My cul­ture IS NOT A COS­TUME

Do you know if this pic­ture is an ex­am­ple of cul­tural cel­e­bra­tion or ap­pro­pri­a­tion?

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we all like to think we’re woke when it comes to cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion, but this year there’s been some high-pro­file cases in the fash­ion in­dus­try. It turns out, the whole cul­tural cos­tume thing is still con­fus­ing peo­ple, and you’re prob­a­bly won­der­ing where the line is drawn. It is a com­pli­cated sub­ject, so we’re here to help you make in­formed de­ci­sions.

Cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion or cel­e­bra­tion?

That was the ques­tion when Amer­i­can model Gigi Ha­did posed for Vogue Ara­bia wear­ing a hi­jab. Some Muslim women ob­jected that an el­e­ment of their faith was be­ing used as a mere fash­ion ac­ces­sory. Oth­ers pointed out the pho­tos were in a pub­li­ca­tion made for hi­jab-wear­ing women, and so the magazine was con­tribut­ing to their cul­ture rather than ap­pro­pri­at­ing it. Gigi, who de­fines her­self as ‘half-Pales­tinian’, said on In­sta­gram that she saw the pho­tos as an op­por­tu­nity to cel­e­brate dif­fer­ent cul­tures. So who’s right?

The an­swer is all of the above – so it’s not hard to see why it can be very con­fus­ing. There are no hard­line rules about what is or isn’t ap­pro­pri­a­tion, but there are some ques­tions you can ask to help fig­ure it out on a case-by-case ba­sis.

Is your cul­tural cos­tume at the ex­pense of oth­ers?

In the March 2017 is­sue of Vogue, there was a fash­ion spread in which Karlie Kloss was made-up to look Ja­panese. Non-white mod­els get com­par­a­tively few jobs in in­ter­na­tional fash­ion mags over­all, so why – many peo­ple asked – didn’t Vogue just hire a Ja­panese model?

In day-to-day life, the ques­tion of ap­pro­pri­a­tion at other peo­ple’s ex­pense can ap­ply to things like Abo­rig­i­nal or In­dian jew­ellery de­signs be­ing sold by big chain stores. Th­ese mass-pro­duced items are tak­ing earn­ings away from the artists or de­sign­ers of the cul­ture be­ing copied, so it’s im­por­tant to buy from the orig­i­na­tors wher­ever pos­si­ble.

Does this per­pet­u­ate neg­a­tive stereo­types?

In one of the Vogue im­ages, Karlie is dressed as a geisha – which is a spe­cific role a mi­nor­ity of Ja­panese women through­out history have played, but is of­ten used in Western cul­ture to rep­re­sent a nar­row, sex­u­alised idea of Asian women.

This prob­lem also oc­curs when it comes to fancy dress cos­tumes based on cul­ture or na­tion­al­ity. ‘Ja­panese’ is not a cos­tume, nei­ther is ‘Na­tive Amer­i­can’ or ‘Mex­i­can’. Th­ese are each rich, com­plex, di­verse cul­tures, and dress­ing up as a stereo­typ­i­cal ver­sion re­duces them down to a sin­gle set of fea­tures.

Karlie re­leased an apol­ogy when faced with the back­lash, and took to Twit­ter and In­sta­gram to say: “Th­ese im­ages ap­pro­pri­ate a cul­ture that is not my own and I am truly sorry for par­tic­i­pat­ing in a shoot that was not cul­tur­ally sen­si­tive. My goal is, and al­ways will be, to em­power and in­spire women.”

Un­for­tu­nately for Karlie, this wasn’t the first time she has been caught up in an ap­pro­pri­a­tion scan­dal in the name of fash­ion.

Dur­ing the Vic­to­ria’s

Se­cret Fash­ion Show in Novem­ber 2012, Karlie and the brand were called out for her ap­pear­ance on the run­way in a Na­tive Amer­i­canin­spired head­dress and lin­gerie.

For Na­tive Amer­i­cans, their head­dress is re­served for el­ders who have earned the right to wear one. It’s a spir­i­tual sym­bol, not just a cul­tural one, and they be­lieve that wear­ing an im­i­ta­tion head­dress as a cos­tume or fash­ion ac­ces­sory be­lit­tles what Na­tive Amer­i­can el­ders spend their life­times earn­ing.

Is a cos­tume of a char­ac­ter OK?

You might be won­der­ing, ‘Well, if it’s not OK to wear In­dian head­dresses, is it OK for me to dress up as Poc­a­hon­tas be­cause that’s a spe­cific char­ac­ter?’ The an­swer is no. Na­tive Amer­i­cans find this of­fen­sive, be­cause they feel that Poc­a­hon­tas mis­rep­re­sents their cul­ture.

An­other ex­am­ple that can make this a lit­tle clearer for you is from ear­lier this year when Dis­ney re­leased a brown, tat­tooed-skin cos­tume of the Moana char­ac­ter Maui. Many peo­ple pointed out that it was of­fen­sive – not only be­cause skin colour is not a cos­tume, but be­cause tat­toos have spe­cific mean­ing to the Poly­ne­sian peo­ple.

Dis­ney hadn’t con­sid­ered the po­ten­tial is­sue, and they swiftly with­drew the out­fit from sale af­ter there was a pub­lic out­cry.

Help­ful ad­vice from our girl Zendaya

If you’re not sure how to sep­a­rate cel­e­bra­tion from cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion, Zendaya has some ad­vice: “There are rea­sons why peo­ple are hurt by cer­tain things, so I would sug­gest talk­ing to peo­ple... Get to know the back­ground, un­der­stand why peo­ple are of­fended and [learn] how we can be more sen­si­tive of other peo­ple’s cul­tures.”

We’re not here to call out Karlie, Gigi, Vogue or Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret. It’s OK not to know, so long as you try to learn.

Don’t get caught out like Gigi and Karlie! Re­search cul­tural cos­tumes to know what’s OK and what’s not.

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