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The Troubling Trend of Using Culture For Costume

OMG October 30, 2017 By Vincent

Fancy dress season is upon us, providing many opportunities to dress up and lark about as something we're not. However, there seems to be a troubling trend of people using other cultures, which are very much alive and well, as a form of costume and whether this is through ignorance or otherwise, it needs to be called out and halted immediately.

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Cultural appropriation is not necessarily an easy thing to navigate with art and fashion forever borrowing or being inspired by the different aspects of global culture. To stick to just the one you know would make for a very boring world and would lead to static or dying cultures and we know they borrow from one another. 

Take European culture. It's a glorious mishmash of different traditions, borne of Greek folklore, paganism and Christianity all smashed together and muddled with a multitude of other regional traditions whenever you cross a border. Moreover, its living, breathing nature means that it is constantly changing, adapting and adopting from other areas over time. This is, fundamentally, how culture works.

We also know that Japanese culture has roots in Chinese and Korean history as well as its own and that it has been shaped by those who have visited its shores and the regions around it. It is also a culture that has historically promoted its proliferation through encouraging those outside its bounds to experience it and become a part of it. This is how a culture lives and grows, through appreciation and experience but, sadly this also opens itself up to abuse. 

Culture is inherently tied to identity, and the aforementioned ones are the sort of winners of the culture wars in the sense that they have become ones that have dominated the mainstream media and psyches of whole nations. We specifically see this with cultures that are mainly driven by white, European origins, the ones that dominated the world through, in no small part, colonialism and other troubling historical issues and, as such, other cultures have become repressed (or even oppressed) due to this dominance. This then becomes a problem when a dominating culture 'takes' from another one rather than it being willingly given or shared, especially when the defining characteristic or aspect is tied to an identity that has a history of struggle against the dominant culture.

We see this with hairstyles a lot, something that can be deeply and inherently personal and yet still ground you in a community. Yet hair and fashion are one part of culture that continually crosses back and forth, so the question remains as to whether it is acceptable to use certain hairstyles as a form of fashion or counter-culture when another community puts much more stock into it than merely its aesthetic. 

This happens time and again with black culture, where dreadlocks, dashiki shirts, and other things are routinely taken and used in white fashion and pop-culture. The debate rages as to whether this is appropriate or not but without even a cursory mention or consideration as to where they originated from it causes a worrying trend of ignorance.

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So when it comes to costumes, we know that they are something silly or absurd, something we would not usually wear or attribute to ourselves because the notion seems absurd, this is part of the fun of fancy dress. But when wearing something from another culture that does consider such items or presentations important, we are then downplaying that importance, we turn an identity into a plaything, something to be worn only once a year. We see this all too often at music festivals or summer soirees where someone has decided that a Native American headdress would be a fun and quirky addition to their 'look' without the proper due care or diligence taken into understanding what these items truly mean.

Associated with the spirituality of this culture, they illustrate a standing within that community. Traditionally worn by male leaders of the American Plains Indians Nations who have earned a place of great respect in their tribe, the wearing and displaying of such headdresses, and other "indigenous traditional arts and sacred objects" by those who have not earned them, especially by non-Natives as fashion or costume, is considered offensive by traditional Native peoples and as such, should not be treated as hipster apparel. 

The controversy is part of a wider effort by Native American activists to highlight the ongoing cultural genocide against indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada because once it enters the public consciousness as a piece of costume clothing, it can then be just as easily dismissed as a meaningless fashion item destined to go in and out of vogue.

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A similar issue has arisen with the use of bindis, a red dot worn on the center of the forehead, commonly by Hindu and Jain women. Dating back to the hymn of creation known as Nasadiya Sukta in the Rigveda, Bindu is considered the point at which creation begins and may become unity and bindis are known as the third eye chakra. Bindu is the point or dot around which the mandala is created, representing the universe and has significant religious and cultural importance and yet celebrity use by the likes of Gwen Stefani, Selena Gomez, Julia Roberts and Madonna has managed to popularize the item as a fashion piece without any consideration to its origin.

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So should we steer clear of using anything from outside our own culture? Should we blind ourselves to what the world has to offer up for worry over causing offense? No, not at all but it is about time we start considering where and why these things have come about. 

Take, for example, the rich and varied cultures of Central America and, more specifically, Mexico. We know there are items of clothing that come from this region that have become tied to its image in an almost stereotypical fashion, like sombreros and ponchos, and so would it be wrong to ever dress in these if you were not Mexican? In this case, no. They are pieces of clothing born of necessity due to the region's climate but they have no greater meaning or context in terms of beliefs or cultural practices. But using costume pieces from the famed Mexican celebration the Day of The Dead (or Dios Los Muertos), a celebration tied into the history of the nation and the religious background of its indigenous peoples and the Catholic influence brought over by colonialists, may well be somewhat troublesome. 

In an ever globalized world where it takes mere seconds to google something on your phone, it is perhaps about time we started to do, at the very least, the bare minimum of research into what these things mean to people and why.

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In short, no one wants to be a killjoy in the run-up to party season and it is all about having fun but we need to learn to respect one another and be prepared to consider other cultures as well as our own. So if an item of clothing, hairstyle or image means something to someone, it is probably best to avoid it. 

But this is also not enough. 

We need to start calling this sort of cultural appropriation out and telling others as to why it is not right, otherwise, we will blunder our way into a world where marginalized cultures suddenly become something of a party novelty. 

We need to be better because when a culture dies, it negatively affects our own as we lose a source of inspiration and a source of knowledge and understanding. We need to start respecting our differences in culture to understand what makes us the same as human beings and if that means having to opt for the crappy plastic Frankenstein mask at Halloween over the ornately designed and painstakingly crafted headdress, then so be it.


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