Outfit Post: 7/14/13


Tunic: Swap — Pants: Punjammies — Sandals: Dansko — Hat and ring: Target — Necklace: Thrifted — Earrings: Nervous System


I’ve been thinking a lot about garments and cultural appropriation again, largely fueled by this article about Punjammies and marketing that I linked to a couple of weeks ago. So-called “tribal” prints and garments have been trendy for a while now–Feministing talked about them back in 2008, and there was the Urban Outfitters “Navajo” grossness back in 2010–and I’ve made a point not to purchase items that are marketed with “tribal” in the name or similar “othering” language in the marketing. But what about other cases?


Is it okay if the garments aren’t marketed as “tribal” but have similar designs and influences? Is it okay if the manufacturers clearly cite their inspiration and give (unspecified) royalties to those that inspired them? Is it okay if I know the names for the different garments, patterns, and symbols on the clothes I choose to buy? Is it okay for me to wear something that’s made by a Native designer rather than Forever 21?


At some point, though, I have to ask myself whether I’m really just playing hot-and-cold in the form of “how much appropriation can I get away with and not feel bad about myself?” As a self-involved person of privilege, I have that privileged tendency to make everything about myself, when really–this isn’t about me. It’s about the people who are hurt and disenfranchised when their garments, patterns, and symbols are appropriated by those who stigmatized them for having those garments, patterns, and symbols in the first place.


I can hear you saying “DUH,” and I know this is pretty Privilege 101 stuff, but I guess this is the best place I have for working it out, and it’s an ongoing process. There’s no Comprehensive Guide for Poor Confused White Girls that says, “If you wear A, B, and C garments, that’s appropriative for now and all time, but D, E, and F garments are a-OK for now and all time, and if you follow these rules you will never ever be racist or exploitative.” People from the same cultural background may disagree on appropriation based on class, hometown, religion, and the thousands of other factors that go into, you know, making people different from each other. Even marginalized people, who non-marginalized people tend to assume all have some sort of spooky hivemind together.


Folks don’t talk about cultural appropriation as some series of traps for white people. They talk about it because it hurts them. I always want to take care to consider the harm I am doing in the world, intentionally or not. “I didn’t mean to” only means so much after a while. Privilege means I could walk away from this conversation and never think about it again, and it probably wouldn’t impact my life at all. I don’t see the signs and symbols of my heritage being taken out of context by people who think they’re being fashionable or edgy.


I don’t think it’s possible to navigate life without making mistakes, but if those mistakes have serious racial and cultural implications, it’s important for me to pay attention when somebody says that what I’m doing hurts them. Otherwise, what am I doing here?


8 thoughts on “Outfit Post: 7/14/13

  1. I’ve thought a good deal about this stuff, too. I tried on a dress the other day that was very obviously modeled after a safari and felt really uncomfortable about it. I do own one “southwestern”/tribal print skirt, and I actually got it just before the summer I spent working with a tribe, and then felt super weird/guilty/etc. about wearing it around that summer. I guess for me it’s more fluid, and I try to consider whether I feel appropriate wearing something before deciding to buy it. Anyway, I do love your outfit! That tunic is great.

  2. Perfect, Mia, both in content and fashion sense. I love this outfit, and I really like just saying, “Punjammies.” I never want to wear anything that offends, even intentionally, people of other cultures that the designer of my article of clothing might have (intentionally or unintentionally) copied. We have many Indian garments available at our local thrift stores, and many are beyond gorgeous, but I always wonder if it would be offensive to wear them. Bottom line, I’m not sure, because they were donated to GW, but I stay clear.

    Love ya,

  3. Like Lynne, I’ve faced the Indian clothing in Goodwill delimma. However, I’ve actually bought pieces and worn them before. They’re comfortable, they’re pretty. I got nice compliments from Indian people on them, and even some thanks for giving them inspiration on how to wear their traditional stuff in a more modern way.

    I think it depends so much on the details. I try to be careful and respectful when wearing anything. I’m not going out in a warbonnet, but I’m also not going to agonize endlessly about the million things I can’t fix, as much as it pains me.

    The world sucks in a lot of ways. Racism is becoming more and more of a visible issue (media and whatnot) so it’s important to be sensitive.

  4. rubybastille says:

    To me, the appropriation issue gets cloudier when you get into prints in general. I also wouldn’t buy anything that was specifically “tribal,” unless it did benefit a Native designer/organization, but what about a general-use print like ikat? Tons of cultures have a history of creating ikat-print fabrics, and Indonesia is seeking UNESCO recognition for their method. Is ikat popular and multicultural enough that I don’t need to feel bad about wearing it, or is wearing any kind of non-white-people-designed print ultimately a form of appropriation? And what about batiks or paisley or even tie-dye?

  5. I’ve been thinking about this a lot! I’m late to the discussion because I was in Southeast Asia for the past three weeks, and I’m just catching up on my blogging today. I definitely saw a lot of the “benevolent white women helping poor Asian women by teaching them to make their traditional textiles and sell them to other white women and labeling them fair trade so they can charge three times the market rate,” and it was hard to know what to make of them. The description I provided is hyperbolic, but I do wonder how much good these kind of projects do. There were clearly local women making the textiles, selling them in the shops, and giving tours and even workshops on the techniques (I took one of the workshops on silk weaving in Laos). I’d like to think the groups do some good, but are there more efficient ways of raising people out of poverty that leave more agency in the hands of the locals?

    I felt a bit more comfortable in the night markets, where some stuff is cheap factory-made crap, but you can also see that some stuff is handmade and sold by people who at least claim to be related to the people who make it, and I felt more confident that those families were getting the money for their work. I bought a couple ikat weave scarves, but I shied away from the more traditional Hmong skirts and even traditional Lao skirts, which many Lao women wear with t-shirts every day. I would feel comfortable wearing a scarf with a traditional (but not religiously significant) design that I could then have as a statement piece in a western outfit, but wearing a Lao dress or skirt would seem too much like a costume.

    In Bangkok, I saw quite a few young women wearing large-ish cross jewelry. Some seemed to be tourists from East Asian countries, and some seemed to be Thais. Since none of those countries have particularly large Christian populations, I was curious about whether this was appropriation from western culture or if they were Christians. I am a Christian, and it was interesting to think about my reaction to people appropriating that symbol. (I choose not to wear cross jewelry because it is a painful symbol to me, and making it into pretty jewelry seems to desensitize one to its meaning, but that is my own personal problem, and I’m getting off-topic rapidly.) I didn’t have a strong negative reaction, but I definitely saw that kind of appropriation in a way I hadn’t before. (And maybe they were all Christians-I’m making assumptions based on demographics, but that’s not foolproof.)

  6. Okay, so the tribal thing drives me effing nuts. I don’t know whether to wear it or not, and I have a dress that has sort of a southwestern print… and I was iffy on getting that. I don’t even think it looks tribal, just like something someone in Arizona would wear and look totally normal.

    My father’s side of the family is a good percentage Native American, but doesn’t claim it. So I don’t know if I can wear tribal-y things or if it would be bad. What if I want to buy a tribal print dress? Arrrgh.

    When I was studying abroad in Japan I didn’t even know if I should buy the traditional hair clips and decorations. I decided it must be okay when I started getting tons of them as gifts from friends and their families. I also have a yukata, although I wouldn’t wear it for anything other than tea…

    Oh, and I have a sari, too, but I think that’s not completely frowned upon, just considered odd. But my best friend is Indian and her parents bought it for me. And I need something to wear to her brother’s wedding (who is not even engaged yet, but still).


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