation to sell as role-playing lingerie seems a bit tasteless.

Due to the negative response, Victoria’s Secret has removed the costume from their website. As of this article’s publication, Victoria’s Secret has yet to release a statement regarding the controversy.

More Information

As this issue is incredibly multifaceted, it would be impossible to adequately explain it all in one post. For more information on cultural appropriation and stereotyping as it relates to all forms of fashion, we recommend the following web resources:

What do you think?

What do you think about these incidents? Are you offended by the portrayal of certain cultures in stores? Have you noticed similar incidents of stereotyping? What do you think of the companies and brands’ responses to these controversies?

Would you like to see a follow-up post on this topic? If so, what incidents would you like to see covered?

Tell us your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Posted on on October 8, 2012 / Filed Under: Fashion News / Tags: , , , , , ,

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91 Responses to “Fashionably Informed: Cultural Appropriation & Stereotyping in Retail Fashion”

  1. 1
    October 8th, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    Thanks for posting about this. I know a lot of people excuse this by saying that “fashion is fashion” and “we’re just honoring their cultures” but there’s a lot to be said about respecting other groups. And I, for one, think it’s pretty disrespectful to be profiting off of the things most important to them.

  2. 2
    October 8th, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    I love taking inspiration from fashion in other cultures (especially Japan and India in my case) so my problem with these examples isn’t that they derive inspiration from something else, but they do it in a tacky or disrespectful manner. Urban outfitters could have taken inspiration from traditional Native American clothing for their line without labeling it “the Navajo line” and nobody would have raised an eyebrow. By putting that label on the collection it made it look cheap and offensive.

  3. 3
    October 8th, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Thank you for this article it is always good to refresh our memories on what crosses the line regarding cultural themed wear and the like. I also recently saw this article which depicts Dolce and Gabbana’s earrings racist towards African Americans so it goes to show retail fashion is not the only culprit runway fashion has wronged cultures as well:

  4. 4
    October 8th, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    The US has a long sordid history of oppressing Native Americans and forcing them onto reservations. For fashion designers to use their tribe names is just salting the wounds. If you really want to use the designs, retail should look towards Native artists and designers directly for ideas.

  5. 5
    October 8th, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    At what point does it become appropriation instead of honoring their culture? I’m not trying to start an argument, but I’m genuinely interested in hearing other people’s opinions. I wouldn’t argue that any of the examples you gave aren’t appropriation/stereotypes; they’re pretty clear. But other things can be a little more hazy.
    There is a lot of controversy associated with “white girls” running around taking pictures of themselves in war bonnets. I can clearly see what problem there is with that. But, I do own things from other cultures that I love and wear frequently As an example, I love Navajo jewelry, and wear it frequently. Actual Navajo jewelry, purchased on a reservation. I also have Moroccan, Turkish and Afghan jewelry. As none of these pieces have religious/historical significance that I can think of, is it safe to say wearing it is showing appreciation for their artistic heritage, and not appropriation? Or am I missing something here that makes it not okay?
    Once again, I’m not trying to start an argument. I just am genuinely curious about where the line is drawn.

  6. 6
    October 8th, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    Kate, I think there’s a big difference between buying jewelry directly from a culture and this kind of “geisha girl” lingerie nonsense. There’s an article up there about it.

    If anyone wants to see this kind of thing on full display, you’re in luck, it’s the perfect time of the year! Just pop into any Halloween store.

  7. 7
    October 8th, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    I’ve long been aware of the horrible cultural appropriation, racism and other offensive merchandise from Urban Outfitters, especially. They’ve produced everything from “Navajo” underwear to an explicit greeting card offensive to transgendered persons, and they sell “ironic” Mitt-Romney-supporting t-shirts to left-wing hipsters. They do not apologize for anything. I am disgusted with them.
    I would urge conscientious shoppers to research the controversial actions of Urban Outfitters before shopping there, and avoid their merchandise if possible.

  8. 8
    October 8th, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    Thank you thank you thank you. Will be sending his to friends, ugh.

  9. 9
    October 8th, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    I think part of it is intention, Kate. There’s a distinction to be made for when you’re supporting locals by purchasing their goods (parts of their culture they WANT to make available) and when places like Urban Outfitters try to take things that aren’t theirs and try to turn a profit.

  10. 10
    October 8th, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    I am doing my undergrad in Anthropology, so issues like these are often brought up in my classes. I am extremely pleased to see that CF is taking these issues seriously as well. You girls rock…. keep up the good work!

  11. 11
    October 8th, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    While I agree with this article and think this is a real issue in apparel and retail… the geisha issue tripped me up a bit.

    maybe I’m confused, but I believed geisha originated from a version of legal prostitution popular in Japan a really long time ago, which evolved into more of an art form/cultural thing. If it originated from …prostitutes, then how is itoffensive culturally to sell lingere with that title/theme? (If anything it sounds more like a feminist issue of appropriateness). Maybe someone with more knowledge on the topic wants to clear this up for me, cause I think I’m missing something.

    Anyways, great post!

  12. 12
    October 8th, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    Another great article about the controversies in fashion. Thank you, I really enjoy reading them!

  13. 13
    October 8th, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    Wow. A lot to think about here.
    I do have to say, though–I am multiracial (Native American, African, and Irish), and none of it offends me. While I am very connected to my cultures (especially my Native, as I am half), I have always been of the mindset that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, or does. Is some of it offensive? Sure. Does it offend me personally? No. What do I care what some random people try to sell on a website, especially when I have so many other people outraged on my behalf? My oldest daughter, who is even more mixed than I am (a quarter Hawaiian, a quarter hispanic, a quarter Native, and the other quarter African and Irish), I hope will grow up the same way– proud of her many cultures, but indifferent to what anyone else thinks. After all– soon we will all be multicultural, and then, what will it all matter?
    This is not to say that I don’t understand *why* people are upset. I do. I have friends that are. But I also think that there comes a point when everyone is trying to be *so* politically correct that we are walking on eggshells constantly. You want to wear my people’s Native prints? Fine. But don’t get mad when *I’m* wearing a “White Power” shirt just for kicks ;) Everyone needs to lighten up, take a deep breath, and concentrate on what’s *really* important. Just my opinion.

  14. 14
    October 8th, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    Same thing with the Rromani culture, culture appropiation and sexualization at it´s finest. Also, Romani is the actual name, and not the slur word of the ethnic group of “g*psies”.

  15. 15
    October 8th, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    Great article!

  16. 16
    October 8th, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    Kate, I think the point of departure from honouring their culture begins with intention and the implicit connotations in their marketing choices. When brands decide to “go wild” or “experience the delights of the east” to loosely evoke a sense of Africa or Asia, they are conforming to and exacerbating stereotypes about an absence of civility, or plainly fetishizing the Oriental Other. Surely honouring their culture cannot mean treating it as a mere fashion trend (Re: Urban Outfitters and Navajo), or stripping traditional cultural dress of its modesty and authenticity by adding floral or red accents to simulate some perverted, tacky version of a geisha. The point of mainstream fashion is certainly not to honour other cultures. To believe that would be naive.

    College Fashion – thank you for writing about this.

  17. 17
    October 8th, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    This may not be the most popular of comments, but I don’t think this issue is as black and white as the article/comments make it sound. For one thing, the “Star of David” shirt does actually have a cool color scheme and the star looked cool, although its placement was not thoughtful. I also think the Irish shirt seems to make fun of people who decide to be “Irish” only on St. Patty’s which is pretty ridiculous.

    That Abercrombie & Fitch situation was inexcusable though. Seriously, “we personally thought Asians would love this t-shirt.”??? Come on guys

  18. 18
    October 8th, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    Thanks for bringing this issue to the light further!

  19. 19
    October 8th, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    Geishas were not prostitutes in the common sense. They were educated entertainers who were knowledgeable in music, dance, and politics. Sex played a minor role, very minor. It was one of the few ways women could have some semblance of independence in a very patriarchal society.

  20. 20
    October 8th, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    I thought this was a great article! The links at the end were fantastic (but I wasn’t too sure about the indigenous jewelry one). I read Elle a lot, and I notice that “ethnic,” “eastern,” “oriental,” and “tribal” get thrown around as fashion trends. I really didn’t realize the degree to which the Fashion industry is quite politically incorrect at times and also how racist. It’s like, the people don’t think at all.

    Seriously, how did they not see shit coming for them when they made that yellow shirt that looked like the star of david… I’m not even remotely Jewish and that was the first thing that came to my mind when I looked at that shirt.

    I can think of two ways to react to this problem:

    1) Make history lessons (that include postcolonialist and subaltern perspectives) mandatory for students of fashion design, art, and art history.

    2) Boycott buying racially charged items from these stores. If things don’t sell, they will realize that it’s inappropriate.

  21. 21
    October 8th, 2012 at 11:46 pm

    REALLY? Sorry… but this is ridiculous. Nothing about this is offensive. I’m sure 90% of Irish people who saw that shirt laughed. People get so emotional/offended over everything and we are taking away our own freedom of speech by doing so!

  22. 22
    October 8th, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    Really great article! Fashionably Informed is one of my favorite columns here!

    Urban Outfitters is constantly pulling this kind of shit, and being completely unapologetic about any of it. This, plus the fact that UO’s CEO actually donates a huge amount of money to right-wing and anti-gay groups, has made me stop shopping there altogether.

    @Kate: I agree with other commenters in that buying goods from authentic, genuine members of that culture is infinitely better than buying goods from sellers who aren’t respecting or honoring the culture, but just trying to make a profit. Cultural appreciation is great – it’s why we have so many different people trying different foods, listening to different music, etc. It’s when people try to take something from a culture or a group of people (especially one that’s been historically oppressed) and disrespect that culture (whether intentionally or not) that it turns into cultural appropriation, which is problematic.

    @Alex: As an Asian-American woman, the geisha thing is really offensive to me. In the West there’s a long history of exoticizing and fetishizing Asian woman into this idea of some Oriental doll, whether it’s a submissive geisha, a sexy and dangerous dragon lady, etc. I don’t think VS was actually thinking about the origin/history of geisha – rather, they were exploiting the Western image of Asian women as exotic sexual beings, while also perpetuating this image. Also, feminism and race do intersect, so it’s important to think about how race and treatment of women of color fit into feminism! Hope this perspective was a little helpful!

    @JJ: I think it’s great to not care so much what others think, but I definitely think that “political correctness” matters when it comes to things like this. Stores like UO aren’t actually wearing Native prints, but a mockery of them, cheap things created to make money off of an actual culture’s name without their consent. This is just perpetuating the idea of “Navajo” or “Native” as a fashion statement, a costume. It helps erase the identity of actual Natives like yourself, many of whom probably don’t appreciate being reduced to a few patterns and words like “tribal” and “ethnic.” These things contribute to making people think it’s okay to dress up as Natives, Asians, Mexicans, etc. for Halloween because to them, this race/ethnicity/cultural identity is nothing more than a costume. It helps reduce different groups and cultures into objects, not actual people.

  23. 23
    October 9th, 2012 at 12:07 am

    While I agree that being sensitive to what other people might find offensive, at what point does being sensitive and aware fall into becoming paranoid and over-obsessive about never possibly offending anyone?

    To be honest, fashion IS fashion – you wear what you like and that’s that. It really shouldn’t matter what culture it comes from or was inspired by. I’m Irish and have never once in my life found it insulting around St. Patrick’s Day to see thousands of shirts saying things about being Irish and drunk or anything else, because it’s ALL IN GOOD FUN. It’s not meant to literally mean Irish girls are whores or all Irishmen are drunks – it’s a JOKE. People get too sensitive about things like this. I mean, really, when we start getting upset because of lingerie vaguely inspired by Japanese geishas, we’ve gone too far. It’s not insulting to Asians or women or any of that crap. For one thing, it has nothing to do with referencing Asian women as sexualized and submissive. Lingerie ALWAYS sexualizes the wearer, but you don’t hear a post about lingerie being racist/discriminatory/stereotyping when it’s American lingerie. Does that sexualize and make submissive American women?

    Fashion is about having fun with looks you enjoy – if that means you want to wear a cross, a star of David, a pentacle, or any other religious symbol I say go for it if you’re comfortable with it. I see nothing wrong with a six-pointed star, NOTHING WHATSOEVER. So what if it was once used to point out Jews in the Holocaust? The cross was a Roman torture/execution device but we don’t find it insulting to have people wear it. The pentacle is constantly used as a Satanist symbol despite being Pagan, but I (as a Pagan) don’t really care because people should be able to do what they like when it comes to fashion so long as you’re not blatantly trying to be offensive.

    There’s a fine line between trying to encourage stereotypes or being blatantly offensive to another culture, and having fun with inspiration from it. Fashion gains inspiration from all over the world – no one cares when an American wears a Parisian inspired outfit, but god forbid you wear something Native American inspired that isn’t actually made by a Native American.

  24. 24
    October 9th, 2012 at 12:13 am

    Alex, about your question on geisha: they did not originate from prostitution. It is true that geisha have often been lumped together with prostitution, and it is also true that prostitution was legal in Japan for quite a bit of time in history (and I mean, it’s still around today, though not in the traditional sense of the word….but that’s a whole other story). Rather than geisha evolving into cultural and artistic importance, that is what they have always been. The name “geisha” is literally “art” and “person” put together. Geisha are not prostitutes, and they never have been–it’s true that the very, very early female entertainers/hostesses (which is, at the very basic level, what geisha are) did perform sexual favors in exchange for money. However, these women were NOT geisha. Even though these are the technical origins of geisha, the geisha culture (oh gosh it doesn’t even look like a word anymore I’ve typed it so many times) has never been rooted in sex. Historically, geisha were not allowed to be paid for sex, or at least they weren’t allowed to be called out on a job all “yep this is prostitution, sex only” (geisha get paid whenever they sit with a customer/entertain at a party or gathering, and since prostitution was officially legal in Japan for a long time some geisha did engage in prostitution with their male customers during the aforementioned events, but it wasn’t something practiced by all geisha–it depended on the woman [or man, there were a few back in the day]), and they were to be kept an entirely separate business from the courtesans, whose living was basically prostitution and prostitution alone.

    What is also offensive about that particular set of lingerie is that it completely goes against all the customs of geisha altogether, and even courtesans. Geisha are known for being modest, and the sexiest parts about them are supposed to be their wrists and the napes of their necks (which is considered, in Japan, to be one of the most erotic body parts on a woman). Courtesans also wore like a billion and a half (or something like that) layers of kimono; they only way you could tell a geisha and a courtesan apart (well, one of the main reasons) was that the courtesans had their obis–the tie on their kimonos–in the front. You traditionally have them in the back, but having them in the front was just more convenient for them. One of the prides of being a geisha is the kimono you collect and own–the sexiness of a geisha is not in the amount of clothes she wears, but how subtle she is in her sexuality. So that lingerie, by being…well…lingerie, just kind of kills what a geisha really is. In short, it’s the Westernized version, the fantasy of a “geisha girl”–an exotic, demure, submissive Asian woman (not necessarily Japanese) that men (or women) can dominate.

    So now that I’ve rambled on (and I’m by no means at expert at this, but I do have an academic interest in geisha, so I’ve read up on them quite a bit)…..great article, CF!

  25. 25
    October 9th, 2012 at 12:16 am

    A lot of things to think about, but in the end, it really is just clothes. Spending energy getting offended over what someone is wearing truly accomplishes nothing.

  26. 26
    October 9th, 2012 at 12:23 am

    I’m really glad you brought up this post. It definitely got my thinking about my own description of clothing and all the different cultural implications of this kind of clothing.

  27. 27
    October 9th, 2012 at 12:34 am

    I personally think its just clothes and people should be being offended over every little thing…

  28. 28
    October 9th, 2012 at 2:12 am

    I don’t really see a problem with any of this – all these designers are doing is taking inspiration from other cultures. Somebody above mentioned they thought the designers were being “disrespectful”; I disagree. If VS wants to make a “sexy geisha” costume I don’t care any more than I would if they stereotyped my (American) culture and sold a “sexy puritain outfit” (not sure how sexy that would be, though!). People get offended waaaaay too easily these days.

    [By the way, if anyone is interested in geishas or just wants to watch a really great movie, “Memoirs of a Geisha” is one of the best. movies. ever…’s like a Cinderella story and artistically it’s also very beautiful. If you haven’t seen it, rent it now]

  29. 29
    October 9th, 2012 at 2:18 am

    “Donning a “sexy Geisha” outfit to get the ball rolling in the bedroom remains offensive because it confirms a paradigm in which Asian people and their culture can be modified and sexualized and appropriated for the benefit of the West.”
    Um, wow. You guys are taking this way too far…
    Victoria’s Secret also has sold lingerie inspired by superheros and comic books, which I guess you must think is also offensive because it “confirms a paradigm” that superheroes “can be modified and sexualized and appropriated for the benefit of the West.” Clearly that’s ridiculous. I think it’s far more likely that Victoria’s Secret makes lingerie with a variety of inspiration….what did you want them to do, sell an actual historically accurate Geisha costume?

  30. 30
    October 9th, 2012 at 2:24 am

    So what about when white people wear lolita and harajuku and gyaru style clothing? is that offensive appropriation? im so confused as to what is and what isnt :/

  31. 31
    October 9th, 2012 at 2:39 am

    Keilla – While every culture is important, I really think it was great that you put in various examples. The “Navajo” backlash was all over the news, but I had never heard of the Irish or Asian stereotypes that UO and A&F participated in. Makes me wonder how many other similar stories there are that don’t get as much coverage….

  32. 32
    October 9th, 2012 at 3:48 am

    I think ideas like “they’re just clothes” or “people get offended way too easily” are really dangerous. It’s like we’ve become desensitized to stereotypes. These companies have taken cultures with hundreds of years of history and struggle and chosen to represent them through a single object in a negative way, and these ideas just send the message to companies that that is ok.

    For example, geisha have an extremely complicated and controversial history. They still exist (although not quite in the same way) in the Gion district of Kyoto. Westerners and modern Japanese might see them merely as high-class prostitutes, but geisha also received extensive education in traditional Japanese arts (music, dancing, poetry, etc.) and were a separate class than “normal” prostitutes. Some of the women that became geisha (like Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha) were sold into the trade and had no choice in the matter. VS chose to ignore this history and decided to represent these thousands of women through a sex costume.

    I also have to wonder if UO really did any research at all into the Navajo Nation before labeling their clothes “Navajo”. My guess would be that they just chose patterns they associated with Native Americans and slapped the name on them as if it were interchangeable with any other NAtive American group.

  33. 33
    October 9th, 2012 at 4:21 am

    I think this is a very interessting article, and I’ve come across this topic a few times now. I actually think that cultural appropriation itself is something very postivie and not negative. It helps people to understand different cultures. If a white girls wears a bindi (like some of friends do) and this shows that they like it. They wouldn’t wear it if they thought it was stupid. Of course, maybe people might find a negative connotation, because ‘these white girls’ don’t live the culture behind it. But there are lots of things, people wear or do without thinking about the culture. What about wearing crosses? What about wearing Shirt with Che Guevarras face? I really don’t see a problem in those cases. I think it’s good to mix cultures because it helps understanding them, accepting them and they become normal. I think it’s possible to destroy racism with cultural appropriation.
    On the other hand, we learn by trial and error, so one has to be sensitive about it. Maybe people wear or do something that offends others and then they learn to be more sensitve and careful. It would be wrong to not appropraite other cultures because you’re always too scared to offend somebody.
    On another note, I think it’s okay to play with stereotypes, as long as you don’t really portray people in a bad light. We all know that not all Asians are good at math, or Germans are Nazis or Mexicans drink Tequila. One should take and use them with humor and not with racism. Of course, racism plays a huge role in this topic, but not all sterotypes are racist. Stereotypes are nothing bad at all, they actually help us to organize our world, as long as you don’t take them too seriously.

  34. 34
    October 9th, 2012 at 6:05 am

    I think companies should be extremely careful to avoid offending any racial group or from designing products which could be deemed offensive or racist. However, in a world where we are no longer able to sing ‘bah bah black sheep’ for fear of being accused of racism, I think it is also important that people put things in perspective before crying out in anger – the image of the ‘Jewish’ star on the Tshirt is clearly just a pretty design, and it seems silly when there is a furor about something so insignificant.

  35. 35
    October 9th, 2012 at 6:12 am

    Brooke – I agree that Memoirs of a Geisha is artistically a beautiful book, but both the film and novel are flawed both culturally and historically. Did you know that the actress cast as the lead is in fact Chinese rather than Japanese? If you want to look at it extremely pessimistically, that casting signifies the implicit racism that all Asians look the same and are interchangeable. Surely if that film were so concerned with authenticity, they would take heed of ethnicity?

    I suppose there’s a fine line between brands “taking inspiration” from cultures, and outright reducing them to tacky caricatures. It is rather reductive (and dangerous) for people to state that they don’t understand why people care so much full stop, it’s just clothes. To what extent does that statement apply? What about the incident last year where a website sold a Halloween costume that sexualised anorexia? Is that “just clothes”?

  36. 36
    October 9th, 2012 at 9:04 am

    I don’t really think any of the brands did anything wrong… Well, maybe Victoria’s Secret with “Sexy little Geisha”, but that’s because Geishas’s position is often misunderstood (contrary to popular belief, they didn’t sell their bodies, they just entartained men WITHOUT any kind of sex).

    But as for the Navajo stuff, the Jewish star, the Irish t-shirt… c’mon people. A little bit of sense of humour won’t do any hurt.

    My town’s kind of famous around here for our driking habits, and I don’t think that’s a reason to get offended. Stereotypes do exist. As long as we don’t entirely believe them, where’s the problem with these clothes?

  37. 37
    October 9th, 2012 at 9:52 am

    On a personal level, I did not find any of these examples grossly offensive, though the Geisha outfit drew an instinctive eye-roll out of me, I think people should definitely be careful before saying things like”people are way too sensitive” or ”people need to have a sense of humour”.

    Minority communities in many countries have had a history of being stereotyped, persecuted and marginalized for decades and in some countries, that is still the case today. I think the fact that certain people find products assigned to a particular ethnic group offensive is often linked to their past experiences or the experiences of their communities which in many cases could have been very painful.

    I think it is okay to not find some or any of these products offensive, but if other people, given their own experiences and sensitivities are offended by them, who are we to say ‘people are way to sensitive’ and ‘people need to get a sense of humor’?

  38. 38
    October 9th, 2012 at 10:23 am

    wow – such a great article. when i saw the title, i immediately thought of VS’s “sexy little geisha” outfin & i’m so glad that it merited a mention.

    while i do agree that society in general has gotten a little too pc, i also think it is very insensitive to totally dismiss the issue that this article brings up.

    i think the main issue is mainly the labeling of the clothes (as in the case of VS & UO’s “navajo”) & cultural/historical ignorance. If UO called their navajo line something different, or just said that it was inspired by native american designs, i doubt there would have been such an uproar. VS was also perpetuating the misconception about geishas, as so many have already pointed out.

    then there’s the whole issue of fashion words such as “tribal” & “ethnic” which always seems to imply something non-caucasian. so caucasians don’t have an ethnicity?

    while these may be “just clothes,” what you wear says something about you – good, bad or indifferent.

    last note: the novel memoirs of a geisha was written by a caucasian male. people have had majors issues with that as well.

  39. 39
    October 9th, 2012 at 11:17 am

    Oh Dear, Urban Outfitters. That is not cool. I can’t believe that with all the quality-control stuff that products go through nowadays, especially in a big company such as UO, that no-one stopped to say “Hey Guys, don’t you think this might upset the Jewish community?” Wow!

  40. 40
    October 9th, 2012 at 11:42 am

    @ Emily, very well said.

  41. 41
    October 9th, 2012 at 11:42 am

    @ Madeline,

    Thanks for linking to that article about D&G, as it was an interesting read. However, the writer of that article is really misinformed. (It has nothing to do with being racist toward african americans) Being Sicilian in origin myself and recently traveling around Sicily, those earrings are based on typical Sicilian pottery. (D&G are Sicilian) You see both white and black faced jugs in that style everywhere. (and you see both black and white earrings in the runway show if you flip through) Sicilians are not black or white, they are “brown” and being close to both Europe and Africa, have a mixed heritage that is being paid tribute to.

  42. 42
    October 9th, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    yeah…i don’t see how this is a big deal really. I can see how some people would be offended though.

    I personally would never wear anything like this, but in America, we are free to wear what we want. If someone wants to dress like a sexy geisha, go ahead and let them. Who cares what people wear in the bedroom anyway? Does dressing like a sexy school girl means you are into pedophilia? No. Calm down people. Jeez.

  43. 43
    October 9th, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    College Fashion, why can’t you just lighten up? The fact that Americans have historically marginalized different racial and ethnic groups has nothing to do with the fact that now American fashion is stereotyping them and making them homogenous! I wouldn’t care if VS made a “slutty white girl” costume!

    But seriously, great article. A lot of people aren’t aware of cultural appropriation or the dangers of it, and I think a lot of the comments prove that.

  44. 44
    October 9th, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    What about the many clothing/accessories/home decor inspired by the Mexican culture? You don’t know how many times I’ve seen offensive t-shirts towards those of Hispanic decent. Mexicans and Hispanics in general are highly discriminated against in today’s society yet nobody seems to bat an eyelash. As a Hispanic women this deeply disgusts me and hurts to know that my culture and beliefs are looked down on by so many.

  45. 45
    October 9th, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    College fashion is a site that is a big believer that inspiration can be found everywhere. Is that not what these companies are doing? Regarding Urban Outfitters, I don’t think they were insinuating that these “Navajo Print Panties” were made by Navajo indians and are an authentic Navajo item. The print is one that is historically seen in Navajo art. Perhaps if they had said “Navajo inspired” it would have been less offensive. In regards to the Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt: working in rice paddies has been a huge part of Asian culture since around 200 BC. In fact, rice production (in part) made China what it is today. Is that a stereotype? Yes!

    The fact is stereotypes exist, and they aren’t always wrong. There are characteristics that go with every people group. That’s what makes every race different! I think what these people groups find offensive is when these characteristics are used in an inappropriate manner. A Navajo print flask? A geisha-inspired sex costume? A vulgar “drunken irish” t-shirt? Really? I can see how people could be offended by that. Especially a t-shirt with a reproduction of the Star of David as that has deep rooted religious and historical ties.

    However, in the end, the producer is allowed to produce what they want, and the consumer is allowed to be offended by it. The producers are a reflection of the consumer. They make things that they know people will buy. They have whole teams of market researchers to tell them what people want! The truth is, “hipster” style involves a lot of Navajo inspired clothing. If these people groups want someone to blame, then blame society. If they want to make an out cry, let them. LIke I said, the job of the producer is to produce what people want, and the people are simply saying “Hey! We don’t want this!” But perhaps sometimes, we should try not to take ourselves so seriously.

  46. 46
    October 9th, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Very good article, a lot to think about. I believe though that we often take these issues a little too personally. It seems that instead of being in some sort of grey zone, when it comes to stereotypes, we are directly in the “you’re not allowed to do/say/wear that” zone.

    A next article suggestion, what about the fashion industry and child labor. I’m referring for example to the Benetton controversy (1998), Victoria Secret (2011), Zara (2011). A controversy that would definitely merit to be discussed.

    Kisses from Switzerland

  47. 47
    October 9th, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    Some of these comments are astounding. My grandparents and great-grandparents grew up as itinerant wanderers in the mountains because they were afraid of being forcefully expelled from their land again. To this day, they are loathe to mention their heritage because they think Caucasians only want to harm indigenous Americans. The horror of the atrocities committed against the native American nations still reverberates throughout their tribes and peoples to this day. How do you think the various native American tribes feel when they see their sacred patterns and customs profaned by some corporation?

    Navajo patterns are supposed to have a meaning; they are supposed to represent a region and its culture – they’re not just random geometric patterns (which is what UO should have called their ‘navajo’ line) Throwing colorful patterns under the blanket term ‘tribal’ is insulting in general. What tribe? What country???

    As for all the insulting merchandise aimed at other cultures, I find it to be outrageous. Just to put it in context, I’ve also seen shirts that say “Jersey girls aren’t trash…trash gets picked up”. How does that feel? We should never disparage and marginalize another culture with generalizations, whether it’s ‘drunk Irishpeople’ or ‘servile Japanese women’. Think of the ‘fat, ignorant, stupid Americans’ trope and maybe you’ll understand. Let’s respect each other as individuals.

    I enjoyed this article. Thanks for writing it.

  48. 48
    October 9th, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    To be honest, everyone who says they don’t think this is a “big deal” is precisely why this article has to be posted. Just because you don’t think it is a big deal does not mean that this sort of approach to culturally sensitive matters (aka, pretending they don’t matter) doesn’t reinforce the very oppression that people from these cultures experience.

    “It’s just fashion” is like saying “it’s just a TV show” or “it’s just a book” or “it’s just a word.” At the end of the day, nothing is JUST. We don’t live in a vaccuum. We live in a world where things are connected and have very real, very serious consequences for those who are not in power positions.

  49. 49
    October 9th, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    I am very concerned about some of the comments here. “People get offended too easily” and “it’s just fashion” are dangerous ideas. Whatever happened to courtesy and respect towards all cultures? What happened to being aware of the power plays between whites and non-whites, Westerners and non-Westerners, or just dominant and non-dominant groups in general?

    Something that is apparent to me while reading these comments is that some CF readers don’t seem to realize that the United States has historically marginalized many races, ethnic groups, and cultures, and it is the system of oppression against these people and the stereotyping of their culture from our American perspective that makes cultural appropriation completely disrespectful and wrong.

  50. 50
    October 9th, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    I understand where people are coming from but people seem to take offense from the littlest things nowadays.
    That “sexy little geisha” outfit.. I mean, come on, it’s just because it refers to a different culture that it might be seen as “wrong”. I don’t see nurses complaining because their workwear is interpreted in “sexy” ways.
    However, the shirt with the star of David is just terrible, but that’s because of the entire gruesome connotation it still holds. (Especially here in Western Europe)

    Political correctness is being blown out of proportion lately, people shouldn’t take offense so easily.
    99,9% of the time that something like this happens, they really don’t mean to harm others.

    People have become so focused on “Am I being disrespected?” that they don’t realise that they are distancing themselves from others by profiling themselves as so inherently different.

    In the end: Who gives? Is your life so much different if you feel like a certain store is saying something you don’t like? Why don’t people make such a fuss about political things that REALLY matter, that could save lives?

    Because we’re SELFISH and we only care about ourselves, because we are great and if anyone thinks otherwise we’re going to sue them! Because we can! Hurray for freedom of speech!

  51. 51
    October 9th, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    If you aren’t a member of the ethnicity that’s being commodified, you have no business telling anyone to “lighten up”.

  52. 52
    October 9th, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Wow. I cannot believe that there are people who want to argue this with “well I wouldn’t be offended by WHITE stereotyping in clothing”… I realize you’re not personally offended, but that’s not really the point.
    I understand that it’s really hard to see someone else’s perspective, but people need to be willing the be thoughtful in their daily actions. Cultural appropriation is all about cultures which are marginalized here in the west. We as white people don’t get to say that “we wouldn’t find this offensive, so they shouldn’t either!” Because we’ve never had to be in that position! Sure, there are white ‘stereotypes’ but it’s not the same as racism and actual marginalization. To equate the two does a huge disservice to people who have experienced true racism; people who have actually felt hurt when they see their own culture turned over into a silly costume used to turn profit for a bunch of rich white business owners.
    As a white girl, I have the sense to know that I’m not offended personally, because I’ve had the luxury of never having to experience anything like this in western culture in which my race has the most power socially. I can’t tell someone who is upset by cultural appropriation that they should ‘stop being so sensitive’. That would be cruel, and ignorant, and only speak to my unwillingness to appreciate another person’s experience. So please. If you don’t think this is an issue, just walk away. But don’t say that, as a white person, you don’t find cultural appropriation to be offensive. …You’re just kind of proving the point against it.

  53. 53
    October 9th, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    @ Sam Brilliant sarcasm. :)

  54. 54
    October 9th, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    This is my favorite article in the series by far. It’s one thing to take inspiration from a culture, through colors and cuts, but another to make a profit off of stereotypes. Thanks for spreading light on this issue.

  55. 55
    October 9th, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    Well this is a very informative and important issue you have addresses. True, producing a line of “Navojo” clothing and accessories does offend me a little…even though I’m Iroquois and Cherokee. But I typically only buy real Native American pieces from real Native American shops (like those up north when my family visited New York.)

    Anyways, the geisha costume looks stupid! I know I’m young and all, but even I wouldn’t buy that if I was 24 or over! It’s not even a costume! And Geisha’s were performers, not sex toys.

    Well, I have a lot a research to do on this topic. There’s so much I still need to learn about! Thanks!

  56. 56
    October 9th, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Amber really says it all. I think it’s pretty astounding that anyone can say that this article takes things way too seriously.

    There is a huge difference between labeling something “Navajo” and saying that it is “Navajo inspired”. While I think calling it “Navajo inspired” still is stretching things quite a bit, at least they’re not basically declaring that this comes from the Navajo people.
    Considering the United States and Canada has always and continues to marginalize its Indigenous populations, I think this is an extremely important issue. Our governments have taken many, many things from Indigenous groups and now our consumerist companies want to take their art and “fashion”, produce it cheaply and mass market it as a fashion fad?

    If one wants to purchase something like Native American jewelry or even moccasins, make a trip out to a reserve and purchase it from someone who actually knows what they’re doing and what it means.

    And yes, using the Star of David for fashion is offensive, seeing as to many people it recalls the Holocaust, a horrific example of ethnic cleansing.

    If you are white, North American and able to afford clothing at Urban Outfitters and Abercrombie and Fitch, chances are you have never really experienced the kind of marginalization that most ethnic minorities in North America have. And therefore you don’t get to say that “you’d be okay with it”.
    We have also never been very politically correct as a society when it comes to the way in which we treat these minorities, so I wouldn’t say that we’re all of a sudden becoming “paranoid”. Maybe gaining a little enlightenment.

  57. 57
    October 9th, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Everybody does know that a geisha, while not a prostitute, sold her virginity to the highest bidder, right? The whole point of looking beautiful and being graceful dancers was so that men would be willing to pay more to have sex with them. Just sayin….

  58. 58
    October 9th, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    I too am disturbed by the comments saying “lighten up.” Not personally offended? Well, okay, that’s fine for you. No one is making these things illegal to wear, like you all said, it’s a free country. You are, in fact, free to mock other cultures by wearing costumes of their clothing for sex or playing around with Instagram by claiming it’s “inspiration.” And people are also free to criticize you; that’s exactly what free speech means. Not that you can do offensive things and never get called out on it.

    As for “I wouldn’t be offended by a white girl costume,” well, what would that costume look like? Anything I can think of would be misinterpreted as “preppy girl” or “rich girl” or “hipster girl” or some other stereotype about what people do, not who they are. That’s why it can’t be compared; white people are seen as individuals, while other races and cultures are stereotyped by their skin tone or culture.

  59. 59
    October 9th, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    None of this comes as a shock. Fast fashion retailers will rip off anything- the original work of a designer, the artistry of an entire culture, the very workforce that supplies their stores- for the sake of profits. Sadly we, as uninformed consumers, support this in almost every purchase we make.

    Also, while well intentioned, the linked articles contain several flaws in their arguments and should be read with a critical eye. The one that stands out to me most is that persons of color cannot be racist……

  60. 60
    October 9th, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    Really? There are serious issues out there and we’re concerned if a lingerie costume, that no one but your SO should be seeing (or for a Halloween party), is offensive? I’ve dressed up as a French maid, is that offensive?
    Or what about white/black/Asian people who live in the Midwest and may have bought an native-American style poncho or jewelry?
    It worries me that we’ve grown into a culture that is offended so easily.

  61. 61
    October 9th, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    I agree that the Irish one is not the same level of inappropriate as the rest- maybe i the US but in Northern Ireland we produce them ourselves and just laugh it off!

    Someone made the excellent point that although I can see the clear insult in the Geisha costume due to the historic misrepresentation of Geisha. Lingerie is used to sexualise so many professions and minorities that it’s less an intentional slur on Japanese culture more a sad fact of the lingerie market.

  62. 62
    October 9th, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    I’m happy to see some intelligent comments here among the saddening ones saying to “lighten up.” I’ve seen CF link to items in the past that I would consider cultural appropriation, which made me kind of side-eye the site, so I’m glad to see this article.

  63. 63
    October 9th, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    @Kelly The problem with the geisha outfit is that it eroticizes something that was, quite often, forced upon women because of their poor economic status.

    @Val You can’t really compare your French maid outfit to the Geisha one, because French maids do not have the same history that Geishas do. There is a long history of oppression towards Asian women and many Geishas, like I mentioned to Kelly, were not the product of choice, but rather lack of other options.

  64. 64
    October 9th, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    My mother is of Cherokee descent and I remember as a child she would tell me “just because it has a feather in it doesn’t mean it is made by Indians”. She did wear some silver dream catcher earrings that were cheap, but we were poverty level and she may have overlooked the made in china tag that one time. She didn’t like the brightly colored plastic tacky adornments found at every flea market in the south. I did not understand it at the time, but when I started seeing the hippie fashion re emerging on the social network sites, sometimes confused as “native” I understood. I don’t think it is necessarily offensive to be “inspired” by native and to wear colors or certain patterns woven into the “hippie” way of dressing. What is offensive to me is -again- brightly colored tacky adornments with a tag that says “made in china” and a title bearing a tribal name. Also don’t dress like a hippie and call yourself an indian. There is a line in the movie “Smoke Signals” that “the hippies were trying to be Indians anyway”…while that is true and maybe cool for the climate of the time, today both the hippie and native “look” is just that, a look. Youth are dressing “like” hippies and “like” natives. There is no cultural shift driving people to their roots, and unlike the sixties, there is mass production of these illegitimate items. I have resolved to not by “native inspired” I will just find native fashion from native creators, it is easy to do online. I may not buy as much, because of price, but at least it will be good quality and it will be real. I would never take a half naked picture of myself in a head dress and moccasins anyway-girls that want to do that, are probably just experimenting with photographic art-they aren’t making money off that. I think the Victoria’s Secret geisha outfit was distasteful, and I am a shopper…but in general I think role playing outfits are distasteful. There are many kimono inspired stye robes that are not offensive-a woman could get one and throw out over her lingerie and it would not be as immature as that get up was. The Irish shirt-I think that went a little far, distasteful? Maybe-but really I have seen sooo many distasteful shirts that have nothing to do with race or culture. I think if we are offended by the St. Patrick Day shirt featured here, then we should just be offended and not participate in any of the Holiday because it is filled with these “stereotypes” and I have never met one Irish person who was ever offended by it. The shirt seemed to be saying that they were so drunk they didn’t know if they were irish or were drunk-there are shirts that say both. I don’t know what to think about the star of David shirt, but if the Jewish community was offended then they have more of a say on that then anyone. The Asian shirt…well there are just no words-none-that is pretty obvious.
    I think we live in a culture that is a melting pot, and we have to be careful what we will be deeply offended by, but I do understand the importance of small business shopping and therefore true native shopping. I also understand-from my mother-that every Midwestern pattern is not representative of Native”, feathers and fake suede are not either. I place of stopping appropriation, we should educate each other. If it is really so important that we get outraged and call each other cruel and hateful names on tumblr (a girl who posted a picture of herself as a “Sexy Indian” was raked over coals digitally) then we should be more open and educational about our cultures, our histories and where our “fashion” comes from and what some of symbolism means. A few years ago, wearing crosses was a very in vogue thing to do, and every kid I knew had one. Most of them were not Christian nor catholic…I don’t remember anyone hating each other for it, but I do remember explanations on the meaning of the cross and how it was not simply a fashion statement. This is something I can get behind, There are some arguments in the conversation of “cultural appropriation that I think could go a little too far, and only further divide us as people, but in the argument of sexism and economic and cultural value for the most part I can agree.

  65. 65
    October 9th, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    I would point out that the main problem with the geisha outfit might not be that it badly represents specifically Asian women, but that it badly represents all women. Stores like Victoria’s Secret or La Senza also sell costumes such as the French Maid, which represent women as sexual objects. I don’t think the country from which the costume comes from matters in this case – it’s the sexualization that is offensive.

  66. 66
    October 9th, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    I think this is a great article and something I was just thinking of earlier when I saw someone wearing a pair of earrings in the shape of Africa.

    My only issue is not knowing exactly every culture in the world and whether or not something may have a religious purpose or isn’t just fashion. One of the links you provided mentions not buying something if you don’t know what the cultural significance is, and if the information is not given on the item, but that seems a little ridiculous. I can’t research everything when I see it in the store. Although obviously the Star of David, among many of these examples, is pretty obvious, there are less well known things out there that could make someone look bad if they were to purchase it from a store and wear it.

  67. 67
    October 9th, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    All of the comments on this article just make me angry. C’mon people. Just pointing out as a few others have… all these companies are doing are taking fashion inspiration from other countries and cultures. Clothing designers have been doing that forever…. it’s not meant to mock or put anyone down. I don’t think bringing in elements and prints to an outfit that originated from other cultures is a bad thing.

  68. 68
    October 10th, 2012 at 12:15 am

    I hate, hate, hate the western misconception that geisha are related to sex! Tasteless lingerie like this helps spread the ignorance. Geisha literally means artist or person of the arts, the first geisha were actually men. If you’re interested in learning more please use reputable sources of knowledge.

  69. 69
    October 10th, 2012 at 12:27 am

    Also, please don’t believe everything you watch or read. Memoirs of a Geisha is a COMPLETELY fictional story written by a middle-aged caucasian male. The information in the book and movie is very misleading, it’s not factually in the least! Arthur Golden made a profit fueled by the ignorance of a mainstream American audience.

  70. 70
    October 10th, 2012 at 2:17 am

    Taking inspiration from a culture is not a bad thing. When openly derogatory, disrespectful, or a misrepresentation of the culture, it becomes a serious problem. I am of Chilean descent, and rarely does Chile get mentioned in Hispanic-related trends. Does it bother me that fashion tends to equate “Hispanic” with Mexican? Not really, it’s the dominant Hispanic group in the nation and some Mexican-inspired things can be nice in their own way. It’s wonderful to take an interest in a culture different from your own. But labeling something as authentic when it isn’t is wrong. Perpetuating derogatory, ignorant stereotypes is wrong. It just is. If you can laugh at yourself, that’s great. It’s just a matter of respect really.

  71. 71
    October 10th, 2012 at 11:33 am

    unfortunately they just can’t seem to avoid controversy, i wonder if at heart some of it might be a way to drum up publicity? or perhaps just sheer ignorance and laziness on their part. either way great article thanks for posting it!

  72. 72
    October 10th, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    Thank you for this article, it was very interesting and presents an important perspective. Very well written, and I enjoyed the linked pages too! Keep up the good work :)

  73. 73
    October 10th, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    This article was interesting and I had never thought about that aspect of culture representatiom in the fashion world.

    I’m half-Irish and every year when I see a bunch of people with shirt saying Kiss me I’m Irish or A Drunken Leprechaun. I don’t mind, I don’t care.

    If you are going to go around and pretend to be “so aware” or so “cultured” in this fashion than you are only going to come across as an idiot.
    Now there are also those that do know the culture and understand, but they still like the product not because of the title it is given, rather for the beauty of the product (like the Navo- inspired clothing line). Now the whole Jewish star thing, you can honestly tell they weren’t thinking on that one. I honestly dont think they did that one on purpose.

    Personally, I don’t care. Is it right there are cultural sterotypes? No. Will they always exisit? Yes.

    Don’t get upset by people always sterotyping you, it will happen no matter where you go. Just prove them wrong. Don’t get mad about it, just live your life and be who you are. Inform others about your culture, rather than just getting upset about the sterotyping.

    And to quote Eleanor Roosevelt
    ” No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

  74. 74
    October 10th, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    I really respect you for doing this post. Agree or disagree, it is always a good thing to be aware of.

  75. 75
    October 10th, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    This is a well-put-together post :)
    I re-posted it on Tumblr and put a link to the post.
    Thank you :)

  76. 76
    October 11th, 2012 at 12:37 am

    I find this article very interesting. I could pnly wonder why Halloween isnt taken into consideration. In costume selling shops they sell geshias costumes, why arent they on blast about that? Many brands are coming out with “Aztec” prints and use it in their names, no one is making any remarks on that because certainy the Aztec culture isnt here anymore, and as a Hispanic Heritage woman, i dont take offense at that.

  77. 77
    October 11th, 2012 at 1:02 am

    Hmm. I agree with what a lot of people are saying, but clearly we all have different opinions, which is why this is such a gray area. I definitely agree that using the name “Navajo” is wrong, since it is trademarked and the designs are probably not like traditional Navajo designs at all. However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the items that they sold in and of themselves; it’s the labeling of them that is offensive. The Abercrombie thing is horrible; it’s not the first time Abercrombie has done something like that. I think the Jewish star shirt was most likely unintentional.

    I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but I’m Catholic and went to Catholic school for 12 years, so I grew up around a lot of Irish Catholics. Never have I heard anyone upset about the “Irish stereotype.”

    I did find it interesting what one commenter brought up about the use of the cross in jewelry. For me, the cross is a religious symbol and I treat it with respect; I wear it as a religious reminder rather than for fashion. I’ve never seen anyone getting upset about cultural appropriation in that case. I do get upset when I see people wearing rosaries as jewelry, however, because that is not just a strand of beads to Catholics; it’s a prayer and should be treated as such. I was always taught that the rosary was not to be worn as a necklace.

    As for the geisha costume…definitely insensitive, and definitely poor judgment on VS’s part. I don’t think they intended to offend, but they should probably pull that particular item. It does bring up the question of where to draw the line. Halloween shops sell all kinds of “sexy” costumes…which ones constitute cultural appropriation and which ones don’t? I’d argue that a sexy geisha is offensive because it plays into a strong cultural stereotype, but what about a sexy cowgirl? Or a sexy Cleopatra? Or a beer girl? It’s hard to say at what point it becomes insulting, and it likely varies from person to person.

  78. 78
    October 11th, 2012 at 10:50 am

    I love this post and I’m so glad that it’s led many of us to evaluate where we stand on the issue! I’m also glad to see that many of us girls are on the same page–we must approach certain items mindfully, but also recognize the difference between true “hate” and ignorance.

    I think it’s interesting that people bring up wearing crosses as fashion–while I was familiar with the Navajo issue, I never thought of crosses being in the same vein.

    Thanks for educating me on this issue! I don’t think I’ll change my style or get rid of anything in my closet (I love Native American inspired pieces personally) but I’ll be more mindful of where I purchase these items in the future.

  79. 79
    October 11th, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    I don’t like the UO “Everybody loves a Jewish girl” t-shirt with dollar symbols all over it. FYI: Not all Jews are rich. In fact, many are struggling in this economy, just like lots of other people…I understand where others are coming from as well…especially the “Wong” t-shirt AE. I initally laughed (because it was a joke), but then I realized that it could be really offensive….

  80. 80
    October 11th, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Can you do a Fashionably Informed on the over-sexualization of teen girls nowadays? I saw that Victorias Secret PINK is now selling yoga pants with “enjoy the view” plastered across the back. Why so tasteless?

  81. 81
    October 12th, 2012 at 5:20 am

    I gotta say, these people are taking it pretty hard. I bet those random companies didn’t even mean to offend anyone – if it’s so painful for different races, then the companies shouldn’t even do it at all.
    Although I am a white person, so blah blah and all that, maybe I would feel differently if I was Navajo or Asian or anything.

  82. 82
    October 12th, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    I am a little bit confused now..I like so much the culture of native americans that is why I did like this line from UO, esp t-shirts with prints and some acessories..But now I understand that it is too much in some ways – ok – traditional ponchos, sweaters etc but it is not right to use this culture with pants, bras or each stuff we ever could imagine

  83. 83
    October 12th, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    It’s really hard to say where to draw the line with these things. If you say “it’s whether it’s hate or ignorance,” I’m sure few or no companies mean to offend anyone. Yet some cases still offensive to some people, and we should respect and try to understand that. I think the defining line it more like… are we boxing a group (cultural, gender-related, etc) into a stereotype? Are we portraying who they really are or are we just lumping everything together and exoticizing for the sake of “fashion”? Are we making sure the consumers are aware that this is “inspired-by” and not to be taken as the real thing?

    These types of controversies come up so often these days, I wish companies would just be a bit more thoughtful – think about and research things more before trying to profit off other cultures or other groups. Sometimes I wonder if they are just trying to make a fuss by marketing these things.

    As for the “geisha” thing. I don’t want to get into anyone’s sex life, people can do whatever they want with whomever they want, as long as there is consent it doesn’t matter to me. But again, it’s the portrayal of a culture or a group within the culture that is inaccurate, that is exoticized in western culture. I doubt VS really researched the historical and cultural background behind geisha. I don’t know much about it myself, but I do know that that’s NOT what geisha were. VS isn’t saying “geisha-inspired”, “oriental-inspired” or anything like that… VS and most of their customers probably don’t know anything about the geisha, so by doing this they are perpetrating a harmful stereotype.

    Personally though, I am full-blooded Chinese, and those Abercrombie and Fitch shirts… I had never seen then, but I read the description and I googled them. IT’S DISGUSTING. “We personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt.” Unbelievable. Asians – Chinese, Japanese and all others – have been discriminated against and marginalized for so long in the west, and the AF shirts portrayed images that are basically no different from those stereotypes we thought we had left behind. I would like to think that they didn’t mean any harm, but seriously, how can you possibly imagine that you can print shirts like that and people will not hate you for it? Tasteless.

    To those who say “lighten up” or “stop being so insensitive”: these are touchy issues for certain people, myself included. Please respect that. You haven’t lived our lives, so please don’t just wash over our concerns like that. While it’s true we can take inspiration from other cultures (it’s flattering, if done respectfully), I don’t understand why we can’t be more sensitive and clear so that we can avoid stereotyping, cultural appropriation, and basically making anybody feel bad. Goes for cultural issues, gender-related issues, even individuals.

    To CF: Thank you for putting together this column. I am so glad we have such a fashion-conscious and socially-aware team on this site! All the issues you’ve covered so far are really relevant today. And although we don’t all have to agree, it’s great that you are writing about it and at least making people aware, making them think. Thank you!

  84. 84
    October 15th, 2012 at 2:03 am

    Part of the problem is, when you make these constant associations between fashion/looks/whatever and a culture, it can alienate people from their own cultures because they don’t look like everyone expects them to. For example, when it comes up that I’m Native American, most responses I get stem from the idea that I should have feathers in my hair, or my clothes should be made of buckskin, and I should have jet black braids to my waist, and because I don’t look like I “should” based on peoples’ expectations, it means I’m not really Indian.

    Likewise, if you tell someone you’re Irish and they make a joke about alcoholism…sure it might be funny, and you might not care, and that’s all great. But it should be somewhat bothersome that people immediately associate a culture with a hurtful (and untrue) stereotype. Fashion, media, and other outlets for public consumption only exacerbate these existing stereotypes and make it difficult for people to exist within their own culture because they might not “look the part” to outsiders.

    Then there is the idea that a corporation is making a profit by exploiting stereotypes of historically oppressed ethnicities and cultures…which is of course problematic on its own. Regardless, thanks for finally making mention of this controversy. I’d wondered if all the “tribal” prints and feathers were ever going to be commented on, haha.

  85. 85
    October 16th, 2012 at 7:49 am

    I agree that most of the issues are offensive: Navajo line, the jewish star t- shirt (what were they thinking) and the weird quote on the A&F shirt.

    But I understand people who say :”people get offended too easily”. Take 2 Broke Girls for example. It got a lot of neg review on the mainstream websites because of its racist jokes (My lovely Caucasian friend told me she was deeply repelled by it). But a lot of Chinese viewers love the show (I’m Chinese & I read their comments). I can’t speak for every Asian, but isn’t it a strange phenomenon that those who should be offended are not?

    Personally I think people who gets jabbed because of their race a lot (I can only speak for Asians & I’m not talking about Asians born in countries like UK or USA) can’t afford to care anymore. Caucasian males are featured as leads on blockbuster films and TV shows. It’s common knowledge that you are more likely to be hired if “you understand the company culture better”, especially in the retail sector. Isn’t all of this racist? If as an Asian, you get offended every single time you are stereotyped in the media, you’ll sink in depression. I think people who say “don’t be so sensitive” are either blessedly free of prejudice for all their lives or seen too much to care about a few fashion garments.

    The only way to change this is for Asian countries to promote their modern culture through films, books & TV shows to the rest of the world. For that to happen, we probably have to wait a bit.

  86. 86
    October 18th, 2012 at 2:50 am

    I do believe that cultural appropriation is a good thing. However, when I say that term I mean when someone actually appropriates another culture. I have native roots in Africa, America, and a little in Europe. I’m not very into my heritage because my family had long since moved away from it — it wasn’t always safe to be proudly non-White in America. However, if someone puts on that “Sexy Little Geisha” …is it a costume? Or legit lingerie? Whatever. If someone puts that on, I don’t call it cultural appropriation because that isn’t from the culture. Black America (which is where I place myself ethnically and culturally) has its own culture. If someone dons Blackface (God, please don’t do it) and dresses like Lil’ Wayne for Halloween, I’m not going to call it appropriation because that isn’t who we are. It’s a negative stereotype that he has for some reason chosen to epitomize. Yes, we should be incredibly sensitive to stereotypes, but we should put our hurt into motivation to prove them wrong.

    I think the line isn’t hard at all to draw or place. It’s thick and obvious and it’s a straight one. You should never offend someone. Boom. There it is. Minorities in America are EAGER to share their culture because we’ve come so far as a nation. People don’t look at us as less than human anymore (well, not as many as before) and our cultures aren’t seen as savage. If they want to know more, we should educate them so they can be apart of it or at least have some appreciation or understanding of it. At my university, the Indian Hindu students celebrated Diwali on campus and when a group of us Black students came they were thrilled to see that we wanted to learn about them and their culture. I recently just missed Saudi Women Day. It was not publicized at all and I’m going to write a strongly worded letter to someone about it. They were doing Henna tattoos. People consider that offensive sometimes, but they’re eager to share it.

    I don’t think it’s so much where you get it from, though. It’s how you wear it. If it has spiritual significance, do you wear it the way someone from that culture would? Like bindis (though I hear that even in Asia they’re becoming an accessory for anyone). As far as money goes, profiting off of someone else’s ideas or creation is wrong, period — not because it’s cultural appropriation. It just has an extra sting because it rings of historical oppression.

  87. 87
    October 18th, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    Thanks so much for taking my suggestion! I was really excited to see this article! I know a lot of people have talked about being “too sensitive” or “paranoid” in the comments. I think what we should take away from this article is that we probably all like something problematic; while we shouldn’t become crippled by anxiety and guilt over that, we should acknowledge the historical and cultural background of clothing items we purchase and should try to make fashion decisions that respect other ethnicities and cultures. Decisions that make us proud. It is too easy to be a mindless consumer that chocks everything up to “fashion trends.”

  88. 88
    October 21st, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    Thank you for posting this. Unfortunately The Beauty Department is now guilty of this as well with their dream catcher inspired mani. And their creator Kristen Ess gives a pretty shocking unapologetic response. Its so sad when companies do not take responsibility for this kind of racism.

    Here is the link:

  89. 89
    November 18th, 2012 at 12:06 am

    i put this on the halloween costume post of this series, but i’ll say it again. it doesn’t matter whether or not this is racist, but if people are offended and get their feelings hurt. it’s evident that people are hurt by these fashion designs, or else this wouldn’t have been written.

  90. 90
    September 22nd, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    I’m curious about the people who think it’s just a joke, just clothes, and that everybody should just lighten up. I doubt those people have ever had to really suffer because of the body they were born in.

    I have had some of the most disrespectful and invasive sexual harassment due to being mixed race Asian, from groups of grown men shouting fake Chinese at me, alone at night, to daily harassment and assault on the way to school from the age of eleven. Being female and oriental is a double edged sword, as both racists and sexists view you as an ‘sexy little’ easy target.

    However, I love oriental prints and like that people who love geishas want to dress up as them for Halloween. To me, the difference between what’s okay and not is a mocking or hyper sexualised cultural representation, such as the derogatory and belittling VS outfit, or a literal caricature of an oriental face on a t-shirt. Abercrombie and Fitch’s apology/excuse for that? I call shenanigans.

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