Is it OK for me to wear this?
Updated: Mar 17
So here is a question that we get pretty often:
Hi, I’m absolutely in love with your clothing line and I understand it has African roots. I’m not of African heritage, would it be appropriate to but and wear as a non-African?
You should never try to assume the thoughts of a group you aren’t a part of so the person who asked the question isn’t wrong in trying to tread carefully. That said REPKULTURE would love to see more people from non-African heritage wearing our clothes and celebrating our culture. So when is it and when is it not ok? Let’s dive deeper into that question.
So why wouldn’t it be ok?
The main concern of the person who asked the question above is whether or not them buying and wearing the piece of clothing would be cultural appropriation. Put simply cultural appropriation is whenever somebody adopts an element or elements of a culture that isn’t their own. The word has a lot of negative connotations these days and honestly, there are a lot of ways that it can be problematic, for example:
Lets people take credit for things that the original culture never got credit for
It can make light of or trivialise historical oppression
It can help to perpetuate racist stereotypes
All these problems are amplified if the culture you are adopting from is oppressed, marginalised or a minority.
I mentioned above that REPKULTURE would love to see people from different cultures wearing our clothes. I’ve also just highlighted that haphazardly adopting parts of someone else’s culture can be extremely problematic. So keeping both of those ideas in mind how can we begin to square these 2 circles?
There is no easy answer. Cultural appropriation is a deeply complex issue and how different people, feel about different things, is often highly context-dependent. That said there are a few things you can do if you do genuinely want to show your appreciation and cop an awesome piece of clothing
1. Always give credit
I think this should go without saying. If you do decide to embrace a part of any culture remember to pay some homage to its origins. A nod of acknowledgement or a short comment on your inspirations would usually suffice. Treat it like you were writing an essay in school and remember to cite your sources.
2. Engage with more than just the hairstyles/clothing/food
For it to cross from appropriation to appreciation, what you really need to do is go more than just skin deep. Cultures are rich and complex. Yes, that shirt or dress may look cool but chances are there is a deep history and meaning behind it.
The fabrics, sounds, flavours and mannerisms of culture all evolved from the struggles of a group and the stories of its people. If you appreciate something that you see, take a little bit of time out of your day and delve into its rich history. It will allow you to gain a deeper appreciation for the item and often it will answer the question of whether an outsider can wear it.
A common example is the Native American feather headdresses. The war bonnets are an item with spiritual and ceremonial significance, with only certain members of the tribe having earned the right to wear feathers through honour-worthy achievements and acts of bravery. Once aware of that, most people with common sense would be able to answer if it seemed appropriate to wear it to your random costume party.
More than that engage with the people behind the stories. Buy from brands that support the local producers and give back to those who deserve the credit. Failing to engage with the people behind the prints not only makes appropriation more likely but it misses the opportunity presented to make some real change to the stereotypes and other issues the people of that culture may be facing.
3. Recognise culture is complex
One of the beautiful things about culture is that it is fluid and ever-changing. Even things that seem as simple as the Ankara fabrics used in REPKULTURE’S design has a rich history behind them.
The Batik method of wax printing was originally Indonesian. With the colonisation of Indonesia by the Dutch saw the value in the method. They originally aimed to create a machine that could use the method to outsell the prints back to the Indonesian market but it didn’t seem to stick. By the 1880s though Dutch and Scottish traders started introducing the prints to the West African market which is where they finally started seeing traction. At some point, this style of clothing became inseparable from West African culture worn day today, but also at special occasions such as weddings and funerals. This just goes to show how complex seemingly simple parts of a culture are. To read more about these prints Ifeoma Nnewuihe has an awesome post here.
So are Ankara fabrics Indonesian, Dutch or West African? Any answer you give would be both correct and incorrect. It’s complicated. It’s also not just Ankara prints that are like this. Whenever you take the time to dig into the history of something you appreciate you shouldn’t be surprised to find a story like this. It will add another dimension to your appreciation as well as deepening your understanding of the subject.
The point isn’t always to say who owns what. Instead most of the time it's more meaningful this way as it shows how we are all interconnected.
REPKULTURE’S aim isn’t to play as the gatekeeper of African prints but instead to learn from them and fuse them with our new Australian home. We want people to celebrate our vibrant colourful fabrics with us. To see it as a statement of multiculturalism and view rich history. Sharing a vibrant part of our complicated culture and using it to bring us together.
4. If it feels like a costume, you’re doing it wrong
Don’t just copy. Take inspiration from it and begin to make it your own. To do anything less is not appreciating, but simply trivialising a culture and the people who are members of it. Don’t make other people's culture your costume.
In making it your own that’s how we can begin to push forward our collective culture. Borrowing ideas and inspiration from each other is a way we can begin to break down barriers and challenge stereotypes. Well, assuming you also paid attention to the rest written above.
So what’s the conclusion?
At the end of the day, it isn’t an issue that can be summarised in one post. Read the room, dress for the occasion and try to be conscientious. If you still aren’t sure about something then ask somebody from that culture. If you don’t know anyone from that culture then see point 2 before you go ahead.
At REPKULTURE our mission is to help people feel proud and comfortable in their styles without reservation. We also want to celebrate the beautiful diversity and aesthetic beauty of traditional African print. So if you aren’t of African heritage and you see something you want to wear, we welcome you. The only thing we ask is that you hit us up on Instagram @repkulture and share with us how you’ve made it your own so we can celebrate with you.