This Givenchy “Victorian chola” runway look is all kinds of problematic

Cultural appropriation in the fashion industry is nothing new. We’ve seen models wearing Native American headdresses, full-on Geisha outfits, and cornrows many, many times —and no matter how much controversy they amass, this trend seems to come up again and again. Including yesterday at Givenchy’s runway show in Paris, where the high-fashion designer debuted Givenchy’s Fall 2015 collection. The models wore slicked curls, extravagant septum rings, and goth-y attire —the look was called “Victorian chola.”

A little bit of background on the word “chola”: The term was considered “an ugly ethnic slur,” a word “used for centuries to describe people with Native American or mixed ancestry,” according to Lucky.  But in the ’60s, the word was reclaimed by Mexican-Americans activists “as a way to flip and empower a term that had historically been used to denigrate [a group of people],” says The Guardian. Mexican-American women who identify with the subculture sometimes wear bold makeup like dark lip-liners and lipsticks, and gelled hair.

So when Givenchy blatantly gave their models a very similar look, eyebrows were obviously raised. Especially since the majority of models did not identify as Latina. While many claim that designers like Givenchy, Rodarte, and DKNY (the latter two also incorporated the “chola” style into their show) are praising the culture, it’s questionable if this counts as praise if the designers and models aren’t part of the culture. As Lucky’s Annie Tomlin states, “borrowing from a historically marginalized group of people, even as an homage, can be dicey.” And we have to agree —reappropriating other cultures in the name of fashion (or anything) is an offensive and not OK practice for so many.

Last year, when Elle Magazine sparked outrage for featuring Pharrell Williams on its cover wearing a feathered headdress, we delved into the idea of cultural appropriation—what it means, and why it can be so damaging. Hello Giggles’ own Kit Steinkellner explained it this way: “The reason cultural appropriation is such a widespread problem is that so many people don’t understand that it is a problem. . .When we take something that carries significant religious and/or cultural importance without permission and use that thing in a way that those traditions were not intended to be used, on magazine covers and in music videos, this waters down and cheapens traditions that were designed to be specific and meaningful.”

So why does fashion continue to commit such crimes? Perhaps it’s because the line between between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange can be blurry. Cultural exchange is when tradition is mutually shared, appropriation, even when the intention is celebratory, is more of an exploitation of that culture than a shared experience. And as we (and other sites) have already pointed out, the Givenchy show wasn’t as ethnically inclusive as it could have been—so the experience wasn’t exactly mutual.

But there’s an even larger issue at hand. What this boils down to is a problem of promoting cultural appropriation to the masses.

Givenchy is the show that inspires countless editorials and magazine pages,” explains Refinery29’s Phillip Picardi. “We will see this exact look — face jewels, baby hairs, and all — replicated countless times in advertising campaigns and photo shoots. When it’s taken out of the already flawed context of this runway presentation, it will almost undoubtedly be on a white model. The “interpretation” or “inspiration,” however good the intention, will be lost, and many women will continue to feel neglected or robbed of their cultural identities.”

And therein lies the problem. When a lack of diversity meets cultural appropriation style is inconsequential. All that really matters is that diverse expressions of cultural identity are being watered down, while others are profiting off their loss. And that’s a heartbreaking thought. While that’s probably nobody’s intention here, fashion statements are bigger than we give them credit for and we have to be mindful of what we’re really saying when we make them.

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