Know Your History: Appropriation Is Real, But Kendall Jenner's Hairstyle Ain't That (This Time)

Kendall Jenner attends as Harper’s BAZAAR Celebrates ‘ICONS By Carine Roitfeld’ on September 7, 2018 in New York City.
Kendall Jenner attends as Harper’s BAZAAR Celebrates ‘ICONS By Carine Roitfeld’ on September 7, 2018 in New York City.
Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris (Getty Images for Harper’s Bazaar)

Beloveds, we know cultural appropriation is an insidious issue that must be called out at every turn so as to nip it in its arrogant bud, but we’ve got some news for you: everything a member of the Kardashian-Jenner clan participates in doesn’t automatically fall into that category. (Trust us, we’d likely write a buzz on it.)


So please, hear this, because we’re saying it with love: we’ve got to start doing our research before we scream appropriation all over the interwebs, because while many cases exist and they are often egregious, others are simply a reach. And if we want our legitimate claims to be taken seriously, we seriously have to know what we’re talking about.

Take, for instance, last weekend’s internet outrage over Kendall Jenner’s supposed “afro” for Vogue Magazine’s CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund spread, which showcased the work of the designer finalists, modeled by Jenner and fellow supermodel Imaan Hamman.

Granted, Jenner’s hair texture is not naturally curly, nor is Hammam’s straight, as seen in another photo of the two. But based on the outfit Jenner is wearing, the hairstyle that’s being emulated here isn’t an afro, but a modern take on an Edwardian updo, as epitomized by the “Gibson Girl”—basically, the original pin-up girl, popular at turn of the last century.

Those who are film and fashion nerds (like this writer), may have watched film adaptations of the works of Henry James (Portrait of a Lady, Wings of the Dove) or Edith Wharton (Age of Innocence, House of Mirth), and will therefore likely recognize the style—including the teased-out curls—since it was specific to the era in which those films are set. And while worn by black women of the era, as well (see actress Minnie Brown, below), it was a predominantly Eurocentric convention.


Similarly, there was outcry about Jenner’s hair texture in another shot, posed next to a sleeker, shag-styled Hammam (giving us Chrissie Hynde/Patti Smith realness). Again, the “afro” argument was raised, despite the fact that a) Jenner’s hair was clearly brushed out from the previous look, and b) both of these looks clearly evoked the late-‘70s to early-’80s music scene. Think of the curly perms of Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler during that era, the punk-rock messiness of Siouxsie Sioux or Sid Vicious paramour, Nancy Spungeon—or singer Kate Bush’s crimps, pictured below. Again, textured hair does not an afro—or appropriation—make (because there are actually white folks who possess that texture, too).


But disappointingly, not only was the outrage online unjustified, in this case, but writers at many credible fashion outlets also took the bait and validated it, revealing their own lack of knowledge and research on fashion and beauty history. For instance, style site Fashionista likened Jenner’s locks to those of Diana Ross, of all people (which is low-key racist, in and of itself), questioning why Vogue hadn’t hired a black model (fun fact: they did) and writing:

Another day, another controversial instance of cultural appropriation in fashion. The latest questionable act of beauty co-opting comes courtesy of the November 2018 issue of Vogue, in which Kendall Jenner is wearing an Afro in several images. Rightfully and unsurprisingly, people on social media are not happy about it. ...

Not only is it mind-boggling to see this type of blatant cultural appropriation in 2018 — these lessons apparently just don’t sink in — but the tone-deafness is further underscored with an accompanying caption that somewhat ironically speaks about diversity and inclusivity, commending the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund for “designers of all ages and backgrounds.”


Uhh, yes ... and no. Mostly, no—and it undermines the countless times that it actually is occurring, and should be taken seriously. If we are going to be able to effectively call out and correct appropriation, we have to be correct in our assessment of when it’s happening. Otherwise, we’re just feeding an already overfed outrage culture, and that is when the conversation stops being constructive. Sadly, we’re already seeing far too many outlets capitulate, rather than educate, as Vogue timidly attempted to do in a response issued to E! News on Monday, saying:

The image is meant to be an update of the romantic Edwardian/Gibson Girl hair which suits the period feel of the Brock Collection, and also the big hair of the ’60s and the early ’70s, that puffed-out, teased-out look of those eras. We apologize if it came across differently than intended, and we certainly did not mean to offend anyone by it.


You know what’s really offensive to this writer (and likely any fashion history buff)? Rage without research or reference.



When I saw this controversy I knew immediately that the people arguing appropriation were young people who were ignorant of (fashion) history.

The second thing I knew was that this would give white people the chance to say appropriation isn’t real and “people are looking for an issue.”

Luckily, I don’t care what White people think. I do want the young people to do their research and think critically before they go in on someone. Also, a little common sense. We as Black people know what an Afro looks like - none of those pics show a white woman in an Afro.