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Appropriating vs. appreciating Black fashion today: MSU students share insight

February 16, 2021
<p>Ankara print fabric sold at Seams Fabric in East Lansing on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.</p>

Ankara print fabric sold at Seams Fabric in East Lansing on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.

Photo by Jillian Felton | The State News

Modern-day trends such as hoop earrings, acrylic nails, bucket hats and lettuce-hem shirts are considered to be fashion staples in America. But not many are aware of the cultural significance behind their favorite accessories or that all these items, and more, originate from Black or African culture. 

Acrylic nails date all the way back to origins in ancient Egypt, according to Bricks Magazine, and were first seen on the cover of a magazine being worn by a black woman. They then became prominent in the disco scene, being worn by stars such as Diana Ross and Donna Summers. 

Originated in Nubia — an ancient civilization that is now known as northern Sudan and southern Egypt — hoop earrings were popularized in the '70s by prominent black figures such as Nina Simone and Angela Davis. 


Physiology junior Meri Michael said while she did not know about many fashion items that came from Black culture, she had guessed the origin of hoop earrings.

“But I thought that was more of a stereotype than actually from Black culture," Michael said.

As an Asian-American student who has seen her own culture appropriated in fashion, Michael believes there are certain styles associated with African American history that if adopted recklessly or worn by someone who is not Black, can be offensive.

“When I see people wearing dreadlocks who are white, or (wearing) durags, I definitely don’t think is cool," Michael said. "I don’t think it is appropriate.”

Sometimes, Black trends are not Americanized, but simply taken all together, silencing the black creators and cultures that lie behind them. 

Advertising management senior and co-director of fashion at VIM Magazine, Baraka Macharia reflects on Carrie Bradshaw's infamous flower dress from "Sex and the City: The Movie" and its original inspiration.

“(It) was originally created for Whitney Houston and then Carrie wore it and it became iconic, and people remember her for it," Macharia said. “I think that’s just a micro-version of how Black influencers, Black culture gets taken by the fashion industry and repositioned for a white mainstream audience for people to digest it.”

Uncredited Black fashion is not uncommon on the runway either, according to Macharia.

“We see that a lot in runway shows," Macharia said. "We see small examples with earrings, long acrylic nails, big gold hoops or cornrow braids that happened a lot like two or three seasons ago. ... I feel like there’s always little things here and there, it's like a microaggression to a point.”

Apparel and textile design junior Shelton Hawkins strives to be considerate in his pieces as a fashion designer.

“I draw a lot of inspiration from old stuff like really vintage pieces," Hawkins said. "I won’t get whole piece ideas, but it might be a certain aspect of a certain piece ... like the way a pocket is sewn onto a garment or the way something fits. ... But I try to keep all my designs original.”

Reflecting on the topic of cultural appropriation versus appreciation, Hawkins defines appreciation as a starting point which at times can be taken too far. 

“I feel like everybody starts off with appreciation," Hawkins said. "But when you take that appreciation and kind of build your brand or what you’re doing around that, that’s when it becomes (about) appropriation — when you’re almost copying.”

For Macharia, appreciation begins when credit is given where it is due. 

“I think where we draw the line with appropriation and appreciation in the context of the fashion industry is by giving a platform to Black designers and actually knowing like their names and who they are,” Macharia said. “We obviously know the names of these bigger white designers, who are at these bigger houses so they have a bigger platform, but they are doing the same work that these Black designers are doing.”

While the voices of many Black designers are often dampened, and the history behind the trends is not being told, Macharia has high hopes for the future of the fashion industry. 

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“I feel like the fashion industry has taken slow strides to keep up with the times and realize it’s not cool to appropriate Black female culture," he said.


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