“How can cultural appropriation at music festivals be understood in terms of style, place and popular culture?”
The culmination of thousands of people inevitably results in cultural exchange; regardless of whether it is done consciously or unconsciously. However, modern music festivals have proved to be a perfect environment for cultural appropriation to occur. The Encyclopedia of Human Services and Diversity (2014) defines cultural appropriation as being “the taking of one culture’s artifacts, artistic subject matter, traditional knowledge, rituals, symbols, or technologies by members of another, often dominant, culture”; a perfect description of the cultural appropriation that occurs during music festivals. The appropriated culture is exploited without the traditional meaning of the artifact, being used instead to project a unique fashion exclusively found at festivals; reducing it to perverse imitation and creating a public ignorant of its original cultural importance. This is shown within music festival culture through the presence of direct imitations of historical fashion and decoration from cultures around the world-worn almost exclusively by white festivalgoers.
Kenneth Coutts-Smith is widely regarded as being the first person to address the issue of cultural appropriation, though at the time of his paper ‘Some general observations on the problem of cultural colonialism’ being published in 1976 the phrase “cultural appropriation” had not been laid claim to or copyrighted. Coutts-Smith presents the idea that within modern society-currently ruled by white people “as a collective and politically undifferentiated mass” (Coutts-Smith, 1976)-there is more merit in production and distribution of art in comparison to the creation of the art itself. This idea is reflected in current times through the exploitation of traditional art and sacred garments by the fashion industry; obvious influence is taken from cultures around the globe and regurgitated for the general public without any of the cultural importance behind the design. Coutts-Smith also cites colonialism as a cause of appropriation; minority cultures being oppressed for not being deemed “high” culture in the eyes of the white oppressors. Indeed without the oppression of groups native to the colonised countries there may be more cases of cultural appreciation in our society today rather than the overwhelming amount of cultural appropriation.
While cultural appropriation has been prevalent in fashion for well over a century, it has been especially prominent in recent years, fuelled by media coverage and the subsequent social media backlash that it causes. A reoccurring theme of cultural appropriation is the use of Native American war bonnets, often worn by people not of Native American descent; Figure 1 shows the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show making controversial headlines when it sent American supermodel Karlie Kloss down the runway in a traditional Native American war bonnet. The War Bonnet is a headpiece normally reserved for people of great honour and can only been worn when the chief has given the wearer permission; most commonly skilled warriors and individuals who have helped the village prosper. Additionally, these styles were rarely awarded to women, instead receiving a different design, making the use of it on Kloss even more degrading. The use of a War Bonnet in this environment is inappropriate and demeaning, ruining the sanctity of the ceremonial headdress while expressing to onlookers that it is acceptable to pair a sacred piece of headwear with semi-nude attire. This style is mimicked at music festivals through young women pairing war bonnets with crop tops and shorts. While not as revealing as lingerie, it still exposes the skin more than what is normally socially acceptable.Figure 1: Karlie Kloss walking the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show 2012 (Source: Teen Vogue, 2018:online)
Other cultures are also degraded in ways such as this; Bindis used as fashion accessories aimed at teenagers as summertime jewellery, sombreros being solely associated with costume or themed parties (often accompanied with oversized moustaches and generically patterned ponchos) and most recently featured in the news, the use of cornrows by mainly Caucasian celebrities. Although casual cultural appropriation is still apparent through these products, there have been efforts in the past years to crack down on anything deemed as ‘offensive’. Most infamously, multiple Universities and music festivals have banned the wearing of sombreros since 2015 after deeming them racist (Gayle, 2015). Although the change in attitude is progression in combatting cultural appropriation, people are still intrigued with cultures different from their own, often seeing them as exotic and therefore alluring. This may be the reason why they appeal, however the majority of people accused of cultural appropriation are still white young people with the impression that older people from a cultural minority embracing their heritage are “backwards and old-fashioned …who [don’t] know how to embrace the American culture” (Farha. F, 2013:online). This view on different cultures clothing is how cultural appropriation begins; when it is worn by people with a connection or heritage in the culture it becomes unappealing, while the young white person views the culture’s fashion and ideas as beautiful and exotic when worn by them in a modern style and context.
This attitude is seen at music festivals while being demonstrated by the thousands of white attendees each year. Research into music festivals is sparse, with most surveys conducted at least a decade ago; however, according to Crompton and McKay (1997), one of the six main reasons for the attendance of music festivals was “cultural exploration”. “The makeup of Americans aged 18-35, the prime festival demographic, is 58% white, 13% black, 5% asian, 20% hispanic, as of the 2010 census.” (The Guardian, 2017). This uneven proportion of white attendees compared to people of colour is a main cause of cultural appropriation at music festivals; if a white person wears a culturally inappropriate outfit or item of clothing, they’re going to stand out in comparison to the attendees around them. This plays into the theory that white people are attracted to the ‘exotic’ ceremonial wear of cultures foreign to them, leading them to adopt elements of the culture into their own outfits. The exposure of outfits like this by celebrities also attending music festivals encourages normal attendees to dress like this too in an effort to emulate their idols. Figure 2 depicts Kylie Jenner attending American music festival Coachella in cornrow braids-a style often modelled by young celebrities who attend events like these. Instead of being addressed as cornrows however, these braids are mislabelled as ‘boxer braids’ and ‘KKW Signature Braids’ by the celebrities themselves and social media coverage-belittling the braids’ origins and importance. Figure 2: Kylie Jenner wearing ‘boxer braids’ at Coachella 2015 (Source: Elle, 2015:online)
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Braided hair has been used by black people as a way of identification for thousands of years; it was a way to “determine where they’re from, what their status is in the society, if they’re married, if they’re single, if they’re widowed, if they’re a warrior.” (ELLE, 2017: 3:22) It was only through young celebrities essentially whitewashing the cornrow for it to gain enough exposure and prominence to be viewed as a beautiful hairstyle, highlighting again that white people only view ‘exotic’ cultural features as beautiful when worn outside their original culture and purpose. Additionally, white people have historically attempted to oppress black people through the suppression of their natural hairstyles; on slave ships during the 1600’s black people had their heads shaved, erasing their individuality. While not as extreme, the same ideology is seen reflected in modern times as young black girls and black people in the workplace are told to tame and restrict their hair in order to appear more ‘professional’. It is ironic that, during music festivals, white people forget this and adopt the very thing they have tried to crush as their own. This blatant imitation is only prevalent in music festivals where thousands of other individuals and therefore other cultures surround the attendees.
In an effort to stand out amongst the crowd, the individual must introduce a certain amount of individuality in order to achieve a unique look to become more noticeable. This individuality is encouraged by the music festival itself, advertised as a place to escape normal societal rules and allowing the attendees to access unique experiences. This ideology is being put into practice at festivals already; Figure 3 shows Göt2Be opening a pop up braiding bar at Governor’s Ball in America (Business Insider, 2017:online), where people could experience a ‘”curated menu’ of various braids [and] colored hair attachments” (Business Insider, 2017). Afterwards anyone who participated was directed to take a photo for social media with the hashtag “#got2standout”. The Senior Director of the brand, Chris White, stated; ‘The whole festival experience is about creating that individual look and feel’. The new hairstyle combined with the hashtag causes the festival attendee to associate the braid as a way to become unique in a crowd, prompting them to use this hairstyle again in the future when they want to appear more ‘exotic’ and appealing to others.Figure 3: Got2Be’s hair braiding bar at Governors Ball 2017 (Source: Business Insider, 2017:online
Being controlled or at least subliminally influenced through marketing is fundamental to brands; it gets their consumers interested in them and makes them memorable. However, the advertisement of individuality itself, as demonstrated by Göt2Be is also form of Pseudo Individuality, a Marxist theory that discusses the idea that the exposure of a unique idea to a widespread audience no longer makes the idea unique, as it has become overexposed and too commonly used (Withy, 1894) . This situation is mirrored through advertisement campaigns, causing the public to be sold a form of fake individuality. Projecting a message of being individual through the wearing of certain clothes or having a certain style creates an ironically large percentage of people taking up these ideas that make them ‘unique’. Although a music festivalgoer believes they are being individual by deciding to incorporate elements of another culture into their outfit, through having traditional patterns on modern clothing, heavily inspired jewellery designs and other accessories such as facial stickers or henna ink, they are actually having a cultural appropriation fuelled agenda pushed on them by high street shops. With these culturally influenced clothes being so readily available to them, they unknowingly mix and match cultures as they please. However, due to the clash of cultures, instead of being classed as cultural appropriation it could be classed as Bricolage; a French term for the combination of multiple items or ideas from across a range of diverse subjects (Leach, 2011). Bricolage falls under the umbrella as cultural appreciation rather than appropriation, as it consists of taking what you view as the best parts of a culture and combining them into something new that celebrates and credits the original culture. Therefore, it could be argued that rather than music festivals enabling cultural appropriation it instead creates cultural appreciation.
In conclusion, cultural appropriation is still present in music festivals today. This occurs as a result of a combination of factors; most noticeably the demographic of attendees and how festival wear is advertised to them. The constant exposure of certain trends conditions the festival attendee into believing it is the only acceptable form of outfit for these events. More often than not, they are actually unaware that their outfit contains elements of cultural appropriation, as they see the same products advertised everyday by celebrity icons and normal companies. These products contain elements appropriated from other cultures however the more the festival attendee is exposed to it, normalising the fashion trend, the less likely they are to pick up that it is cultural appropriation. However, the companies who produce the garment itself will be aware of the history around cultural appropriation and therefore will know if their garment crosses into that region, making their choices of themes and patterns even more damning and turning them into a key reason why so much cultural appropriation occurs in festivals. It is through fashion labels and high street shops accessible to the public that cultural appropriation is normalised, causing the production and distribution of poorly researched imitations to be viewed as acceptable and even expected at music festivals around the world.
- Coutts-Smith, K. (1991), ‘Some general observations on the problem of cultural colonialism’ in Hiller, (1991)
- ELLE. (2017) Watch This Documentary on Braids and Appropriation in America [Online video] [Accessed on 31st March 2019] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yFGwmUCH9aI&list=PLIWLi6iDrMTLCNTkUOYHUvrys7VraI4LZ
- Farha, F. (2013) ‘Why “Bindis” Should Not Be a Fashion Trend’ The Niles West News. [online] 22nd April 2013. [Accessed on 30th March 2019] https://nileswestnews.org/31336/west-word/bindis-are-not-a-fashion-trend/
- Gayle, D. (2015) ‘Student union bans ‘racist’ sombreros’ The Guardian. [online] 29th September. [Accessed on 30th March 2019] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/29/uea-student-union-bans-racist-sombreros
- Jacobs, H. (2017), ‘An unlikely industry has found a ‘genius’ way to advertise to millennials’, Business Insider. [online] 17th June 2017, [Accessed on 3rd April 2019] https://www.businessinsider.com/governors-ball-music-festival-brands-millennials-2017-6?r=US&IR=T#weaving-brands-into-cultural-moments-5
- Khawaja, J. (2017), ‘The kids are all white: can US festivals live up to their ‘post racial’ promise?, The Guardian. [online] 4th July 2017, [Accessed on 3rd April 2019] https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/jul/04/music-festivals-race-white-black-coachella-afropunk
- Leach, R. (2011). Bricolage. In D. Southerton (Ed.), Encyclopedia of consumer culture (Vol. 1, pp. 119-121). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412994248.n49
- Rholetter, W. (2014). Cultural appropriation. In L. H. Cousins (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human services and diversity (Vol. 1, pp. 299-302). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781483346663.n135 (http://sk.sagepub.com.ezproxy.mmu.ac.uk/reference/encyclopedia-of-human-services-and-diversity/n135.xml)
- WITHY, A. 1894, ‘PSEUDO-INDIVIDUALISM; OR, THE PRESENT SLAVERY’, Westminster review, Jan. 1852-Jan. 1914, vol. 142, pp. 485-496.
- Matera, A. (2018), ‘5 Times Victoria’s Secret Was Accused of Cultural Appropriation’, Teen Vogue. [online] 7th November 2018, [Accessed on 3rd April 2019] https://www.teenvogue.com/gallery/victorias-secret-fashion-show-cultural-appropriation
- Crotty, N. (2015), ‘What the celebs are wearing at Coachella’, Elle. [online] 19th April 2015, [Accessed on 3rd April] https://www.elle.com/fashion/news/g26119/coachella-clothes-style-2015/
- Jacobs, H. (2017), ‘An unlikely industry has found a ‘genius’ way to advertise to millennials’, Business Insider. [online] 17th June 2017, [Accessed on 3rd April 2019] https://www.businessinsider.com/governors-ball-music-festival-brands-millennials-2017-6?r=US&IR=T