Clothing, an essential component of life’s necessities, elevates the fashion industry to a highly sought-after domain. In its ubiquity, fashion serves as a universal language accessible to people from all walks of life. However, beneath this widespread appeal lies a notable discrepancy – the industry often fails to embrace the principles of inclusion and diversity, seemingly catering to a limited and exclusive audience. This paradox raises critical questions about the extent to which fashion truly reflects the diversity inherent in the human experience. In exploring these complexities, we delve into the intricacies of an industry that, despite its pervasive influence, grapples with the imperative of inclusivity.
Inclusivity vs. Diversity
Fashion is a universally expansive domain, embracing individuals of all statures, ethnicities, and ages. It transcends mere clothing for those who embrace it, evolving into a powerful means of expression, a voice that resonates when words fall short. As a global phenomenon, fashion serves as a language comprehended and spoken by many, undergoing significant transformations and leaving a profound impact.
Diversity and inclusion have become prevalent buzzwords in the contemporary fashion landscape, necessitating a nuanced understanding of their distinctions. Diversity concerns itself with the ‘what,’ encompassing differences in gender, sexuality, ability, and body image. (1) On the other hand, inclusion, often seen as a universal human right, addresses the ‘how’ by striving to encompass everyone, irrespective of color, gender, culture, ability, medical condition, or other specific needs. (2)
Within the realm of fashion, diversity entails incorporating a range of individuals with distinct characteristics like age, skin color, race, orientation, and body type. The desire for visibility, recognition, and genuine representation is paramount. A profound comprehension of representation and its connection to the pursuit of inclusion and diversity is likely the key to fostering a more inclusive fashion industry. Moreover, to genuinely address this issue, involving the voices of those historically oppressed and marginalized is crucial. By incorporating diverse perspectives into the decision-making process, the fashion sector can not only broaden its appeal but also avoid monotony. However, caution is warranted, as the industry must navigate the delicate balance between embracing societal diversity and respecting the potential pitfalls of cultural appropriation.
The Influence of Culture on Fashion and Style
Fashion and style transcend mere individual expression; they are intricately interwoven with the cultural tapestry that envelops them. The influence of culture on fashion extends far beyond the personal choices of individuals, permeating the very essence of design and aesthetic choices. (3)
Materials and Fabrics
Materials and textiles play a pivotal role in illustrating the profound impact of cultural influences on fashion. The availability of resources in diverse regions and cultures inherently shapes the materials employed in clothing, creating a rich tapestry of fabric choices. (3) This aspect of cultural influence is particularly evident in the unique utilization of materials in various fashion traditions.
In Chinese fashion, for instance, the prevalence of silk is deeply rooted in the country’s extensive history of sericulture and silk production. The luxurious and lustrous nature of silk fabric reflects not only the technical expertise in its production but also symbolizes the cultural significance attached to this ancient craft. The use of silk in Chinese garments serves as a visual manifestation of the country’s cultural legacy and craftsmanship. Similarly, African textiles showcase a vibrant interplay of cultural heritage and skilled artistry. For example, the intricate patterns and vivid Ankara prints are not merely fabric choices but reflections of Africa’s diverse cultural tapestry. These textiles encapsulate the continent’s rich history, and the craftsmanship passed down through generations. The incorporation of specific patterns and designs in African textiles serves as a testament to the cultural narratives and aesthetics unique to different regions.
Furthermore, the choice of materials in fashion becomes a medium through which cultural stories are woven into garments. The utilization of specific textiles transcends mere practical considerations; it becomes a deliberate and meaningful expression of cultural identity, heritage, and the skilled craftsmanship that defines diverse communities around the world.
Social and Political Shifts
The impact of cultural influences on fashion transcends the realm of traditional garments and materials, reaching into the domains of broader social and political movements. Fashion, in many instances, has served as a potent tool for protest and a means of expressing identity. A notable example of this dynamic interplay occurred during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, where fashion became a powerful instrument for challenging societal norms and asserting cultural pride.
During this pivotal period in history, African Americans leveraged fashion as a form of activism. The deliberate choices in clothing and hairstyle became symbolic expressions of resistance and empowerment. The afro hairstyle, characterized by its natural and voluminous curls, emerged as an iconic symbol of black power and self-acceptance. Similarly, the adoption of dashiki garments, with their vibrant colors and distinctive designs, not only represented a departure from mainstream fashion but also served as a visual proclamation of cultural heritage and unity. The deliberate adoption of certain styles and garments during the Civil Rights Movement exemplifies how fashion can transcend its aesthetic role to become a powerful form of expression, resistance, and a medium for communicating cultural pride and identity.
Traditional Garments and Attire
Traditional garments and attire stand as powerful conduits through which culture profoundly shapes fashion. Each culture boasts its distinctive styles and clothing traditions, often deeply rooted in historical narratives and heritage.
An exemplar of this cultural influence is vividly manifested in traditional garments such as the saris worn by women in India. Beyond being colorful and ornate, these garments are living embodiments of the country’s rich cultural heritage. They serve as a poignant celebration of the diverse regional traditions that collectively contribute to India’s cultural identity. Likewise, the kimono, a quintessential Japanese garment, goes beyond being a mere article of clothing. It stands as a symbol of elegance, embodying the values of modesty and respect deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.
Here are more examples of traditional garments from different cultures celebrated worldwide:
- Cheongsam – A distinctive Chinese dress, holds cultural significance and reflects a fusion of historical influences. Originating from the qizhuang, the traditional clothing of the Manchu people, it has evolved into a symbol of Chinese fashion elegance. The term “Cheongsam” itself is a romanized version of the Cantonese pronunciation “cheuhngsaam,” highlighting its regional roots. This one-piece garment is celebrated for its figure-fitting silhouette and stands out with a standing collar, offering a graceful and modest look. The asymmetrical, left-over-right opening, known as “youren,” adds a touch of sophistication. An intriguing aspect of the Cheongsam is its embellishments. Chinese frog fasteners, intricately designed, adorn the lapel and collar, adding a touch of cultural flair. These fasteners, often crafted with precision and artistry, contribute to the overall elegance of the garment.
- Kaftan or Caftan – This garment has been embraced by diverse cultures worldwide for millennia. In Russian usage, the term “kaftan” refers to a style of men’s long suit characterized by tight sleeves. Kaftans can be crafted from a variety of materials, such as wool, cashmere, silk, or cotton, and are often adorned with a sash. Notably, during the time of the Ottoman Empire, kaftans gained widespread popularity. Elaborately detailed and intricately designed garments were bestowed upon ambassadors and other esteemed guests at the Topkapı Palace, showcasing the significance and grandeur associated with this traditional attire. The kaftan’s enduring presence across different cultures attests to its versatility and timeless appeal as a symbol of cultural heritage and refinement.
- Kebaya – A traditional upper garment worn by women in Southeast Asia, particularly in countries like Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Southern Thailand. Typically crafted from lightweight fabrics like brocade, cotton, gauze, lace, or voile, the kebaya is characterized by its open front. It is often adorned with intricate embroidery and secured at the front using buttons, pins, or brooches. The lower part of the ensemble is complemented by a garment known as a sarong, kemben, or kain. This piece, a lengthy fabric, is wrapped and tucked around the waist or under the armpits. It may be fashioned from materials such as batik, ikat, songket, or tenun, adding to the diversity and richness of the kebaya ensemble. The kebaya, with its regional variations, stands as a symbol of cultural identity and traditional elegance in Southeast Asia.
- Hanbok – The ancient hanbok, during its earliest iterations, comprised a jeogori (top), baji (pants), chima (skirt), and the po (coat). This foundational structure of hanbok was established at the latest during the Goguryeo period. Noteworthy is the design philosophy behind hanbok, which aimed to facilitate ease of movement. The integration of various motifs of Mu-ism, an ancient Korean belief system, is evident in the clothing’s basic structure. Hanbok, therefore, not only represents a longstanding sartorial tradition but also embodies a cultural and spiritual significance rooted in ancient Korean history. Its evolution over the centuries speaks to the enduring nature of this traditional attire and its role in preserving and expressing Korean identity.
- Baro’t saya – Also known as baro at saya, it translates to “blouse and skirt” and stands as a traditional dress ensemble worn by women in the Philippines. Functioning as the national dress, it harmoniously fuses elements from pre-colonial native Filipino and colonial Spanish clothing styles. The ensemble typically includes four components: a blouse (baro or camisa), a long skirt (saya or falda), a shoulder-worn kerchief (pañuelo, fichu, or alampay), and a short rectangular cloth worn over the skirt (the tapis or patadyong). Variations of the baro’t saya fall under the collective term Filipiniana. These include the aristocratic traje de mestiza, often known as the Maria Clara; the Visayan kimona featuring a short-sleeved or poncho-like embroidered blouse paired with a patadyong skirt; and the unified gown called the terno, alongside its casual and cocktail dress version, the balintawak. The baro’t saya’s masculine equivalent is the barong tagalog. This traditional Filipino attire serves as a poignant symbol of cultural synthesis, blending indigenous and colonial influences into a distinctive and elegant national dress.
- Dirndl – This is a feminine dress originating from the German-speaking areas of the Alps. It is traditionally worn by women and girls in Austria, Bavaria (southeastern Germany), Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and the Alpine regions of Italy (South Tyrol). The dress comprises a snug-fitting bodice with a low neckline, a blouse worn beneath the bodice, a wide high-waisted skirt, and an apron. Considered a folk costume, known as Tracht in German, the dirndl developed as the attire of Alpine peasants between the 16th and 18th centuries. Today, it is widely recognized as the traditional dress for women and girls in the German-speaking parts of the Alps, with distinct designs associated with various regions. The counterpart for men in traditional attire is commonly the lederhosen.
- Quadrille Dress – Described as a custom-made attire worn by women in Caribbean nations, showcasing its bespoke nature. This distinctive dress serves as the folk costume in several countries, notably Jamaica, Dominica, and Haiti, where it is recognized by different names. The Quadrille dress holds particular significance during the Quadrille dance, but it is also worn on various other occasions beyond this traditional dance form. Additionally, this bespoke dress reflects the cultural richness of the Caribbean, embodying a unique blend of traditions and aesthetics specific to each country. Its association with the Quadrille dance emphasizes its role not only as a garment but as a symbol of cultural identity and celebration.
- Pollera – A term in Spanish, refers to a voluminous one-piece skirt predominantly used in traditional festivities and folklore across Spanish-speaking Latin America. These skirts, known as polleras, are crafted from various materials, including cotton or wool, and are often adorned with colorful decorations. The embellishments on polleras are typically embroidered, with common designs featuring flowers and regional animals. In contemporary contexts, polleras have evolved to become associated with indigenous and folkloric forms of dress. They represent a cultural legacy, embodying the intersection of Spanish colonial influences and indigenous traditions. Polleras continue to be an integral part of traditional celebrations and serve as a visual testament to the rich cultural heritage across Spanish-speaking Latin America.
- Arkhalig – An integral component of the traditional dress for both men and women in the Caucasus and Iran. Its origin can be traced back to the beshmet, a Turkic outer garment that was later adopted by Cossacks. The arkhalig is a long, tight-waisted jacket crafted from a variety of fabrics, including silk, satin, cloth, cashmere, and velvet, with the choice traditionally reflecting the social status of the wearer. Male arkhaligs may come in both single-breasted variations, fastened with hooks, and double-breasted styles, secured with buttons. During colder weather, the arkhalig is often worn with a chokha layered on top. Female arkhaligs, on the other hand, are often adorned with ornaments and feature tightly fitted long sleeves that widen at the wrists. These garments may include fur along the edges, patterned laces, and braids, or be embellished with intricate gold embroidery.
- Abaya – It is a simple, loose over-garment, essentially a robe-like dress worn by some women in parts of the Muslim world, including North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and most of the Middle East. Traditional abayas are typically black and may be a large square of fabric draped from the shoulders or head or a long kaftan. The abaya covers the whole body except the head (sometimes), feet, and hands. It can be paired with the niqāb, a face veil covering all but the eyes. Some women also opt for long black gloves to cover their hands. The abaya is commonly worn on special occasions, such as Mosque visits, Islamic Holiday celebrations like Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, and during the Islamic Holy month of Ramadan.
The marriage of fashion and culture is a dynamic and reciprocal relationship. Fashion reflects the cultural milieu it emerges from, capturing the essence of traditions, histories, and values. Simultaneously, culture finds expression and adaptation through the ever-evolving realm of fashion, ensuring that clothing becomes a dynamic canvas where cultural narratives are both preserved and reinterpreted.
What is Cultural Appropriation and Appreciation?
Cultural appropriation refers to the adoption, borrowing, or imitation of elements from another culture, often by members of a dominant culture. This can include aspects such as clothing, hairstyles, language, symbols, traditions, and more. (4) Cultural appropriation becomes problematic when it involves taking elements from a marginalized or oppressed culture without understanding, respecting, or acknowledging their cultural significance. It often leads to the erasure of the original cultural context and may perpetuate stereotypes or reinforce power imbalances.
While cultural exchange and sharing can be positive and enriching, appropriation becomes an issue when it involves the exploitation or commodification of cultural elements, particularly when the dominant culture profits or gains social status from the borrowed elements. Sensitivity and awareness are crucial to navigating cultural exchange in a respectful and inclusive manner, considering the historical and social context of the cultures involved.
On the other hand, cultural appreciation is a perspective and approach that involves recognizing, understanding, and valuing the various elements that contribute to a specific culture. (4) It goes beyond passive acknowledgment and implies an active effort to engage with and learn from different cultural practices, traditions, and expressions. Those who engage in cultural appreciation demonstrate open-mindedness, actively seek knowledge about the historical and social aspects of a culture, and participate respectfully in cultural events. This approach involves cross-cultural communication, avoiding stereotypes, and promoting inclusivity. Moreover, cultural appreciation celebrates differences, viewing them as enriching rather than divisive, and contributes to a more interconnected world by fostering mutual understanding and respect among diverse communities. It is a positive and constructive way of engaging with cultural diversity, recognizing the unique contributions of each culture to the global mosaic of human experiences.
The Importance of Inclusivity in Fashion
The importance of inclusivity in the fashion industry cannot be overstated, especially in fostering an environment where women and individuals with specific needs feel genuinely embraced and accepted. Beyond being a catalyst for creativity and innovation, inclusivity in fashion brings together diverse perspectives and experiences, fueling the development of distinctive ideas in design, styling, and presentation. This commitment to inclusivity also plays a crucial role in ensuring cultural representation and awareness, preventing cultural appropriation and misrepresentation. From a business standpoint, embracing inclusivity not only expands a brand’s appeal but also establishes meaningful connections with a wider audience, fostering market growth. Moreover, this commitment aligns with social responsibility, promoting fair and ethical practices within the industry. The positive industry image, innovation resilience, and enhanced consumer loyalty are additional dividends of a steadfast commitment to inclusivity. Furthermore, inclusivity in fashion not only mirrors the diversity of our world but also actively contributes to positive social change and the adoption of sustainable industry practices.
As the fashion industry undergoes transformative shifts towards inclusivity, the significant role of cultural influence becomes increasingly evident. The infusion of diverse cultures into the fashion landscape fosters a rich tapestry of styles, with various cultural elements gaining prominence. However, amidst this cultural exchange, there is a risk of falling into the pitfalls of cultural appropriation. Therefore, it is crucial to approach this trend with a deep understanding of the nuances of each culture before incorporating its elements. By doing so, the fashion industry can not only celebrate the diversity of global cultures but also navigate these influences responsibly, avoiding misappropriation and fostering a truly inclusive and respectful environment.