Eurovision winner Netta has been accused of cultural appropriationLauren Outerson

The Met Gala was, as always, one of the year’s most hotly anticipated events in art and celebrity culture, and the red carpet a sight to behold for any fashion aficionado. Adhering precisely to this year’s theme – “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” – singer Rihanna sparked the most controversy. Her custom-made ensemble turned heads not due to its jewel-encrusted bling factor (off the charts) but because of its prominent diamond crosses and, most particularly, her ornate papal mitre headdress – large, blinking, luxurious, incredibly hard to miss, and obviously appropriating the Pope’s traditional headwear.

She looked divine, and not everybody liked it. A day later, religious conservatives were accusing the Met Gala of offensive behaviour – namely cultural appropriation in reference to the Catholic theme, arguing that the event involved “celebrities sexualising, commodifying and undermining the Catholic religion and church”. “My religion is not your costume” was a popular online response, following neatly in the wake of the recent Twitter crisis over a Utah high school student who wore a Chinese-style dress to prom. “My culture is NOT your goddamm prom dress,” wrote Twitter user Jeremy Lam in response to the high school pictures, gathering 42,000 retweets and setting off an avalanche of online hate. Adding fuel to the fire of the online debate, Israel’s winning Eurovision act adopted a Japanese theme for her staging.

Rows over cultural appropriation are not uncommon; they allow for fast-paced anger and don’t require much fact-checking, making them a fruitful environment for controversy. Cambridge University is no stranger to it: two years ago criticism over a Lion-King-themed formal at Queen’s gained national attention, for example, and this February Dame Barbara Stocking, president of Murray Edwards, came under fire for wearing Chinese traditional dress to Halfway Hall. 

Cultural appropriation is “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own”, says the Cambridge Dictionary. Others define it as “the adoption of certain elements from another culture without the consent of people who belong to that culture”.

While events and clothes are frequently labelled cultural appropriation with great speed and enthusiasm, the concept is nebulous. How could anyone establish in any one case the total and definite absence of “consent of people who belong to that culture”? Is it enough to have one person “from that culture” confirming that they don’t have a problem – as very many did in the case of the Utah prom furore, which was largely met with head-scratching in Asia – or do you have to have ten? Or twenty? A hundred? Who even “belongs” to a culture in the first place?

In an ever more international world, cultures mix and match across the globe all the time. People have children over cultural and racial divides, bridging and destroying these in the process. People move, travel, learn foreign languages, have friends across continents, interact, interchange. People from all over the world come together to study at our university. There is absolutely no reason not to be happy about this process; it brings hope for a better understanding of the simple fact that we are all, obviously, just human. But the same process also makes it often much harder to accurately identify which person is “from” this culture and which person from that, and who therefore has the right to wear this or that dress, and so forth.

Rihanna’s dress, just like the Utah teen’s, is, of course, just that – a piece of fabric. A hideously expensive one, sure, but still just fabric. It is utterly harmless to Catholic believers, and it is also something that Rihanna chose to put on her own body. Who is the Pope to tell her what she can or cannot wear?

Japanese university students run around in American blue jeans all the time. American tourists come to small alpine towns in Bavaria and proudly sport lederhosen every summer. If an American teenager wearing a Chinese dress is cultural appropriation, then these instances must be too, and so must Rihanna’s fashion choice at the Met Gala.

As human beings we are obligated to respect one another, across all cultures and nations, and it’s not within our remit to tell others what they can or cannot wear. Not to dress a certain way based on some flawed understanding of cultural appreciation has nothing to do with respect or kindness. To attempt to police other people’s fashion choices is paternalistic. Rihanna looked sensational at the Met Gala, and so did the Utah high school student at her prom. Let’s celebrate them both.

  • Corrected 3.02pm 22nd May 2018: This article was corrected to remove unfounded allegations about Dame Barbara Stocking. 
  • Amended on 11th March 2019: the name of the author has been removed in the interest of welfare concerns