Last month, a video went viral critiquing a $1,190 pair of Balenciaga sweatpants with boxers sewn inside them in the manner of sagging pants. Sagging pants “worn by Black Americans for decades [have] resulted in the imprisonment and death of Black men,” said Africana Studies professor Marquita Gammage. “The trousers have commercial cultural appropriation written all over them; branded with the name Balenciaga” (CNN). It’s one example of a cultural product being reviled and rejected when associated with communities of color, only to be lauded and valued highly once appropriated by white-run corporations.
In the mid-2000s, many local governments made sagging pants illegal. These laws were almost exclusively enforced against Black men (Washington Post, Atlanta Constitution). Then-Presidential candidate Obama opined that “brothers should pull up their pants.” Sagging pants were denounced as markers of criminality, a lack of self-respect, and even “a harbinger of cultural decline” (NPR). Police tried to apprehend a man in Shreveport, Louisiana for the crime of sagging his pants; the encounter ended when they murdered him (Washington Post). A fashion choice that served as a death sentence for working-class Black men is now a sign of aesthetic refinement, so long as you can afford them.
• Support efforts to end racist and sexist dress codes, like this student-led effort for public schools in Henrico County, VA.
• Consider: How many of your closet items were formerly associated with BIPOC communities? When did these items become “trendy”? Are you inadvertently supporting brands that rob BIPOC communities of the culture that they made while giving nothing in return?
Previous Anti-Racism Daily pieces have discussed the cultural appropriation of streetwear and other cultural products, with Isiah Magsino writing that the “issue lies when the borrower (who often belongs to the oppressive or dominant culture) profits off of, falsely represent or exploits whatever is being borrowed” (Anti-Racism Daily). One issue with cultural appropriation is that the styles that are appropriated benefit the “borrower” only once removed from their original context. As Sara Li noted, appropriation from communities of color takes culture and “[wipes] it out altogether to be repackaged as something more suitable for the white gaze. It’s a side effect of colonization that we’re still seeing in beauty trends, fashion trends, and, yes, even game sets” (Teen Vogue).
While the sagging pants example has an obvious connection to race, it also has a connection to social class. Cultural expressions such as sagging pants can signify “cultural decline” and a lack of good taste or the exact opposite, so long as they’re purchased in a designer store. “Unsurprisingly, when worn by the (white) middle class… negative connotations attached to tracksuits evaporate,” says Serena Brown in reference to her “Back Yard” photography project, which the rise of the tracksuit in British culture (1854).
Another example of this remarketing for higher social classes are designer “anti-bags” (Vogue), plastic bag-inspired pieces that can cost over $2,000 (Racked). This design trend, started in 2011, mimics single-use plastic bags which are now banned by states and municipalities around the country (NCSL). And a fashionable Balenciaga bag released five years ago (DailyMail) was virtually identical to a Thai sampang that might code its owner as working-class. Growing up in Mexico in a working-class neighborhood, I remember my mom having a collection of similar bags and I remember asking her if she didn’t care about the planet because they were all made out of plastic. But she used the same bag collection for decades, and today, they sell these bags with ornaments and pictures of Frida Kahlo’s face for American tourists
As we work to fight cultural appropriation, we should also reject negative stereotypes about clothing and accessories associated with working-class people and BIPOC. These examples of cultural appropriation that made high-fashion items out of things that were previously stereotyped highlight three interrelated problems:
- Cultural objects are only seen as valuable when white designers and corporations claim them;
- The communities that created them don’t profit from this revaluation;
- Poor communities of color are penalized for cultural objects in the first place.
If you consider yourself a fashionista and you have the financial capacity to buy any of these products, what does this article mean for you? Well, for starters, hopefully, you now have the tools to acknowledge your privilege and reject fashion brands that rob BIPOC communities of the culture that they made while giving nothing in return. You can also reject the criminalization and policing of working-class BIPOC culture that hasn’t yet been appropriated. This appears not only in laws but in policies such as dress codes as well (Kappan Online).
We need to stop cultural gentrification.
• Cultural items from working-class, BIPOC communities often serve as a basis for criminalization, policing, and disrespect.
• These same cultural items are appropriated for white, affluent audiences, often generating no profit to the communities that created them.
• Reject judgment and criminalization of working-class BIPOC communities while rejecting appropriation.