What The Media And The Fashion Industry Missed About Cultural Appropriation

Rihanna dressed like the pope yesterday. Yes, two names you never thought would be used together. But for this year’s Met Gala theme, ”Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” this is only one of the examples that have religious leaders and Catholics furiously calling the event “cultural appropriation.”

While the media is giving a great deal of attention to individuals claiming appropriation, very few are evaluating the legitimacy of those claims. There are a few clues that reveal whether an act is a form of cultural appropriation.

First is an imbalance of power. The offending party must be in a superior position. If appropriation occurs to a superior force, it can be a form of subversion or speaking truth to power. Here is where fashion and anti-religion activists contradict themselves.

Fashion writers are beside themselves with glee discussing how it is a takedown of religion “The Met Gala shows that religion is being killed by outdated ideology rather than a lack of interest in it. Rather than just over-the-top fashion statements, the outfits worn by Solange, Rihanna, and others represent a challenge to the white patriarchal status quo.” By trying to make clear that religion is in an inferior position of power than celebrities and the fashion industry they are proving that Catholics are in a position of inferiority.

The second is the legitimacy of the exchange. Many defenders of the show are arguing the Catholic Church not only worked with the Met for the event but donated a significant amount of clothing to it. But when celebrities talk about the religious imagery, it shows a disturbing amount of ignorance. Rihanna said her pope outfit (popefit) was “so expensive…it would be a sin not to wear it.” Yes, I also remember that time in the bible when Jesus and the disciplines went on a shopping spree to get the most expensive robes, “Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist.” Kim Kardashian wearing a gold outfit does not seem like a nuanced expression of the importance of treating the poor with compassion. In fact, nothing Kim Kardashian does appears nuanced or filled with thoughtful reflection.

It also focuses entirely on the symbols of religion, rather than the kind deeds. Semiotics is the study of how signs create meaning for humans. The established theory is that a symbol is used by groups to identify a particular ethical point, identification, and/or essential story. A cross is not just a fashion item to a Catholic, but an important part of their spiritual identity. When Beyonce wears a halo above her head, it is not an attack on the white normative structure of the Catholic church. Instead, it is a mocking of who is a saint, a holy figure in their religious dogma. Fashion has done this before: the wearing of Buddhist prayer beads by celebrities and in fashion shows, using the Ohm symbol in clothing and using angels for Victoria Secret models. By taking away the spiritual component of religious iconography, you are dismissing the faith of others and cheapening it.

A way of tempering the knowledge is to look if anyone is educating themselves. Fashion writers from Vogue are applauding themselves for having celebrities fight the “white supremacy” of the Catholic Church. But no Vogue writer is using it to reflect that they write for a magazine that has had over 98% of their covers be white people. Or a fashion industry, in general, that is designed to make you feel bad about yourself so you go and buy a new pair of jeans even though you just bought a pair last year.

It is not to say that the Met Gala could have been a moment for education and understanding between the two groups. In fact, I am sure that organizers intended for there to be a meaningful exchange. The problem was their focus. It should not have been from the top-down. People at the top of the social strata and pop culture have too many different agendas and generally are not as interested in genuine discussion. It takes too much time and can’t be addressed in a single evening of gowns. Not even fairy tales are solved the night of the ball. It should happen at an individual level, by people interacting about their faith or even asking the simple question “why do you wear the cross and what does it mean to you.” Sadly, it does not seem a favorite subject at the Met Gala.

Here are some of the Met Gala looks:

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