Miley Cyrus (née Destiny Hope) twerked up a mediasweat in 2013 with her Disney-cum-MTV good-girl-gone-bad routine. The narrative wasn’t new—before Miley, there was Britney, Christina, and Lindsay—but what was fresh was this: where those princesses channeled MTV’s ur-provocateur Madonna, Miley called upon Lil’ Kim. “In my past life, I feel like that was me, I feel like Lil’ Kim is like who I am on the inside,” said the white girl from Nashville. And on Halloween, while countless boys and girls dressed in teddies like Miley’s at the VMAs, she donned a purple pastie in homage to her chosen soul sister.
Miley’s urban affectations fueled the frenzy around her. “Was her ratchet styling racist?” the media asked, as a barrage of incendiary tweets were fired in reply. Our thought at BULLETT: few questions that can be answered by an 8-ball are worth asking, and this wasn’t one of them. We wanted to know how. How is Miley’s styling racialized or not? How does it reflect fashion and culture at large? How does it make people feel, think, and act? How can we use this case to speak productively about race, class, and subcultural appropriation in fashion right now?
Talking about race and talking about fashion are tricky propositions, but for different reasons. Discourses around race are loaded, weighted with history and the import that there is still so much work to be done, whereas fashion speak is vaporous, bubbly with hyperbole (everything’s just fabulous!). We wanted to respect the messiness that comes from discussions around race and fashion, because media stories rarely do. They’ll give you a soundbite, an argument, something digestible for your lunch break, something black and white. We want to publish a debate so dizzying, it’ll make you lose your appetite, because we’re hungry for change.
We asked 13 voices in fashion, including stylists, designers, performers, and academics, to share their opinions on fashion’s appropriation of urban street style. What’s at stake when Miley kicks it in Jordans? When James Franco wears rows that riff on RiFF RAFF? When Brooke Candy is photographed by Terry Richardson with a gold tooth? When Hood By Air becomes a Style.com darling? Or when Rick Owens hires an American step team to model his Paris défilé? Should anybody be allowed to wear anything they want? Is fashion a post-racial utopia? What’s gained and what’s lost when fashion makes trendy looks that were born of a specific time, place, and people?
“‘Hip-hop culture’ has become 100 percent and without argument ‘pop culture,’ and that’s why the Black American experience is now much more at the forefront of American cultural aesthetics. It’s only culturally appropriate that younger generations are more progressive, forgetful, and/or unaware of past racial/political tensions.The melding of cultures we’re seeing now may have Generation-X and Generation-Y shaking in their boots with claims of racial ‘appropriation’— and, at times, things can get awkward with poor execution and mere thoughtlessness—but to Generation-Z, I would clearly think it all seems ‘normal.’
People need to be creative and play with their bodies. When something awkward or inappropriate happens, that’s GOOD, because it calls into question something dormant in our society that may need to be addressed. Fashion can be very powerful politically. It can bring into question or ignite a very radical idea or thought process through the power of a single image and that image can spread and spark new ways of thinking on its own. I think we need to just watch culture play out, say something when we feel something needs to be said, and call into question what we feel needs to be questioned. Self-righteousness is the cancer to creativity. Nobody likes a watchdog, watchdog’s aren’t lovers, creators, dreamers—watchdogs are political bloodhounds and what everyone needs, in my opinion, is more freedom.” -Mykki Blanco, New York-based musician and artist
“‘Blackness’ (as long as that concept has existed) has always been in fashion. The ways in which blackness is addressed and used as the basis for creative visions of the word mutates over time. For a long time, white men were allowed to take on black masculinity, which is where the concept of a ‘wigger’ comes from. Although there were moments of white women incorporating elements of black style into their looks, it wasn’t in the same way. There was no appropriation of larger ideas of dress, attitude, speech, etc. As we enter the second and third(plus) generations of white kids globally who have ideas of what it means to be white and align oneself with black culture, we’ve gotten to a unique moment where white women, white gay men, and other races are playing with blackness; its notions of coolness, hardness, urban-ness and specific forms of hyper-sexuality. Racism doesn’t exist less, but the merger of black cultural expression with any idea of authenticity or entitlement-to has faded as the internet archives and makes accessible any and every fetish desire, including the desire for or admiration of another culture.
I think everyone should be educated and maybe if that was emphasized more, we wouldn’t find ourselves trapped in cyclical conversations that ricochet between angry accusation and dismissive arrogance. READ. If you like black culture so much, try to understand it—it will make everything you do cooler and smarter. Otherwise… I guess you’re just a wigger.” -Juliana Huxtable, New York-based writer, critic, and nightlife princess
“I read an interview with Miley Cyrus where she said she can put on a white crop top, white leggings, and white Nikes, and nobody is on her level. I’m like, girl, you know that’s what girls wear every day because they can’t afford anything else? Why do rich people want to feel poor? Classism is the new racism. Class affects us more than anything, and within America’s class structure there lies racism. I grew up in America’s largest public housing projects. I know what it feels like to walk into a high-end store and be treated like a minority. I work in an industry that secretly judges me because the slang I use and friends I chose. I don’t want to call where I come from the hood, but it is an environment where 70 percent of the members of my community will eventually be behind bars. I used to use the word ‘ratchet’ back in high school; it was slang for a gun. Seeing how loose this word has become and what it defines as ‘ghetto’ makes me sad. Ratchet is now a trend: everybody wants to wear cornrows and athletic-inspired fashion, everybody’s putting numbers on the back of their t-shirts.” -Prince Franco, Fashion Editor at Studio Formichetti
“I believe people should be able to wear whatever they want wherever. I think it’s nice to be educated in what you’re wearing, but for example, really how many people wearing those “Comme des Fuck Down” hats know who Rei Kawakubo is? But who cares, whatever makes them happy. I think it’s important to be sensitive to others when appropriating something taken from another culture into something to wear for fashion, but it’s so tricky. Whatever you do someone somewhere will find it offensive even if you’re celebrating that culture.” -Matthew Josephs, London-based streetwear stylist
“Designers should take inspiration from anything. You shouldn’t have to live something to be inspired by it or make work around it. Wear whatever you want. You have Kanye West saying that hip-hop is the new rock-and-roll; we’re the new rockstars. He’s completely right. You don’t have to be from the ghetto to listen to hip-hop. It’s the biggest music in the world. Everybody listens to it.” -Dean Kissick, Senior Digital Editor at i-D magazine
“The link between pop culture and mass appeal is not new, and black culture has a long history of being appropriated by and having a major influence on pop culture. But what does seem new is that the stigma attached to rappers and their sometimes unwanted endorsements has faded. I wonder if this has more to do with with the marketing power of these musicians, now that fashion has become such a big business, than a genuine appreciation of their taste. One needs only to be reminded of those recent incidents of racial profiling—for instance, when two black youths were accosted by the police for legally and soundly buying fashion goods at a prestigious department store—to realize that any claim of ‘blackness’ being in fashion is based more on gimmicks and fads than any true solidarity or understanding of the black experience.
Personally, I feel uncomfortable with what it is that is considered ‘blackness’ in America. When Miley Cyrus acts sloppy, vulgar, and idiotic on national television and is then accused of copying ‘black culture’ by the media, I realize there is a much bigger problem at hand: it would seem that being black is synonymous with a kind of overconfidence that is empowered by its defiance of a lack of education and sophistication; it’s synonymous with anti-intellectualism and a lack of self-respect. If you look at the history of black people in the United States, at all their struggles and achievements, it is extremely sad to think what’s now defined as ‘blackness’—it’s amply sugarcoated with post-modern irony and easily swallowed despite being no less bitter than the minstrels and blackface from the days of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow.” -Jeremy Lewis, founder/editor of Garmento Magazine
“The most diverse fashion week continues to be New York’s but still more than four out of five models on the runway are white, and that’s the best fashion week from the point of racial diversity. Milan and Paris are much less diverse. You’ll hear major casting directors making totally preposterous excuses about, for instance, why they, “just can’t possibly hire a black girl for the Gucci show because black girls have a certain kind of body.” The fact that such stereotypes are still so prevalent in the highest part of the industry is really distressing. I do believe that change can come from within. I don’t believe the fashion system has an intractable or unsolvable problem with race. I think that it has a problem and that too often goes unacknowledged but that change can come by defining and quantifying the problems. I reject the notion that race is something that fashion can “play with,” that it’s something that can be “in style.” Race is not a fashion statement. Race is something that fashion needs to confront and admit some responsibility in its construction of and that includes hiring a lot more models of color and a lot more people of color throughout the industry.” -Jenna Sauers, writer and former Fashion Editor at Jezebel
“Fashion industry racism isn’t really different from ‘regular’ racism. There are some people from another race who might say something to a black person and not think it’s racist or offensive because it’s so deep and aligned that they aren’t even aware of it. Appropriating usually comes when people aren’t used to the environment and aren’t familiar with what they’re appropriating; that is when it becomes an issue for some.” -Akeem Smith, New York-based stylist
“Rarely do the original communities benefit from an acceptance of ‘ethnic’ styles in the mainstream. White America has always wanted our look, not us. When South Asian bangles, embroidered flats, and paisley print became accepted in the mainstream, it wasn’t South Asians who suddenly became cool. When a Pakistani woman wears a headscarf or an Indian woman wears a bindi, she is subject to everything from scorn to violence; they risk being seen as ‘unassimilated.’ Since the launch of the ‘war on terror,’ Muslim women wearing the hijab have been subject to public beatings, harassment, and workplace discrimination. Our cultural artifacts become identity markers and those markers become targets. I love the hijab, but the last time I wore it a man in a pickup truck followed me screaming slurs. Meanwhile Rihanna poses in one, Madonna models under a niqab, Lady Gaga sings about burqas.
Appropriation occurs when bodies, typically white, popularize styles that didn’t originate with them, across a matrix of power: the power of visibility, the power to define what is ‘ethnic’ in the market. The gains that follow are reserved for the appropriator, not the appropriated. When the participation of poc in mainstream culture is relegated to trinkets Urban Outfitters can sell, what are we supposed to do, be grateful? While our communities are mined for the latest hip accessories that are lauded on white bodies while suspect on ours, it’s a valuation of whiteness above us. Above our history, dignity, and humanity. I want to see dreadlocks be appreciated because of the black people wearing them, not the corny white dude who doesn’t have to worry about looking ‘too ethnic’ at a job interview. I want to see Bollywood dances appreciated from our current Indian American Miss America, not Selena Gomez’s mangled approximation in her VMA performance of “Come and Get It.” Guess which one of them was subsequently called a terrorist.” -Ayesha Siddiqi, writer, Ideas Editor at BuzzFeed, Contributing Editor at The New Inquiry
“Fashion is such a sprawling umbrella term for that mass of subcultures, individuals, age brackets, and social situations that constitutes consumer groups. I grew up in London, which is very multicultural. The UK’s colonial past shaped the capital’s demographics to quite an extent and the British African-Caribbean population is scattered, large, and well-integrated. The fetishization of urban style is more of a class issue in England. There are plenty of editorial shoots that exploit working class urban lifestyle aesthetics, like so-called “Chav” style, which is a derogatory slang term, meaning ‘Council-housed and violent’ that’s used condescendingly by a largely middle-class media. I’m sure the stylists and photographers working on shoots that use working class aesthetics would prefer I use ‘celebrate’ or even ‘glamorize’ rather than ‘exploit’ to describe their project, but who benefits from a shoot like that? Is it really that cool to appropriate the lifestyle of people who can’t afford to reciprocate” -Ella Plevin, London/Berlin-based freelance stylist and writer
“To see cornrows be depicted on white girls, I don’t know whether to feel happy or sad about it. On the one hand, I feel good that my culture is being appreciated, but I don’t know if it’s being appreciated in the right way. When I see something ghetto in a V Magazine editorial, I’m trying to learn to accept it. The only way our culture is going to move forward is acceptance. Fashion should be able to connect everybody. Not push away people.” -Andreas Aresti, Gypsy Sport designer
“White celebrities can and have been cherry picking Black cultural practices from hairstyles to dance moves to speech acts for centuries—there’s nothing new or cutting edge about this. I do think there’s been an intensification of these acts of cultural appropriation in recent years that have a lot to do with claims that we live in a post-racial or post-gender society. But we only need to look at current events to see that post-racialism is a myth. In the past few months, Renisha McBride (a teenager) and Jonathan Ferrell (a college graduate) were shot dead when they were seeking out help after car accidents. Vanessa Van Dyke, a 12 year old from Florida, was threatened with expulsion from her school unless she cut her natural black hair which the school and some of her classmates found “distracting.” These are current events. If we were to take a longer view of what it is to be Black in the US, in the UK, in Sweden, in the Dominican Republic—wherever—we’d be confronted with a painful and heartbreaking truth that Blackness is not fashion but is a lived experience that requires bearing the brunt of not only racial assumptions but also racist actions that can lead to death. Blackness isn’t fashion, isn’t a trend, and isn’t something to be worn and taken off when the occasion suits. Blackness names a complex set of historical social, political, and cultural, and economic experiences that are lived and that are shaped by very real, very material relations of power. White celebrities who appropriate Black cultural practices benefit from an ahistorical experience of racial difference without bearing the costs of racial difference.” -Minh-Ha Pham, fashion scholar and critic, teaches at Cornell University
“We people of color have all the flavor—always have. I watch as you water us down unbeknownst to our growth. Your stimulation was never necessary. A line between cultures once thick, now blurred, distorted, but never damaged. Black don’t crack, we got whipped enough to know that. Look at us, we are who the world wants to be.” -Junglepussy, Empowerer