Why Karlie Kloss Was Accused of ‘Cultural Appropriation’ for a Vogue Photoshoot

The magazine and model were slammed for the cultural crime of highlighting traditional Japanese clothes.

Last week, Elizabethtown College Democrats handed out white puzzle-piece pins to students as a way to remind them of their “white privilege.” Well, those students ought to send supermodel Karlie Kloss a whole suitcase full of those pins — although after the week she’s had, she probably already feels bad enough about being white.

It all started with Vogue magazine and their recently released March issue, which is dedicated to “diversity.” Inside is a 14-page spread featuring the lovely Karlie Kloss dressed as a geisha, modeling different clothing and costumes representative of traditional Japanese fashion. In one photograph, the delicate, feminine Kloss poses next to a tough, masculine sumo wrestler, and the dichotomy is beautiful. For anyone anywhere who appreciates fashion and photography, the spread was probably viewed as intriguing and inspirational.

Not in America.

Here, Vogue magazine, and Karlie Kloss specifically, were instantly slammed. Twitter lit up with angry accusations of cultural appropriation, insensitivity, and “yellowfacing,” the apparently inexcusable, racist industry practice of letting a white model pose in an Asian role. Writers went wild, calling the images tone-deaf bullsh*t, and multiple publications ran lengthy, rambling editorials explaining why we should all be ripping our hair out over this.

The absurdity was breathtaking. It seems everyone missed or deliberately ignored Vogue’s description of the project’s purpose: to “pay homage to Japan’s geisha culture” and “tap into the country’s time-honored rituals.” How dare they!

Alas, the fury was such that within hours of the magazine’s release, Kloss felt compelled to apologize:


Forget political correctness, it’s all about cultural correctness now — if a white woman dares to wear something other than what a white woman is supposed to wear, it’s not a fashion faux-pas, it’s a culture crime warranting an apology. So what is a white woman supposed to wear? (Besides white puzzle-piece pins, of course!)

The fracas isn’t entirely about race, either. Would there be the same outcry if Vogue had cast an African-American model in the role of the geisha? Is this even about appropriation? Why is there no outcry when an Asian woman wears jeans and a t-shirt? Isn’t she appropriating American fashion? And actually, aren’t all women who wear pants technically appropriating from men?

How can couture exist if we are only supposed to wear the hand-me-downs of our own cultural and racial ancestors?

It’s easy to imagine women across America reading their coveted Vogue this weekend and being struck by the Kloss spread. Maybe for a moment, girls of all colors and backgrounds imagined themselves draped in a beautiful silk kimono, perhaps inspired by the grace and elegance with which Kloss wore one. Maybe some women went online to buy one for themselves, only to see Kloss getting skewered and shamed for “insensitivity” and change their minds.

So much for fashion sparking self-expression and clothing being a source of creativity.

If “cultural cross-dressing” amounts to insensitive appropriation, isn’t it the same sin to participate in other aspects of another culture? If wearing a kimono is a no-no, shouldn’t we all stop eating sushi and spit out our matcha and burn our Marie Kondo books? Does that mean no more jujutsu for junior and no more ikebana for grandma?

It sounds ridiculous, but so is the ultimate takeaway from the whole Karlie Kloss kerfuffle — that white designers and models should not be allowed to approach, appreciate, or emulate fashion from other cultures for the sake of “sensitivity.”

If this is the new standard, then fashion is dead.

How can couture exist if we are only supposed to wear the hand-me-downs of our own cultural and racial ancestors? How are designers and dressmakers supposed to innovate and inspire if they aren’t allowed to draw inspiration from the art, design, textures, and fabrics of other countries and cultures?

And more importantly, how does pushing people into the black and white boxes of racially “correct” clothing do anyone any good? Shouldn’t we be excited, not angry, if a white girl wants to wear something from somewhere else? Isn’t that the kind of cross-cultural diversity we should embrace? In the documentaryFirst Monday in May, Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of the Costume Institute of the Met said, “There is this ongoing dialogue between the East and the West, and fashion is easier to understand than language itself. . . . People underestimate the power of clothes to tell stories or speak to people.”

It’s too bad Karlie Kloss said she was sorry for doing nothing wrong, but at least Vogue has refused to apologize. Now, let’s let both the supermodel and the fashion magazine get back to doing their jobs — using clothes to inspire people, regardless of which culture those clothes come from.

— Chelsea Samelson writes for Acculturated, where this piece originally appeared. It is reprinted with permission.


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