Appropriating Culture

What you wear can cause a big uproar. Your clothing can trigger a controversy. Accessories, cosmetics, and hairdos that you adopt and adapt can adorn you with scorn, and it often comes down to the general notions surrounding cultural appropriation – or in some cases – cultural misappropriation.

Are claims of cultural appropriation overly sensitive viewpoints about borrowing and integrating other cultural styles into an individual’s wardrobe? Or are those claims worthwhile pushback towards people from powerful, wealthier statuses who steal other cultural groups’ revered fashions? Is a mix-and-match attitude toward fashion just a modern manifestation of the melting pot, or is it a way to show disrespect (even if unintended) toward other cultural groups? If you criticize someone’s attempt at mixing in another style, are you standing up for a weaker culture or being a cloddish culture cop?

Whatever cultural appropriation is, or is not, it certainly does capture a lot of attention in the media and has become a catalyst for much debate these days. And recent brouhahas have erupted over clothing styles in very public ways.

Israeli pop singer Netta Barzilai won Eurovision 2018 and faced a backlash because, among other things, she wore a kimono and bunned her hair in a Japanese style. Is it right and proper for a  young Israeli woman to go on TV and wear such clothing? Is it cheeky and cute, or crass?

Utah high school senior Keziah Daum generated a flurry of anger as well as congratulations for choosing to wear a Chinese dress, a cheongsam, to her prom. She stated that she adored the style and had admired this type of dress in the past, but some people took her to task for wearing something without understanding its genesis. Other people supported her choice and felt that the criticism lobbed at this teen was unwarranted.

Pop diva Rhianna attended the Metropolitan Museum of Art gala Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, dressed in an outfit topped with a hat (resembling a mitre) that was rather Papal, and while some applauded her look, others said it was greatly disrespectful.

There are many other examples in recent years that reveal the tension between people wearing and adorning themselves with outfits, jewelry, makeup and hairstyles that are from “someone else’s closet.” Should Caucasian and Asian people feel free to do up their hair in cornrows and dreadlocks? Is it insulting for anyone other than Native Americans to don a feathered headdress? (No one seems bothered by beaded moccasins.) Is it plain wrong for non-Jews to wear prayer shawls on their shoulders or red Kabbalah strings on their wrists? We could go on and on.

One thing I have noticed throughout this debate, at least of late, is that much more criticism is aimed at women, and especially young women, for their cross-cultural fashion experiments. When David Bowie wore a Spanish-style hat and pants, or Japanese styled costumes, or a bindi-like decoration on his forehead, he was praised for his far-reaching creativity. Were people more willing to shrug off the implications of his cultural borrowings in the 1970 and 1980s? Is the current heated atmosphere an outgrowth of 1990s-era accusations of political incorrectness?

Cultural appropriation has also sparked arguments when it comes to restaurants and recipes; professional sports teams and mascots (hence the Cleveland Indians and Chief Wahoo, the Washington Redskins as well); and how about music and dance? Rock ‘n roll and jazz stem largely from African and African-American musical traditions, but they also bring in folk music, country and western, and other genres. Plenty of people have debated the value of white rappers, black country music stars (disclosure: I adore Darius Rucker), Jewish reggae singers (Matisyahu most prominently) and many others. Fashion is the most prominent and current lightning rod for this debate.

Do we slam drag queens and especially RuPaul Charles for cultural appropriation of women’s fashion by men? Milton Berle would be laughing it up uproariously, for all his cross-dressing (especially to black-and-white TV audiences). And Klinger of the movie and TV show MASH as well. Their characters and get-ups are categorized as humor, so they seem to get away with it much more. And with the drag queen phenomenon, it seems a genuine expression of identity for these men; dozens are known for extremely elaborate clothes and costumes, sets and wigs, and they even stylize their behavior and movement. (“Sashay” and “shantay”)

Batting around the cultural appropriation in clothing debate also beggars this question: what is the “default” clothing style in any modern society? If someone deviates from a bland palette of styles, are they muscling in on someone else’s cultural territory? How delicately and integrally are identity and fashion still interwoven today? Can’t we just all wear Chinese dresses and slippers, Italian suits, Cherokee-influenced jewelry, and bolero pants?

A bigger issue does rears its head when a style is worn with a sense of mockery. If drunk white frat boys and sorority girls don sombreros on Cinco de Mayo, is that just plain vulgar? When Zara sold a children’s t-shirt that resembled a concentration camp uniform top, there was an outcry. When Rachel Dolezal was in the news for dubbing herself “trans-black,” and dressing the part, she had scorn heaped upon her source of identification and she was branded a fraud.

Cries of “cultural appropriation” have been ridiculed, derided, made into memes that mock those who are “guilty” of the act as well as those who find people guilt of doing it. Are some people “crying wolf” too often and showing a lack of humor or goodwill? Are some people so cloddish that they commit the cultural appropriation faux pas way too often? Or is it that the current socio-political climate is too fraught and tense?

High school students learn about “cultural diffusion,” the process of spreading cultural practices to other groups. The “melting pot” of the United States is not a static vision. It is difficult at times to say when a fashion statement is a genuine attempt at integrating one’s wardrobe and style, or if it is an insensitive power grab. After all, some people see it as a manifestation of “living in an extremely diverse community,” and that “so many people are a mix of many backgrounds” anyway, so perhaps just being open minded about fashion is the tactful response.

There is no easy way to navigate through this because fashion, for many people, is very important and nearly sacred. And because… opinions.


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