ASOS, the popular online fashion outlet, has been forced to pull a piece of jewellery due to accusations of cultural appropriation. The offending item, known as a maang tikka (but referred to by ASOS as a ‘faux-pearl chandelier hair clip’), is a South Asian-inspired headpiece. The problem seems to be that it was modelled by a white woman, a move branded insensitive to the Asian community.
Fashion companies are often accused of using ‘stolen’ traditions from other cultures. But ASOS is a multimillion-dollar fashion retailer flogging products for profit – it’s called capitalism, not racism. Criticising ASOS for ‘denigrating’ cultural traditions is just gesture politics at its most infantile. And this isn’t even the first time the retail giant has been criticised for crossing cultural lines. Last year, ASOS was forced to remove decorative bindis from its website because activists claimed they were offensive to the Indian community.
What’s sad about all of this is that mixing cultural influences has always been crucial to the development of fashion, art, food and culture. When styles, flavours and ideas merge, society is enriched. Furthermore, the outrage against cultural mixing is often one-sided. English pubs are becoming hugely popular in China, for example. Where is the outrage? Quite rightly, there is none. As one Chinese businessman put it, cultural fusion is ‘the best way culturally to link people from different countries’.
Cultural appropriation – whether it’s a bindi at Glastonbury or a plate of fish and chips in Beijing – offers people a chance to engage in different experiences and enjoy traditions other than their own. The recent trend to paint cultural appreciation as cultural appropriation only racialises culture and divides people further. Cultural appropriation isn’t about ‘erasing’ a culture’s origins, it’s about assimilating different cultures into the mainstream. It’s high time we embraced it.
Izzy Lyons is a writer based in London.