Givenchy’s Fall 2015 show stirred up the fashion scene, arousing many bloggers and self-proclaimed fashionistas to rave about creative director Riccardo Tisci’s “bold” accessory choices. “Beautiful! Scene-stealing! Those bright colors and beautiful textures!” were some of the phrases used to describe the show.
While the intricate designs of the clothing itself accentuated Tisci’s sleek style, the theme of the show, “Chola Victorian”, raised some slicked-down eyebrows.
The term chola first originated in the gang-ridden parts of Southern California throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. It describes a “working-class, young Mexican-American female from the barrios of the southwest with a very distinct aesthetic, style, and attitude.” The history of this lifestyle, however, dates back to the early 20th-century Mexican Repatriation, where millions of people of Mexican descent were pressured to leave the United States and suffered from internalized racism and oppression. As many as 1.2 million of those forced to leave were United States citizens.
Being used first as a derogatory term, Mexican-American youths of Southern California began to self-identify as cholas/cholos (male version of chola) as a method of self-empowerment and identity. Most teens who identified as chola came from impoverished backgrounds full of gang warfare. The term became a way for Mexican-Americans to express the “strength and creative independence it takes to survive in a society where your social mobility has been thwarted by racism.”
Nowadays, chola culture is celebrated and perpetuated mostly throughout the music and fashion industries. The term is associated with gang violence, big hoop earrings, pencil-thin eyebrows and slicked-down baby hairs and is used more as a costume than to represent the specific Mexican-American subculture. Pop singers like Lana Del Rey and Rihanna romanticize the chola aesthetic, donning stereotypical accessories to look “bad-ass”.
In recent years, fashion moguls like Givenchy have incorporated ethnic looks into their designs to bring an air of “edge” to their looks. However, when a person of color is seen with that same aesthetic, it is deemed “low-class” and “ratchet”. At what point, then, does cultural exchange turn into appropriation?