Think before you bop: costumes that hurt?

Dominic Kelly 13 November 2011

Fashion’s growing tendency to homogenise racial groups should be questioned, says Dominic Kelly.

Whether you come from this Cambridge, our namesake in Australia, or any city in between, there is a scarily similar slate of things to look out for on Halloween night. Alarmingly acrid cocktails concocted from whatever the bar had left over? Check. Flocks of people dressed as a former “Two and a Half Men” cast member and getting Charlie Sheen-ed? Double check. Frankly, if you were playing “Cliched Halloween Bingo” in Market Square that night, you would have a full house faster than a free gaff with a Bieber-shaped pinata. That card would surely have an entire row devoted to offensive costumes, but the prime offender would not even have been the multiple boys in black sweaters brandishing iPads. What is even more disconcerting but nowhere near as much discussed, are the probably well-meaning people who think dressing up as an “Indian” is appropriate. A culture, particularly one that continues to be oppressed, should not be a costume.

This year, a group of Ohio University students launched an awareness campaign about people dressing up as stereotypes of ethnic minorities for ‘fancy dress’ occasions and met what could generously be called a mixed reception. Critics largely told them to ‘get a sense of humour’, as if attending a party as a caricature so contrived it would make a Top Gear presenter blush, and one that has stained the public consciousness for centuries, is somehow groundbreaking comedy.

Thankfully, the once common sight of ‘blackface’ at a Halloween party has almost been entirely eradicated, but it is still a common sight to see people dressed up as their concept of Native Americans. The endurance of this stereotype is unsurprising considering that this cultural appropriation – the adoption of a majority culture of elements intrinsic to a minority culture – of the indigenous culture of the Americas has been returning into fashion.

A quick trawl through the side streets of the internet- Etsy pages, Tumblr sites and Flickr albums- reveals that the “tribal” concept is very much in vogue. Page after page of tragically hip white scenesters donning faux headdresses, plastering their face with ‘war paint’ and taking pictures of themselves looking angsty / enlightened / constipated into the horizon. New age fun with a vintage feel, perhaps? It really needs to stop. Firstly, the concept of ‘tribal’ is completely destructive. The Americas are made up of a vast array of separate and culturally distinct nations, all with a unique identity. Taking elements of one and mixing it with another and branding it with the horrifically outdated term ‘tribal’ homogenises Native groups. Secondly, it continues the obsession with the exoticism of indigenous people that has existed for centuries, separating them from reality and instead propagating a fetishised fantasy of “Otherness” for the majority’s pleasure. Disney’s interpretation of Pocahontas, seemingly the basis for a lot of this fashion, is a hyper-sexualised, commodified appropriation of Native American women. She is made of film stock, a product of animation cels, not cells, and could not be more two-dimensional.

“So what, this means I can’t wear anything by indigenous peoples?” Quite the opposite, in fact. The sale of spectacularly beautiful and intricate items, the product of generations of handed down artistic ingenuity, is an indispensable source of income for some individuals and their families living in severely economically disadvantaged areas. However popping down the local high street and picking up an appalling replica manufactured for pennies in Shenzhen and sold to boost the dividends of shareholders only accentuates the gap in power. Stacking commodified culture high and selling it low is big business for some companies. Urban Outfitters’ online outlet currently offers everything from the pretentious- a pair of Aztec-influenced Wayfarers- to the tasteless – Navajo influenced underwear, anyone? Unfortunately, there would not be a supply of tacky goods if there was not a demand for it.

Through a bitten lip, the people who start to realise that maybe they’re guilty of such appropriation at this point move to the defensive and extend the argument to absurdity: “So let me get this right, because I am not French, I can’t wear a beret? Political correctness gone mad etc.” Not at all, but Parisian culture has not had a history of oppression and is not at constant risk of being extinguished entirely.

The key to avoiding cultural appropriation is a matter of respect. Wearing an ethically sourced product bought for a fair price as a part of an outfit shows that respect. Shockingly, rolling around in the mud whilst off one’s face on MDMA at Glastonbury while “rocking” a headdress you bought from the back of a guy’s van probably isn’t showing that much respect to a culture. Realistically, the headdress is a piece of iconography with deep significance that should be avoided in fashion entirely. If someone could let Ke$ha know that, that would be just great. Maybe part of the problem is the solipsistic perspective that seems to be indicative of hipster subculture, a contempt for context that is leading to the culling of culture.

“But what do you know about fashion anyway, Mr. Feature Writer? Why do you get to make up the rules, you look like you were dressed in the dark by a disgruntled bonobo with dubious fashion sense?” Be that as it may, you do not need to be a fashion expert to recognise what is in good taste. Furthermore, I don’t want to tell anyone what to do, all I want is for people to ask more questions of themselves. Why am I attracted to this aesthetic and what does it say about me? Do I like this aspect of myself? Am I helping proliferate a representational problem for a vulnerable group? Diversity is what makes our world beautiful, and we can all play our part in protecting it.

Dominic Kelly