April 20, 2010

Repost | The Critical Fashion Lover's (Basic) Guide to Cultural Appropriation

With all the discussion about the appropriation/misappropriation of 'the Native' in fashion, I found this post particularly insightful and important:

the critical fashion lover's (basic) guide to cultural appropriation Posted by julia aka garconniere
Thursday, April 15, 2010

writing about cultural appropriation and racism in fashion is potentially the most controversial topic for fashion writers, with body politics (which isn't completely divorced from these issues) following close behind. those of us who identify as critical, progressive or liberal minded want to think these things will just go away, but cannot ignore all the signs say otherwise; in fact, racism and cultural appropriation seems to be selling more than ever as of late. just look at the fact that white models are still the standard on runways and in magazines, and that outdated, undeniably racist things like blackface will come back and rear their ugly heads in the pages of vogue even in our supposed "post-racial" era.

to be honest, even i have hesistated touching this issue. it is the one that infuriates, perplexes and inspires me most, not only as a fan of fashion but as an activist, ally and writer. in fact, one of the first pieces i ever wrote about fashion was in 2005 about the problematic increasing trend of mocassin or "mocassin inspired" boots for winter. i've tried to write about it since, but there is so much ground to cover that it becomes intimidating (brevity has never been my strong point). with so many visceral and bewildering responses to the issue, it has sadly only lead to a half-dozen unfinished pieces tucked away on my harddrive.

but i can't hold my tongue any longer. i am an avid reader and (generally speaking) fan of jezebel, and with the discussions going on there triggered by adrienne's post at Native Appropriations entitled "Feathers and Fashion: Native Americans Is [sic] In Style" i think it is time for me to put pen to paper and give a sort of "the critical fashion lover's guide to cultural appropriation."

let's begin with the original article in question: while i don't necessarily think Adrienne's article is very clear with its specific criticisms of cultural appropriation, and a lot of her points muddy (i strongly disagree that Outkast is at the very root of this trend, influencing bands like Juliette and the Licks, Bat for Lashes, and Ke$ha, and am prepared to defend that stance) i am excited by the conversations it has triggered. i do think she raises questions that need to be addressed by fans of fashion and participants in hipster culture as of late, questions that i hope to elaborate on here.

what i mainly want to address here are the responses to adrienne's article when it was posted on jezebel, which range from deeply insightful to downright naive and ignorant. instead of taking this opportunity to engage in discussions about the history of colonization in north america, native american resistance/response to these issues, white privilege, or the political power that many different kinds of clothing possess, a lot of people often end up reacting in predictably defensive ways. but don't take my word for it. here are a sampling of comments:

"So... should I not wear minnetonka shoes or feather earrings anymore?" sydbarretsaves

"Am I gonna go to liberal-PC-prison for wearing silver and turquoise jewelry?"

"Really? I'm not allowed to wear a FEATHER IN MY HAIR? Come on" ferociacoutura

"now I feel guilty for loving Adam Ant when I was 12 yo."

as one of my wisest university professors Molly Blyth once said, "guilt is useless unless it leads to action." what does it say about this contentious issue that these are the first questions people are asking themselves, instead of trying to get a more complex understanding of why someone might challenge their choice to wear these things? the fact that these commentors are asking themselves these questions is, yes, a step in the right direction, but the fact that it is happening in a guilt-ridden, dismissive way is pretty disappointing.

unfortunately, for me, they are hardly surprising responses. my very first internet flame-war happened back in 2004 or 2005 on newestwrinkle (for those of you unfamiliar with this community, generally young girls would post pictures of what they wore that week/month and ask for opinions/flattery). a popular (a stylish ((white blonde skinny*)) american girl) and frequent contributor to the community posted pictures from a "cowboys and indians" party she attended. the pictures showed this white-blonde freckled girl with two lines of blue and red smeared across her cheeks, a little headband with a single feather, and of course the (ever popular at the time) mocassins. when commentors like myself and others asked her what the point of this party was and why she thought this was a representation of an "indian," the reaction was astounding. the post ended up generating nearly 200 comments debating issues ranging from racism, stereotypes, cultural appropriation but resoundingly the conclusion was that "fashion is just for fun! you guys take this way too seriously."

the moderators decided to freeze comments on the post, and soon after the original poster deleted the entry altogether. the resounding lesson i, and the handful of other people openly criticizing this costume as (at the very least) problematic and (at the worst) blatantly racist, was that our criticisms were simply not welcome.

in other similar situations, largely framed around "ethnic" or racial stereotype halloween costumes, i have raised these questions to little or no reaction. fashion communities online, and as far as i have seen in real life as well, simply seem to not want to address this important issue at all.

to me, these situations are more than enough reasons for me to try and express why i think cultural appropriation is an important issue for any fashion lover to address, understand, and deconstruct. cultural appropriation can be a very useful tool for critical fashion lovers to navigate these perilous waters of privilege, erasure and ignorance.

my favourite aspect of cultural appropriation is that it can help us begin to deconstruct our sartorial choices and acknowledges the power of clothing as a means of shaping (racial, national, sexual, gender) identity. the exact same piece of clothing can mean very different things to different people (take any politically charged piece of clothing: the hijab, high-heel shoes, doc martens, the keffiyeh, etc) and acknowledging this fact is a very important first step. the very basis of cultural appropriation gets people thinking about questions like, can one piece of clothing "belong" to one culture? what do certain pieces of clothing signify? it moves us away from basic discussions of colour palettes and cuts and styles and trends and moves us towards a more complex theorizing of fashion.

the first time i found cultural appropriation helpful as a framework was deconstructing what makes me uncomfortable in fashion and why. while in my second year of studies at trent university, taking a few native studies classes, i was learning more and more about the long-term effects of colonization on native people in canada. watching documentaries about residential schools, the bureaucratic hurdles communities encounter in struggles for land claims, the third world conditions on reserves in canada, as well as various other institutional forms of racism opened my eyes to the fact that we live in a country that is blind. a country that relegates native people to outdated stereotypes we can tokenize when it suits our government's purposes, but likes to keep its dirty laundry (which in this case could very literally be small-pox ridden hudson's bay blankets) out of sight.

so what does this have to do with the fact that i am uncomfortable when i see a young white girl in a high fashion magazine draped in turquoise jewelry, wearing mocassins and prancing around the desert? because this is the only image we see of native people in north america these days. native american culture is reduced to a trend that can be packaged and sold to profit the fashion industry. native american people are reduced to one dimensional outdated stereotypes, or worse, as an extinct exotic race that once roamed the land, but who no longer live and breathe and resist today.

i have heard a lot of arguments that there are way more important things we could be debating instead of cultural appropriation; that native people themselves don't give a shit if a severely intoxicated white hipster decides to tattoo pocahontas on his leg or if some magazine decides their next nude photoshoot should feature blonde women wearing headdresses. who knows! maybe the jingle dress will be the next hot thing in haute couture, but it doesn't impact the quality of life of the people who make, wear and perform in those dresses.

my response to this is clear and simple; i don't think the issue of institutional racism and discrimination can be completely divorced from the question of cultural appropration. they feed into one another. one would not exist (at least not in the same way) without the other. if we lived in a culture that acknowledged the fact that most of us live on stolen land in north america and that recognized native people as complex, diverse, intelligent people without romanticizing or glamourizing them, i'd like to think that it would put an end to these sorts of reductive stereotypes popping up in fashion, film, music scenes. reducing an entire culture to a simple "inspiration" for your outfit, art project, fashion collection, or photoshoot is disrespectful and unhelpful, especially when we look at the bigger picture.

to keep things brief, i will address two last important issues: context and the fear of the "politically correct" police. in all of the examples given in adrienne's article, they were largely stripped of their context. are all of the examples given equally and explicitly examples of cultural appropriation? in my opinion, not necessarily. many commentors on jezebel pointed out the fact that andre 3000 of outkast is part native and african american, but does this excuse his use of neon-outfitted headdress wearing backup dancers? not really. these are questions i'm still exploring, but it is incredibly important to think about questions of context and intent.

a dangerous thing that can happen in discussions about cultural appropriation is, yes, becoming overly politically correct. when this happens, people end up being silenced and any potential productive discussion ends. everyone ends up getting defensive, but just as bad is becoming righteous. if you identify as an ally, it is fine to give your own personal opinion, but to claim to speak for all native people (as though they compose one homogenous group) is just as problematic as dismissing this as an issue altogether. as with any issue, i highly encourage the critical fashion lover to enter this discussion with an open mind and to be prepared to unlearn a lot of the things you thought you knew.

the biggest problem with the concept of cultural appropriation, in my opinion, is that it doesn't set out any explicit black and white rules for people to follow. as you can see based on the comments on jezebel, people are genuinely confused as to what the "right thing" to do in these situations are, and there's nothing wrong with that. you can't get answers if you aren't asking questions. my advice in these situations is largely about context, intention, and education.

let's say you bought a cute pair of feather earrings and you like how they look. you're white. is this cultural appropriation?

are you going to pair them with a pair of mocassins and skimpy dress in an attempt to channel outdated romanticized stereotypes of native women? then yes, i would say that's pretty shitty.

are you going to ask who made them and where they come from? are they made in a factory with terrible working conditions? are they synthetic? are they from an endangered bird?

how are they marketed/sold to you? are they tagged as "navajo spirit eagle feather" yet made in china and sold by a capitalist chain?

you can claim you like them simply for their aesthetic appearance, but why do you like this particular aethestic?

as you can see, there are a lot of questions you can ask yourself about a single pair of earrings, not all of which relate specifically to cultural appropriation. i like to think of myself as a conscious consumer and like to know where my clothes are from, how/when they were made, that sort of thing.

(for the record, i own two pairs of feather earrings; one i received as a gift from six nations while i was in caledonia at a peace and friendship gathering which i unfortunately lost, the other i purchased at a thrift store for 50 cents)

these aforementioned questions can apply to any number of garments for any person who thinks of themselves as a critical consumer of fashion. ask yourself if you're simply wearing it "because you like it" or because it is trendy, and ask if that is enough for you. everyone has different reasons for what they choose to wear and why, and as long as you're prepared to discuss your reasons without engaging in fucked up discussions ignoring your own white privilege, i say go for it.

phew! so, that about covers some of the basics. to end, here are some comments that popped up on jezebel that gave me some hope:

Dressing up as "a Native American" furthers the already popular notion that they aren't real, diverse, complex human beings. There's a reason that dressing up as a white guy isn't nearly as effective on Halloween; there's no homogenous vision of what White Guy looks like. If you've developed a homogenous vision of a particular race, enough that you could conceive of a good costume, then just fucking stay home for the evening. - choppery


if you are a white person who waltzed in here to give your opinion and it was based entirely on how it affects you and your fashion choices, YOUR WHITE PRIVILEGE IS SHOWING. Me, personally, I'm ashamed at how our country was built on the literal and cultural genocide of Native people. It doesn't matter that my ancestors didn't personally do it or that it was like a really long time ago. As an American, I find it shameful. And all I really want to know is, what can I do to show respect to people who are my equals but who are rarely treated that way? Last I checked, appropriating a culture that that has been systematically denigrated is NOT respect. - thesciencegirl wields the

i'm hoping to take some time to speak very specifically about this trend in respect to hipster culture (think roma/"gypsy" people being romanticized in music/fashion) in the last year or two, so this definitely isn't the last you'll hear me talking about this. i look forward to hearing your thoughts! if you're interested in learning more about cultural appropriation from a much more informed source, here are some things you might like to check out.

recommended reading:
black looks: race and representation by bell hooks

national disgrace: canadian government and the residential school system 1879-1986 by john milloy

unpacking the white privilege knapsack by peggy macintosh

me funny and me sexy by drew hayden taylor

"real" indians and others by bonita lawrence

various racialicious posts by jessica yee

recommended viewing:
yellow apparel: when the coolie becomes the cool on vimeo

genocide, assimilation or incorporation: Indigenous Identity and Modes of Resistance lecture by bonita lawrence on vimeo