The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

Cultural Insensitivity in Fashion

“When Asian culture reaches the mainstream, it’s tokenized and fetishized and done by white people to cater to them,” said Shelton. “Seeing people wearing a scandalous, very clearly Asian-inspired dress is disheartening because they don’t understand any of the culture behind it. They don’t care to understand any of the honor and beauty of an ao dai.”


According to Loretta Racette of Vizaca Magazine, the ao dai was first adapted during the period of French colonialism in the early 1900s when Western style was imposed on Vietnamese culture. Even now, in the 21st century, similar instances of cultural appropriation continue to occur. Many fashion companies have struggled with crossing the line between honoring a culture for its traditions and exploiting it with disrespect. In 2018, Prada produced monkey keychains that resembled blackface. Last February, ironically during Black History Month, Gucci sold sweaters that were equally racist and evocative as the luxury brand marketed black sweaters that featured a roll-up collar that covered the lower face, like a mask, with wide red lips outlining the opening for the mouth.


Idalis McZeal ‘23, a member of the Black Leadership Awareness and Culture Club (BLACC), expressed her outrage with the insensitivity of the fashion industry.


“They’re taking something that people have been oppressed for and died for, people who suffered because of the color of their skin,” said McZeal.  “The fact that these companies are producing such offensively racist products just for their own profit is disgusting. If they’re going to refer to specific cultures, they should educate their audience, teach them the history behind the pieces and donate the proceeds to charities that help social justice.”


Along with their disheartening choice of products, the fashion industry’s selection of mainly white, thin models reflects the racial inequality that pervades society. Although there are a number of well-known Black models such as Winnie Harlow, Tyson Beckford, Tyra Banks and Alek Wek, the catalogs and magazines are dominated by white women and men models. The popular youth fashion brand Brandy Melville also represents the lack of diversity in the world of fashion. Of 80 photographs on the front page of their website, only three contain models of color, reinforcing the eurocentric beauty standards that equate beauty with whiteness.

Janine Jones, the head of the Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committee, said she recognizes the harmful effects of omitting people of color from publications that set the standards for beauty.


“When you have the exclusion of a certain population, a certain body type, or a certain skin tone, what you’re communicating is that those people don’t matter and that they’re not as valued,” said Jones. “When you only have skinny, white, straight-haired women with certain facial features, that sends the message that [people] need to straighten their hair, lighten their skin and lose weight, because that’s what you see is revered.”


Jones emphasized that the lack of representation not only affects people of color but sends damaging messages to all people.


“People feel that they need to change who they are in order to fit into a certain narrative of what’s deemed acceptable in the world,” said Jones. “I hope that companies do a better job of recognizing the changing demographics in this country.”


Many companies are fulfilling Jones’ hope for more representation of the diversity in the world., for instance, is populated predominantly with models of color. The Fashion Spots’ 2019 seasonal diversity report, which assesses the diversity of gender, size, and race of models on the catwalks of Fashion Week, revealed more inclusivity – In New York 45.8% of models were non-white; The shows in Paris featured 39% models of color. In support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Aurora James, founder of Brother Vellies, initiated the 15 Percent Pledge, which calls on major retailers to dedicate 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. These statistics indicate that the demands for equity are being heard.

Paris Little ‘22 said she encourages consumers to keep pushing for inclusion and diversity.


“People should continue to call out different brands and companies that aren’t doing their part,” Little said. “We need to call these people out so they can strive to do better- that’s how we are going to make change.”