We've never had more style inspiration at our fingertips, thanks to that wonderfully unsexy tool called the Internet. But inspiration, the fashion industry has found, can be a tricky thing, often veering into cultural appropriation.
It doesn't have to be that way, however, and Zendaya is just one celebrity who's helping us understand that. The 18-year-old singer, who has had to explain the cultural significance of her own looks before, recently said to Nylon:
"You can go about it as cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation."
The key to that distinction, she said, is understanding the meaning behind an item. "You have to be very careful. Some things are really sacred and important to other cultures, so you have to be aware, politically, about those things before you just adopt them."
That means making an effort to learn before you wear.
"Appropriating" often means overlooking history. At its core, cultural appropriation often comes from a positive place: admiring and being inspired by another culture. Adorning yourself with feathers, upping your sparkle with a bindi — such style choices happen because people think they're attractive, or cool, or at least intriguing.
Problems arise when the object or style holds more than just aesthetic value for a community. Take the Native American headdress, for example, which isn't just colorfully eye-catching.
"[I]t's a sacred, important symbol to us. And it's still a tradition that is practiced in our communities," Jessica R. Metcalfe, creator of Native American fashion blog and boutique Beyond Buckskin, previously told Mic. That means it holds significance for certain tribes, used to honor acts of bravery, or to commemorate momentous acts, or for a variety of other symbolic reasons, depending on the community.
Moreover, not all "headdresses" are the same — war bonnets have specific meaning for the male leadership of a tribe, and certain feathers, such as eagle feathers, hold their own significance.
Those are nuances most non-Native wearers wouldn't happen to know — which means it's all too easy to recklessly disrespect the item's symbolic value.
We're more inspired than ever — so we should also be more educated. You could, however, dig into the nuances of Native headdresses if you wanted to. The Internet has made us more aware than ever about other cultures and flooded us with images that certainly can inspired. But, as Zendaya pointed out to Nylon, the Internet is also a resource to learn the meaning behind the images:
"I urge people to take the extra step of knowledge and learn about things. I'm someone who feels uncomfortable with things unless I know [about them]. I'm not going to try something unless I've taken the time and effort to learn about it."
"I just think with the Internet and the resources we have, you should do a little research," she added.
A great illustration of such well-researched appreciation in action was Rihanna's 2015 Met Gala dress. In preparation for the gala's Chinese theme, Riri researched Chinese couture online, and ended up connecting with a Beijing-born designer named Guo Pei.
"It's handmade by one Chinese woman and it took her two years to make," Rihanna told Vanity Fair on the Met Gala red carpet, adding, "I found it online."
Zendaya's distinction is simple, but crucial. We have the tools to appreciate other cultures without simply grabbing at them recklessly. We can research their meanings, we can reach out to their creators and we can even work with those in the original communities to find the best way to honor, rather than simply appropriating, the item.
That all might take more effort than simply sticking some feathers in your head. But truly appreciating something means knowing about it, which means a bit of research isn't only necessary — it should be an exciting opportunity. If only more people, in fashion and beyond, would take it.