It’s almost Halloween, and that means we’re all once again trawling costume shops, thrift stores, closets, and (god forbid) Yandy.com for disguises. Thinking about being a sexy pineapple this year? Mildly alluring scrabble board? Whatever, be my guest. But I’d think twice if I were you before putting on that Native American headdress you picked out of the bin at Party Central. There’s more to it than you think.
The line between what some term “cultural appreciation” and others call “cultural appropriation” is sometimes thin in the world of fashion. If fashion is art, as some argue, perhaps it’s wrong to place limits on its “taste” (this depends, of course, on your view of art’s autonomy from politics). Some have pushed back against the use of terms like “cultural appropriation,” which are sometimes seen as attempts to police what (white) mainstream culture consumers can and cannot do. This is far from the case: there is no immovably right or wrong way to approach cultural inspiration in fashion, since global capitalism has promised the instantaneous, largely effortless movement of images from most parts of the world. It would be unrealistic and undesirable to push for a ban on taking inspiration from other cultures, which is both inevitable and also potentially positive. But we have to talk about intentionality and careful consideration. Thinking about what makes something cultural appropriation gets at the uneven power structures (often race- and culture-based) that shape not only the realm of fashion, but of all political and cultural forms of expression.
To put it bluntly, “borrowing” becomes appropriation when it also (lazily) imports stereotypes and predetermined meanings. When a designer uses a shape from another sartorial tradition (like, say, a designer putting a mandarin collar on an evening gown) but transforms it into something new, this happens on a design level and not necessarily a conceptual or ideological level. Ralph Lauren’s design does not inherently include a commentary on Chinese culture, though critics can read this back into the design if they wish. On the other end of the spectrum, Katy Perry dressing like a geisha and putting on yellow-face creates a parody of an entire subset of culture that she does not understand. This may seem harmless, but it is not. It is not “just a costume.” It turns a tradition into a joke, and it does the worst, laziest kind of cultural work: assuming that many complex moving parts of a society, which are also historically specific, can be rolled into one image to sell something entirely unrelated. Adding insult to, well, insult: the person doing the appropriating usually benefits from a power structure (whiteness) that allows them to get away with it while invoking the history of domination and exploitation that underlies the relationship between, say, whiteness and the geisha. In doing so, Perry’s actions are a claim to knowledge she doesn’t have, and they make use of stereotypes (submissiveness, willing sexual promiscuity, doll-like qualities) that have real, damaging consequences for other women. As a performer, Perry has the power to put on this “costume” and use its stereotypes to market her music. But she also has the privilege of taking the “costume” off—while those who lived in that context, and who suffered the consequences of uneven systems of power, cannot.
Please no, Katy Perry – via Tumblr
All this brings me to the one night when clothing becomes a seeming free-for-all: Halloween. Cultural appropriation gaffes crop up every year without fail. The conversation about it is obviously far from over, though I hope that it’s steadily improving. Whether it’s Duke University students throwing an “Asian” costume party with rice paddy hats, or Julianne Hough dressing up in blackface (!!), this kind of thing still happens all the time. Most of the time, these costumes are offensive not because, for example, Asian people own the exclusive rights to wearing conical hats, but because rice paddy hats are not a cutesy accessory. They are tied to a history of labor—and, for example, the specific history of Asian labor that allowed American capitalists to exploit Chinese “coolies” while denying them basic rights. When someone puts on this hat for fun, they are making a political statement, whether they understand it or not. Similarly, Julianne Hough’s blackface costume of Suzanne/”Crazy Eyes” from Orange is the New Black was basically a clusterfuck of troubling appropriation. Did I mention it was blackface? I mean, WHAT about the history of abuse and subjugation of black people by white Americans (historically expressible in blackface performance) screams “fun costume” to you? By turning this character into a costume that anyone could casually put on, Hough elided the broad concepts of mental illness in prisons, the treatment of black women who don’t have access to advocacy, and blackface minstrelsy (!!)—not to mention the whole point of the show, which is to illuminate the stories, pain, and love of people not usually considered or remembered by society as a whole.
Goodbye, Julianne Hough via E! Online
Thankfully, most people recognized Hough’s costume immediately as an egregious mistake. Her appropriation of black identity is an extreme, and extremely visible, example. The vast majority of those who dress up on Halloween (who dress themselves at all, for that matter) seem fairly conscious of a line that should not be crossed. But don’t think of this line just because it feels politically correct. Don’t perform sensitivity to the demands of other cultures just for the sake of politeness. This Halloween (and really, for the rest of your life), remember that appropriative costumes erase important histories, important sufferings, and important identities for the sake of one night’s “fun.” There’s a deep meaning behind the choices you make, whether you’re aware of them or not. It’s never just a costume.
The original version of this article appeared on the fashion blog Dressed.So
Want more smart writing on why it sucks to, you know, put on that war bonnet or kimono? Check out Native Appropriations, a blog on cultural “borrowing.”