Fashion has an ongoing cultural appropriation problem. From Victoria’s Secret models wearing Native American headdresses and African neck rings, to white models donning colorful dreadlocks for Marc Jacobs, to geisha fashion shoots for Vogue, major labels and publications continue to struggle with what is and isn’t appropriate to borrow from other cultures. Now it seems small-time runways are having similar problems. Over the weekend, in Juneau, Alaska, the annual Wearable Art show of the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council (JAHC) sparked controversy over a vaguely Japanese-inspired outfit that featured silks, dragon scales, and a model in geisha make-up.
Designed by artist Beth Bolander, who is not of Asian descent, the “Doragon” outfit ended up winning third place in the contest, despite a number of complaints, reported Alex McCarthy of the local newspaper Juneau Empire. Particularly vocal was Christy NaMee Eriksen, a Korean-born local artist and community activist, who took to Facebook to voice her concern.
“Culture is not a costume. Real life in this body cannot be made up,” Eriksen wrote in her post, comparing applauding projects like “Doragon” to applauding yellowface. “Racism isn’t one act or one person being offended. It is an institutionalized oppression, kept alive by intentional and unintentional practices that center the experience of white people and invalidate people of color. The JAHC should be a leader in the arts and a leader in racial equity in our city. They owe us an apology and they must commit to doing better.”
In response, the JAHC decided to pull “Doragon” from the second night of the runway show, instead displaying it in the lobby, along with a statement from the organization. The statement reads: “The JAHC deeply regrets the pain that running this piece has caused and disavows all forms of cultural appropriation. In deference to experts more educated on these difficult topics, the artist, production team, and JAHC have made the decision to not run the piece in today’s show.” It ends with a sign-up sheet for those wishing to continue the discussion with the JAHC on a later date.
Bolander told the Juneau Empire that she did not think of her work as cultural appropriation and never meant any disrespect.
“This topic is prompting much community conversation,” Nancy DeCherney, JAHC’s executive director, told Hyperallegic in an email. “I think in the long run it will be very productive. Art is doing its work, as painful as that is sometimes.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified the model of “Doragon,” Dani Gross, as white. She also has Alaska Native ancestry.