Appropriation can be defined as taking an aspect of someone’s culture for one’s personal use such as fashion. The disconnect between a fashion trend and the cultural meaning makes the appropriation of foreign objects troublesome. It is the process of capturing an object and then changing it’s meaning by re-contextualizing it and at the same time not spoiling the original object. Every year there are objects that are appropriated in the fashion industry. This year it is the American Indian inspired clothing with fringe. Last year it was the Indian bindi that was appropriated by celebrities and at music festivals. To understand the process of appropriation it is important to analyze how it becomes a fashion commodity. The bindi is a very recent example where this process has taken place.
A bindi is a small or big round mark that is placed between the eyebrows typically on the face of a Southeast Asian woman. This location is considered to be one of the most important nerve points in the human body. It is sometimes referred to as the “agna” meaning “command of yourself.” In Southern India, girls are allowed to wear a bindi whereas in other parts only married women are permitted. The red dot on the forehead is a propitious indication of a marriage. During a girl’s wedding she first wears a bindi that she continues on until her death. It is meant to protect her husband and her. It also believed to accentuate the third eye according to Hindu statesman Rajan Zed. “The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has religious significance. It is also sometimes referred to as the third eye and the flame, and it is an auspicious religious and spiritual symbol … It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed (Saad).” He mentions an important aspect that the bindi is not a fashion accessory worn by celebrities. Taking this cultural and religious symbol and turning it into a fashion commodity is called appropriation.
In “The Jeaning of America,” John Fiske describes the term, ‘excorporation,’ adding further implications to the meaning of appropriation. He defines the word as “the process by which the subordinate make their own culture out of the resources and commodities provided by the dominant system” (Fiske 15). This process has been occurring between the west and the east since the beginning of time. The rich culture that India has was manipulated by the west in terms of resources. South East Asia was under European rule for over 200 years. The British came to India during the seventeenth century when the British East India Company was established. Slowly, they started to increase their power and took over the country. The Indians tried to retaliate but this led to their downfall and the colonization of the entire country as well as the Indian sub-continent. Thus after its colonization the west took many resources that were part of the Indian culture. For example: spices, hand made crafts and hand made silk. India finally gained independence in 1947, but the cultural appropriation did not stop. Today the West are still continuing the process by taking the bindi or the sari and changing it’s meaning to start their culture/trend.
The meaning of the bindi has changed due to celebrities wearing them as fashion statements. Similar to the zoot suit, the bindi is “an emblem of ethnicity and a way of negotiating identity, the style was effectively stripped of its significance through its appropriation” by these celebrities (Cosgrove 78). For example, when a non South-Asian female where’s a bindi it is seen to be edgy and cute. The media and fans praise the celebrities for their bold fashion choices. However, when a South Asian woman wears it, the public stare them down and give them dirty looks. In Davis’s piece “ Do Clothes Speak? What Makes them Fashion?” he argues that “ the signifier-signified relationship is unstable” (Davis 151). He is claiming that fashion is under-coded and meaning shifts depending on contexts. Thus the meaning is shifting depending on the person wearing it in this case. Before the bindi was appropriated it was the symbol of a married woman but after it was appropriated it was a fashion trend. For an audience to make meaning “we need to know the context in order to understand the meaning; it cannot stand-alone” (Davis, 153). These celebrities are known as “acquiring subculture as if it were ready-to-wear” (Greif 3).
The annual music festival Coachella in Indio, California has been known to “breed ground” for new fashion trends by young celebrities. They each show off their style by posting pictures on Instagram. After the first weekend of Coachella in 2014, many asked if bindis were going to be a thing now? Vanessa Hudgens was amongst the celebrities who appropriated this symbol. Her collection of bindis provoked an immense reaction on Instagram. Many viewers were upset with her style and wrote comments such as “Do you even know the significance of a bindi in Hinduism/ Indian Culture?” or “Please stop appropriating other cultures. Multiple times you’ve been told yet you continue to ignore them in order to continue on the Try Hard quest.” The audience today is becoming aware of appropriation and its difficulties.
Selena Gomez’s song “Come and Get it” her theme was the Indian culture. In her music video and other performances at award shows she wore a bindi.
She seems to have continued this trend in Coachella. These celebrities, however, do not go unharmed by their choices. There have been many viewers who have been extremely upset with “white girls” appropriating the bindi. Celebrities are also criticized for disrespecting the culture. Hashtags and blogs have been created in order to make the viewers aware to the appropriations: #DontTrendOnMe and #NativeAppropriation. The audience has voiced their feelings towards celebrities online. Hix mentions in her article “Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans” explains this form of appropriation as a version of “cultural thievery, it lessens Native American fashion to a costume, like children playing dress up” (16). This year at Coachella the bindi trend was completely lost. Not one celebrity was seen wearing the bindi but rather opted for newer fashion trends. This is what Hooks describes as “eaten, consumed, and forgotten” (Hook 380). These celebrities briefly enjoy and deduce pleasure from the experience, but ultimately expel the commodification forgetting and moving on to something else” (Hooks).
The appropriation of the bindi was in fashion during the year of 2014. The west took the object and made into a fashion symbol. Worn by many celebrities such as Selena Gomez and Vannesa Hudgens, the bindi was considered to be a piece of decoration instead of a symbolic meaning. Many viewers have voiced their opinion against this trend on twitter and other social media platforms.
Cosgrove, Stuart. “The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare.” History Workshop Journal, 1984. Print.
Davis, Fred. “Chapter 13: Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2007. 147-58.
Fiske, John. “Chapter 1 The Jeaning of America.” Understanding Popular Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989. 1-21.
Greif, Mark. “The Hipster in the Mirror.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Nov. 2010. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture, the Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.
Hooks, Bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End, 1992. N. pag. Print.
Hix, Lisa. “Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans.” Collectors Weekly. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 May 2015.
Saad, Nardine. “Selena Gomez Bindi at MTV Movie Awards Offends Hindu Group.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 16 Apr. 2013. Web. 07 May 2015.