Dreadlocks on nonblack models: expression or erasure?

by Asmaa Belhaouari / Beacon Correspondent • October 5, 2016

There is a fine line between artistic expression and culture correction, and the fashion industry is steadily walking along this line, hoping not to trip. Our dear friend, designer Marc Jacobs, jumped headfirst this Fashion Week.

Artistic expression is demonstrating ideas through art, fashion, film, and any other creative means. However, cultural appropriation is the adoption of other cultures by people who don’t share this culture, through art, fashion, and so on. Designers do this because it is profitable—the need to seem different and “exotic” creates a sense of individualism, when ironically enough there’s a lack of individualism exhibited in stealing another’s cultural art.

New York Fashion Week, which lasted from September 8th through 15th, is a platform for international designers to showcase their newest designs for the fall and spring trends. This year, the event came with some controversy. But as the models walked down the runway, the focus was not on Jacobs’ Spring 2017 clothing line; it was on his decision to style his models with rainbow-colored dreadlocks.

The theme of Jacobs’ show seemed to be very boho-fairy chic. The show was very pastel color based, then quickly turned into rave gear with bright pink and purple outfits. This very eccentric show featured colorful dreadlocks on models to match the outfits.

The reason why this is controversial is because dreadlocks were grouped with this fairy tale-esque world when, in reality, this is a real and cultural hairstyle. The hairstyle originated from Egypt historically, and has spread throughout Africa, which harbors its association with black culture. The intrinsic politics in dreadlocks is complex, but if you're going to take on something that does have sacred and historic significance and an unequal history of power dynamics, it's important to honor that history. They have been popularized through the Rastafarian movement, also a large association with black culture.

So for starters, Jacobs can show appreciation for it by presenting it on all African American models. Make them proud to flaunt it and not hide or ‘tame’ it. He can use his white privilege to be a strong ally to the black community and represent their culture respectfully.

Dreadlocks are a very representative emblem of the black community. Black people who sport dreadlocks in a workplace are allowed to be denied opportunities because it doesn’t fit the job’s ‘grooming’ policy. However, when a white man decides it’s high fashion, it's praised. So, to criticize people of color for expressing their own culture only to praise white models for doing the same thing is not only wrong but immoral. It sheds light onto a deeply rooted racist attitude and appropriation towards people of color simply for being themselves. Repurposing a culture for a fashion statement completely diminishes the history behind it. The oppression people face to unapologetically be themselves and look the way they want without being ridiculed is an ongoing battle.

And that brings us to now, 2016. This is real life. This is why it’s an issue and an ongoing, pressing issue at that.

“I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race—I see people,” Jacobs said on his Instagram account.

This is a very problematic statement usually said by well meaning people. However, saying you “don’t see color or race” means you are dismissing the history and culture of these groups of people. Not seeing color results in a loss of identity and removes conversations about culture. Not seeing color immediately groups people as one (which theoretically seems nice), which in turn, abolishes the past of these marginalized groups. You cannot ignore race. It’s a part of who we are. Ultimately, being blind to race but “seeing people” contradicts itself. These concepts go hand in hand.

Jacobs might think he's assimilating cultures respectfully through fashion, but he's not. He's asserting his views over something that really isn’t his place to be making calls for. He is a privileged white man who will never truly experience oppression or prejudice. Sometimes identity is all people have, especially for marginalized groups. They want to hold on to the one thing they can call theirs, even if the world criticizes them for it.

I get it, Marc. The most vital part of the fashion world is to stand out. Leave your mark. These colorful dreadlocks were definitely a topic of conversation, but to what degree is fame more important than morality? Presenting these models with dreadlocks takes a marginalized group’s culture and turns it into a fad without knowing, understanding, or having lived the group’s history.