I’m a white person. (It’ll become relevant in a second.)
These (above) are rocking horse shoes. First designed and introduced by Vivienne Westwood and since adopted and beloved by devotees of the Lolita fashion subculture, originating in Japan. I am 100% not qualified to write a history of Lolita fashion and culture, nor would I want to, as there are millions of girls and women totally committed and immersed in it who’d be able to tell you its draw, its appeal, its beauty, its wonder. Look them up. They’re pretty badass.
The rocking horse name refers to the style and construction of the sole of the shoe, as opposed to the styling of the upper portion, which can take a number of forms, including ballerinas, ankle boots, sandals, and golf shoes complete with fringe. The sole slopes dramatically in front so the wearer can rock gently back and forth on her feet, like a rocking horse. The cutaway section at the back of the heel is to balance the shoe and make it lighter.
Currently, and since about the early to mid ’90s, they’ve been a largely Japanese style phenomenon. Because they are so strongly associated with Lolita style in its many variations, I actually initially assumed they were a design of Japanese origin. (Certainly Westwood had some Japanese influences in mind when designing the shoe – that’s clear just from looking at it.) That assumption is what prompted my anxieties about buying and wearing rocking horse shoes, but it’s not an invalid query whatever the origins of the style. The fact is that they are synonymous with Japanese Lolita fashion, and as a fashion enthusiast (not to say a total platform shoe obsessive) with a lot of sensitivity for appropriation and cultural thievery disguised as “discovering” the new cool style, I wanted to find out more about their history and whether my anxieties were legit or an overreaction.
Basically, appropriation happens any time a Caucasian person or individual who is white and takes advantage of the privileges of whiteness takes one or a several elements of a style of dress specifically invented and worn by people of colour, especially in a traditional or sacred context, and wears it in order to position her/him/themself as exotic, free-spirited, edgy, cool, hip, etc.
Cultural appropriation can take many forms. In the fashion world, it’s most often seen when Western women’s fashion “experts” tout their discovery of cool “new” styles – you know, the dashiki or the afro – that in fact have been worn by people of colour for decades, if not centuries.
It’s also seen when white people use the traditional, sometimes ancient or sacred, cultural dress of cultures other than their own as little more than costuming. This was on particular display at this spring’s annual Met Gala party and its theme China: Through The Looking Glass. Encouraging a bunch of white actresses and models to channel China in their sartorial picks for an evening of high fashion red carpet walking? Seems like it could turn sketchy quickly. But these are fashion people, right? Surely they know Chinese designers and stylists and could consult with professionals of Chinese origin in the fashion industry to put together looks both extravagant and non-appropriative.
It was a cultural appropriation firestorm, this time sanctioned by modern fash godmother and arbiter of all things chic – to the sheeply masses, at least – Anna Wintour.
The exception of the evening went to Rihanna, who wore a magisterial yellow gown/cape (two years in the making and weighing in at 55 pounds!) by Chinese designer Guo Pei. Rihanna’s a particular favourite of mine in her fucking-take-the-reins-and-do-it-for-yourself feminism and her media mastery, so I might be a little biased. But her respectful and jaw-droppingly beautiful interpretation of the Met Ball’s Chinese theme was really the only suitably high fashion and deferential look of the night. It seems obvious to consult with Chinese fashion professionals for an event like that, but Rihanna was the only person who did it and made it count.
What’s more, her look channeled contemporary Chinese fashion more than any traditional or regurgitated kimono-on-a-white-lady looks ever could. Pei, a couturier whose work features elaborate beading and embroidery, has been designing high couture for over 25 years. Rihanna apparently came across the designer’s work online and reached out to Pei about wearing the gown. Instead of dealing in stereotypes – chopsticks and fans and dragons – the look sought out what Chinese fashion has evolved into and how contemporary designers interpret it. It doesn’t rely on stultified assumptions of what Chinese looks like, or what a small, marginalized, and little understood subsection of it looks like, more accurately. It also doesn’t rely on a mashing-together of a bunch of Asian stereotypes (Chinese and Japanese kimonos are not the same and interchangeable, for example).
People who persist in wearing these styles: nope, you are not honouring their culture. You are rubbing your white privilege in the faces of many people whose freedom and whose lives have been threatened because of the way they look. You’re taking clothing-specific sites of resistance that marginalized cultural groups used as ways to assert their autonomy, their power, and their struggles, and you stealing these items to flaunt your own freedom and supposed good taste. It’s gross. Don’t do it.
This basically summarizes why I’ve been nervous about buying rocking horse shoes. Here’s what I’m come up with so far in the for and against categories.
The shoes, well, they’re a contemporary style. There’s nothing spiritual, traditional, or otherwise sacred about them. They’re a symbol of late-capitalist globalization in their cross-cultural and youth-oriented sweep, if anything. But then, so is the ease with which white people have access to styles that aren’t theirs to wear or claim.
They were originally designed by a white person. However, Vivienne Westwood and her personal and creative partner at the time, Malcolm McLaren, are known for their cultural thievery and from drawing on many marginalized cultural groups for their art while taking full credit for it.
I’m also aware of their provenance and their history. I don’t get into this assuming that what I’m wearing wasn’t popularized by fashionable Japanese girls. I know where it comes from, and I readily acknowledge it.
The shoes have definitely had moments in the spotlight when they weren’t so strongly associated with young urban Japanese fashion. NaNa famously manufactured versions of the style for underground punks ‘n’ outcasts of ’90s L.A., so while they weren’t as hugely famous as they are now, they had a window of association with North American street style too.
On the other hand, I don’t want to come off as trying to be cool or edgy at the expense of someone else, especially someone else more vulnerable. To be fair, Lolita culture has been written on and documented extensively and positively. But that doesn’t excuse me from taking cool elements of a culture that’s not mine and ignoring the not-so-equal bigger picture.
Anyway, the big picture is important to me. I think it’s good to be asking these questions and having discussions over the grey areas of privilege and appropriation. There are some questions that have cut and dry answers, and there’s many more that don’t. The last thing I’d be into is making a decision and not accepting criticism or dissent on it.
SO, my contemplation has led me to think that it might be okay if I wear rocking horse shoes. Do you disagree? Do you have thoughts about this? Please share them and let’s discuss.