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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Tradition isn’t trendy

While Canada has a general reputation as an innocuous, lovable country, fashion magazine ELLE Canada is under fire this week after asking the question “Is the dashiki the new caftan?” in a trend piece. 

While both dashikis and caftans make for comfy summer garb, assigning the traditional West-African garment a trend tag and calling it the new “it” item is quite problematic. This is mostly because it’s not new, and it’s not a trend; it’s a culture.

“[S]ince when were dashikis new? [M]y culture is not a trend” Twitter user @__stxcey asked.

The dashiki, like cultural appropriation and white stylizing and fetishizing of non-Western cultural items as “it” pieces, is nothing new. It’s been a traditional piece of clothing in West Africa for centuries.

Twitter user @LOVEEugonma cites frustration: “This is so irritating. NOTHING about a dashiki is new. It’s been the ‘it-item’ in African countries since forever.”

American popular culture has been beneficially infused with black culture since the 1700s and, as jazz, blues, R&B and rap music have become popular, white appropriation of black culture has become the norm. The adoption of cornrows on white people, grills, and artificially plump body parts ­— just Google Kylie Jenner if you’re confused — is ubiquitous.

“The Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg addresses the growing concerns of cultural appropriation in both an Instagram post and a well-done video appropriately titled “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” noting that black women are criticized and judged for dark skin, plump lips and natural hairstyles like cornrows and afros. However, those attributes are considered favorable when attributed to white women. They become trends and physical accessories instead of expressions of a cultural identity or stylish ways to treat and maintain the natural hair of black people.

Stenberg goes on to explain that, “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.”

ELLE Canada’s trend piece is an example of this.

Stenberg also notes the recent influx of popular music icons utilizing black culture in their music videos and personas, from Riff Raff and his neon cornrows to Katy Perry’s cornrows. The use of ebonics and a non-sequitur cut to an image of Aretha Franklin with “#respect” emblazoned boldly below it in Perry’s “This is How We Do” video show that appropriation runs rampant. Fashion is no different.

While high fashion is occasionally deemed tactless and insensitive in its use of white models to exhibit “ethnic” or “tribal” styles, there are some ways to do it properly. At Fashion Week, Japanese designer Junya Watanabe displayed a subpar show exhibiting white models with exaggerated dreadlocks and large, chunky tribal jewelry.

In the past, Watanabe has been known for his deft manipulation of cultural styles in his shows. His Fall/Winter 2015 collection used La Sape inspired Congolese sapeurs and actual Congolese models to display the dandyism and style endemic to the piece of clothing. It was, as Menswear writer Nick Grant said, “On point.”

So when ELLE Canada simply assigned a trend tag to a traditional garment and displayed a white model wearing it, problems were likely to arise.

Ndekela Sakala, a junior studying psychology and biochemistry, is uncomfortable with a traditional cultural garment becoming a trend.

“Dashikis [and other traditional clothing] aren’t necessarily sacred, but they are uniquely tied to African culture,” Sakala said. “Political black movements have sort of reclaimed them and use them as a way to reconnect with their African ties.

“With the ELLE article, it makes me constantly uncomfortable when publications make things prominent to black culture the newest ‘it’ item, because they’re rarely new, and they’re also something that comes as a source of ridicule for the originating culture by media sources, but become cool because everyone wants to be Beyoncé or Rihanna, you know?” Sakala asked.

Ironically, Beyoncé and Rihanna have both been pictured wearing dashikis by brand Dimepiece LA on Instagram and in media. While I’m a fan of Beyoncé and Rihanna, I didn’t let myself buy a dashiki at Buffalo Exchange, and I’m glad I didn’t because I: A—looked ridiculous, and B—am not African… I won’t be having dreads anytime soon, either.

Before you adopt either of those things or myriad other options, ask yourself the same question Stenberg asks in her video: “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?”

Follow Nick Havey on Twitter.

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