"I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear…." Fashion has long been a sucker for America's siren song. The cowboy. The biker babe. The skate kid. The prep schooler, the pilot, the Laurel Canyon bohemian, the lady who lunches, the pinup girl. It's hard to think of an American archetype that hasn't, at some point, inspired a fashion collection. You could go on and on, listing them. And that very range of types, its sheer variety, says a lot about the United States' enduring egalitarianism. We're an inclusive place, at heart. And fashion embraces that.
Meanwhile, the country evolves. And so do its archetypes. One that's become vivid in the cultural imagination of late is the chola. Can you picture her? Ambling round East L.A. in low-slung Dickies and door-knocker earrings, with outlined crimson lips, drawn-on eyebrows, and serious don't-mess-with-me attitude. That's the vision kicking around the mainstream. It's the one that has inspired, for example, the zombie-chola costume that Rihanna wore for Halloween last year. Not to mention a handful of recent designer collections. It's an image rooted in reality. But that doesn't make it real.
Who is a chola? What does she look like? Well, it depends who you ask. Go from one neighborhood to another on the east side of Los Angeles, and you will see the chola look change. The differences are subtle, but they all mean something. Meanwhile, the popular appeal of the iconic version of the look is easy to comprehend: It retains a frisson of danger, given its association with Latino gang culture, and it's highly imitable in broad strokes. But the imitations are impressionistic at best. That neighborhood-to-neighborhood nuance gets lost.
And with it goes the lived experiences of the girls ostensibly being referenced. What do we really know about the life of a self-described "chola girl" today? Their communities are exceedingly tight-knit; any old day-tripper can't just drop into Ramona Gardens, in L.A., for a hang. It's not Disneyland. And so it follows that much of what we—meaning, we outsiders—think we know about chola lives, we in fact merely surmise. There's a value to seeing the actual girls, making their lives visible.
The chola style emerged from marginalization, as so many dynamic street styles do. The earliest antecedent of the look appears to be the Latina women of the thirties and forties who borrowed their gangster boyfriends' baggy zoot-suit trousers, flouting both the law and the strict gender conventions of Mexican-American culture at the time. That layered bad girl-ness continues to inflect the chola look, and it is, of course, a huge part of its allure.
Which is where the teenagers come in. The outlaw glamour and frank sexiness of cholita style made it catnip to kids up and down the West Coast. There was a lot of organic borrowing going on—teens at demographically mixed schools picking up on their peers' cool look. Gwen Stefani probably evolved her No Doubt-era dress code that way—she grew up in Anaheim, after all. The Dickies and door-knockers were an homage.
But this is where the appropriation gets thorny. When an ethnic minority—and a marginalized one, at that—serves as inspiration for a largely white population of artists and designers, the line between homage and exploitation is blurred.
We're not just talking about cholas here. Fashion is a pirate: No culture is safe from its larceny. Witness Yves Saint Laurent's groundbreaking Africa collection, from 1967. Or for pillage of more recent vintage, consider the Chanel extravaganza for Pre-Fall ’14, the one that featured Caroline de Maigret taking a turn down the catwalk, in Dallas, in a giant feathered headdress. In both instances, the intention behind the appropriation is pure: YSL was, and Karl Lagerfeld is, an aesthete at heart. Their appropriation isn't about sociology; it's about beauty.
And yet…lines do exist. We're just not entirely sure where to draw them. Or whether we should.
It's worth noting that cholas themselves appropriated most of the key elements of their look. Chinos and flannel are idiomatic working-class gear. The lined lips and brows have a certain Old Hollywood flair. Taking possession of the aesthetics at hand, remixing and investing them with a fresh attitude—that's the classic American fashion move. It's what we do here.
But there are certain themes, certain references, that demand deep engagement. It's iffy when a designer less accomplished than Saint Laurent or Lagerfeld skims an aesthetic off a discrete cultural identity. Or when an artist such as Lana del Rey tries to edge up her image by drawing on a teardrop tattoo. The cheapness of the effort is what offends us—not the appropriation itself, per se.
We're entitled to take style inspiration from anywhere and anyone. It's all there for the taking. But when done right, the appropriator acknowledges his or her debts by creating something thrilling and new. Just the way the chola girls have, making original style from familiar parts. In other words, don't stop appropriating. Just appropriate better.