Cultural Appropriation Exhibit A: Playing Indian to Sell Fashion

by Vimal

The local fashion industry has been under a lot of scrutiny recently (better late than never) with the recent comment by an allegedly magical-creature-lookalike critic and the issue of cultural appropriation amongst fashion houses, namely of the Indian culture.

Just when I thought the latter has died down, lo and behold, a friend sends me an IG story of yet another brand throwing in an elaborate Bollywood dance on their Indian-inspired Raya runway.

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Of course the choreography and the ensuing outfits were amazing but once again, the visuals left a sour taste in my mouth. Do these fashion labels even know the implications of what they are doing? Are they aware of the feelings that these ‘inspirations’ invoke in the hearts some of those watching?

Now, I agree that inspirations come from everywhere and people can genuinely be inspired by cultures around the world. However, being inspired and incorporating aspects of the culture into your business comes with responsibility, especially if you are an industry heavyweight. People look up to you and as an influential tastemaker, and you have the power to pave the path to change.


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So, when we see another privileged local actress who could go off selling whitening products the next day being browned up for some campaign images, it triggers an emotion inside of some of us. What is enraging, though, is when these valid emotions are ‘gaslit’ by ignorant parties.

point 3
In Malaysia, it is a common pattern to highlight one’s Indian or Pakistani origins when one sees fit, whether when defending one’s “revealing” South Indian outfit choices, or in this case, justifying oneself for being the muse for an Indian-inspired collection. That is when all the beneficial family photos and videos get rolled out on Twitter or Instagram. Honestly, that is akin to saying “I have black friends too”, one of the most common ignorant phrases ever invented.

When your fellow Indian Malaysian brethren cry foul and tell you that it’s problematic, is it too much to ask to actually sit down and find out why it is so instead of immediately being defensive?

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Want to know why the discontent at this time, during these fashion shows instead of Bollywood-inspired weddings? Because the designers are actually using parts of a locally-ostracised culture to make profit out of them. They cherry pick the most appealing part of such a diverse culture while the local chapter members of the colossal culture continue to be ostracised for their skin colour and way of life. (Also, what is up with this obsession with Bollywood? No, not every Indian is Bollywood. Indian ≠ Bollywood).

point 5
Growing up, most Malaysian Indian children could attest to the systemic racism and bullying that he or she has to endure, be it due to their skin colour, mother tongue or simply the race. Understandably, it is because of a bigger structural problem in the country which trickle down into these sociological aggressions, a topic Aishwarya Adaikalaraj explores more in-depth here.

Ultimately, the problem is not the innocent notion of inspiration, but the defensiveness that come after it. That’s when it ends up looking like blatant appropriation. We know no one is incapable of changing the entire structure of the country in a day but just acknowledging the injustice goes a long way.

My culture is not an exotic tool to sell fashion. You don’t get to play Indian for one night and go back to your privilege the next day.

And no, this is not reverse racism.

Reach out to the writer on Instagram at @vimalmatters.

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