Searching for Originality

When the "ghetto gothic" fashion trend began gaining traction thanks to a global popstar, further analysis revealed that its roots were embedded in more than just New York's underground party scene. Written by Zakirah Rabaney

Superficially fetishizing the dress code, artefacts, religious symbols, expressions or customs – sacred to a foreign culture, for the sake of style and aesthetic pleasure – are cultural appropriations that have recently been given a bad rap in the fashion world. Many designers, brands and celebrities have been criticized for misusing and disrespecting minority cultures and subcultures, through inaccurate, or fickle displays of their ethnic or ideological identities.

However, the relentless search and ever-increasing demand for new looks, creative ingenuity and originality, will credit cultural appropriators as “Pop Cosmopolitans” in 2015. Especially as young fashion enthusiasts, rebelliously crave wanting to juxtapose foreign aesthetics against the homogenous backdrop of their local context, in order to stand out and mean something. The Internet has been saturated with blog posts, editorials and social media rants about famous brands and celebrities “stealing” looks from an array of cultures. A recent and scandalously good example of this kind of appropriation, was seen with the Ghetto Gothic subculture and Rihanna.

As a fashion trend, Ghetto Gothic is a mélange of rave, punk, traditional Indian jewellery, Hip Hop fashion, the 1990s and athletic street wear. But international popstar, Rihanna, has been accused of inertly allowing the media to credit her as the creator of this Ghetto Goth aesthetic – which was actually originally founded in New York, back in 2009 by DJ Venus X. Ghetto Gothic developed from an underground party into a lifestyle, outlook and eventually into a new fashion subculture. Although I’m sympathetic towards Rihanna’s extremely hollow appropriation of Venus X’s politically-charged underground movement: can anything remain unappropriated in an industry with an insatiable appetite for something shiny and new? Not to mention the fact that we are living in an age where you cannot put anything on the Internet, and expect it to remain underground and undiscovered for very long.

The underground influencers who contribute so much of their personal originality towards the advance of fashion, will and always have been, appropriated; all thanks to fashion’s infinite search for the “new cool.” Although many online articles have been written about Rihanna’s appropriation of Venus X’s Ghetto Gothic aesthetic, comments on an article written by Zing Tsjeng for Dazed Digital in May 2014, entitled: Venus X shuts down GHE20GOTH1K, blames Rihanna, revealed sentiment that the aesthetic of Ghetto Gothic didn’t originate with Venus X.

A comment left by Solomon Hardy in response to this article reads: “Venus X’s brand also reeks of a derivative fad, where she just happened to be the one to gain the most exposure promoting it (not that I think she didn’t work hard to get that opportunity) – but the mainstream will always draw from the underground and subcultures to guide their new profiteering endeavours. While I do appreciate her aesthetic to an extent, it’s definitely not original, and now she puts herself at risk for others coming forward to reveal how they were rocking urban Gothic chic before her.” Venus X did coin the term “Ghetto Gothic,” and Rihanna did appropriate the term, as well as the look, but I don’t think it’s a case of who did it first, or where it originated from. The art of amalgamating social diversity into a single fashion look, is the premise and heart of the Ghetto Gothic fashion trend, and its existence discredits the negative connotations previously attached to cultural appropriation.

In a sense, fashion has adopted an “open source” policy, similar to technology’s open source initiative. It calls for the collaborative efforts of early adopters to push the boundaries of fashion, thereby allowing a new kind of “patchwork originality.” A look sewn together by the fusions of foreign bits and pieces. The grunge fashion trend of the 1990s was the last of a long line of iconic fashion movements. Today, the legendary flappers, beatniks, mod queens and punks have been replaced with fast fashion fads and small groups of subculture fashion cliques like Brazzaville’s Sapeurs, Cape Town’s Hipsters and Johannesburg’s Izikhothane and Smarteez. The next fashion clique will undoubtedly use this open source policy to create hybrids looks – single fusions of many different cultures and subcultures – much like the Ghetto Gothic trend does. It’s about crossbreeding and colonizing through style.

South Africans seem to have a natural predisposition to this trend because of our extreme multiculturalism. Rap-rave group, Die Antwoord, are local pioneers of this effortless hybridization. The fact that they’ve combined and referenced everything from the stereotypes around Cape Town’s infamous gangs to Xhosa culture and Roger Ballen’s photography, skillfully showcases their use of cultural appropriation, not only for its shock value, but also as a tool for a visually exciting identity. Their aesthetic and music has grabbed the attention of fellow South Africans and resonated internationally with famous names like Lady Gaga and Alexander Wang. There are also other, younger influencers in South Africa like Angelo Valerio and Nicci St. Bruce, who do not limit their sartorial inspiration to local borders. Because of this, they are aesthetically challenging the status quo of local street style fashion trends in South Africa.

Globalization and the democratization of information (thanks to the Internet and social media) are contributing factors to this hybridization, and relates back to what Henry Jenkins calls “Pop Cosmopolitanism.” He coined the term in 2006 to describe the youth’s current escape from their local community’s myopia about cultural traditions, through the adoption of global popular media, especially elements of cultures which are foreign to them. Jenkins refers to pop cosmopolitanism as, “The ways that the transcultural flows of popular culture inspires new forms of global consciousness and cultural competency.” In the process, the texts of culture, “are decontextualized and re-contextualized at the sites of consumption,” which may result in “unpredictable and contradictory meanings being ascribed to them.”

Traditionally, the best practices for cultural referencing call for in-depth research and a sound, factual understanding of the political, economic and historical context of the culture. While some desperately try to hold on to the heritage of their culture’s intellectual property, our youth are gathering cultural source code from around the world to create stylish, new fashion combinations. Despite a treacherous grey area that has always existed between the arguments of cultural appropriation, the year 2015 will be a space inhabited by youth – diffusing, defining and colouring with liberal and optimistic fashion styles that have never been seen in their communities before.

They are the generation driving the narrative of pop cosmopolitanism and are championing the trending art of hybridization. Their innate understanding, that self-expression’s fluidity should not be politicized, is what justifies their pastiches; where older generations see sacrilege, the youth see a treasure trove of new toys to play ‘dress up’ with and with which to express their new ideologies. They are fashion rebels with a cause: to create, connect and transcend even their personal cultural heritage, in a search for their new identities as citizen’s of the world.

This piece was originally published in The South African Fashion Handbook's Winter 2015 edition under the article name, "Ghetto Gothic: Appropriation or Appreciation?" And it has also appeared on their website.

Photo collage by Zakirah Rabaney