In this anonymous op-ed, focusing on Sitara*’s 2017 show, a writer examines the damage done by cultural appropriation, sometimes unwittingly.
Cultural appropriation highlights a power imbalance, where members of a dominant group exploit the culture of a minority with little to no understanding of the experience, history, and tradition of the latter. The dominant group members are deemed innovative and style-forward, whereas the marginalised groups that the styles are borrowed from, face negative stereotypes for emulating them.
Although Sitara is meant to be a “South Asian” fashion show, it heavily relies on Indian garments, which inherently and in of itself is fine. However, the charity (SOS Children’s Village Multan) associated with the fashion show is based in Pakistan, which has had a turbulent history with India and slightly different stylistic approach to its garments. These subtle differences come from influences from other countries as empires fell and rose, giving us intricate patterns and colourful pieces. Even if the fashion show states that they would be showcasing Indian garments, the committee would need to make sure that it is worn properly, adorned with ornaments that reflect the geographic nature and period from which the particular garment comes. Religious and culturally significant clothing should not be reduced to a costume which generalises the plethora of sub-cultures within India. Moreover, romanticising select aspects of the culture whilst ignoring the roots of intrinsic patterns sets an oppressive tone.
The way the models are dressed and photographed is culturally insensitive. Indian culture, by its nature is modest and conservative when it comes to showing skin; models half naked in bath tubs do not reflect this (see attached pictures IMG1&2). Moreover, the lack of South Asian models is appalling, since Sitara claims it “celebrat(es) the fusion of culture that is heavily present in our university”, however Sitara’s homepage features two models that do not seem to be ethnically South Asian. (IMG3). The lack of diversity within the university is already an issue, and making an Asian fashion show Eurocentric is not helping. Giving minority cultures representation is important, but Sitara excludes us from the narrative, which is frustrating to an already marginalised population. This can make it seem as if we can’t carry our own culture.
Not only that, the tagline “this is my rang”, which translates to ‘this is my colour’, is a sorry attempt at an Indian aesthetic and reeks of misinformed fetishisation of Indian culture. India is a land adorned with colour, which, let’s face it, is often exoticised. This white-washing often misrepresents the culture, thus making it a mockery and offensive; it is like associating Chinese food with fortune cookies, or wearing tribal tattoos for fashion.
I am not one to discourage people from trying to appreciate culture, but there is a difference between appreciating and appropriating. It seems to me that Sitara uses the rich and vibrant nature of Indian garments to draw crowds. This isn’t the first time culture has been appropriated in St Andrews; we had a bongo ball, native headdresses at Halloween, etc. It is a shame that the committee, despite having South Asians in it, have not managed to sort this out. Especially since South Asians get lumped together and it is vital to demonstrate that South Asia is more than just India or Indian people.
The point is not to exclude anyone by saying ‘this is my culture, and because you are not geographically part of the country, you can’t appreciate or associate with it’. Cultural mixing and appreciation stems from the fact that it is mutual and respectful. If nothing, I hope you take this; Cultural appropriation is not appreciation. We know better to be doing this, year after year, and people must be held accountable to put a stop to this. We can do better, and that starts today.
*Please not that all images, taglines, and promotional material involving Sitara* was not affiliated with the 2018 (upcoming) show.