Is it Okay to Wear Traditional Clothing From Other Cultures?

“My culture is not a costume”– you’ve probably heard a version of this phrase before. In 2011, the University of Denver and University of Ohio launched a campaign raising awareness around cultural appropriation through costume. The poster series, “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume,” depicted different offensive outfits being worn by white individuals, next to students from those cultures or races. “You think it’s harmless, but you’re not the target” the first collection of posters read. The next year the campaign updated to showcase more examples of  appropriation and racism, with the words; “You wear the costume for one night. I wear the stigma for life.” Later, in 2017, Teen Vogue ran a video campaign highlighting this continued issue. It’s been made clear that wearing another culture’s harmful stereotype as a costume is undoubtedly harmful, but what about donning traditional clothing? Is there a way to honor a culture through clothing without appropriating?

Cultural Appropriation and Its Effects

The MATTER team came together recently to discuss the difference between appreciation and appropriation, defining the latter as something which occurs “when certain aspects of a culture are selected and ‘cherry-picked’ as a trend, with no consideration given to their original significance or context.” Context is key in deciphering what is or isn’t cultural appropriation. Without knowledge of where a garment or outfit came from within a culture, wearing those pieces of clothing trivializes the history of an entire group of people. Public educator and sustainable fashion community member who has written at length on the subject, specifically within the realm of appropriation of Japanese culture Emi Ito. Through her large social media platform and guest contributions to publications, she’s painstakingly unpacked the detrimental effects of cultural appropriation through clothing– especially the kimono. “To invoke the name of a deeply significant cultural item, the kimono, without the consideration of how Japanese Americans were made to feel inferior and in many cases forced to assimilate, is hurtful and renders the history of Japanese Americans invisible,” she wrote in a piece Densho (which started a dialogue within the MATTER team itself.) It’s no secret that the fashion industry has a long history of appropriation and “the voices of those being harmed have been silenced and pushed aside,” Ito has explained. There’s no quick fix to the longstanding and deeply flawed system, however, the industry and individuals must start doing more research if they want to understand how to avoid further damage. Sometimes that means finding and reading the work of women like Ito, and sometimes that means talking to people you already know about their cultural history– if, and only if they are interested in having the conversation. Rajhon White, resident director at the University of Denver pointed out that “we live in a time where you can Google anything. You shouldn’t be reliant on those marginalized to explain. That work should be done by the person seeking that knowledge,” when speaking to The Washington Post last year. Whatever route is taken, listening is key. Moving the industry away from cultural appropriation will require a lot of listening in order to undo the false narrative we’ve become accustomed to of inspiration and intention being reason enough to take whatever we want for ourselves.

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Accepting vs. Taking Traditions

The only situation in which wearing another culture’s traditional clothing seems plausible is when accepting an invitation to participate in traditional activities. For instance, if you’re attending a wedding in Northern India and accept or purchase a traditional saree, lehenga, or salwar kameez for the occasion. Although I absolutely cannot speak for anyone within the culture, it seems this would be an appropriate time to dawn the culture’s apparel. Malaka Gharib, deputy editor and digital strategist of NPR’s Goats and Soda, spoke on this topic a couple of years ago through personal experience. As a Filipino woman with a white husband, throwing her Tatay a “barrio fiesta-themed bash” presented some challenges when it came to attire. After thoughtful discussion, she decided it would be culturally appropriate for Darren, her husband, to wear a barong (“an embroidered shirt woven from pineapple leaf fibers”) to the party. “Seeing Darren in that barong, standing next to my Tatay in his, showed me that he was making an effort to understand and connect with my family,” she revealed. When done right, wearing another culture’s traditional clothing can become an act of solidarity.

Now, if you wear said garment to a themed party, or worse, a costume party, you are treading into deeply controversial waters. Additionally, even if you are invited or given another culture’s traditional garments, understanding the significance of each piece is imperative. “Find out what that clothing, design, print or jewelry symbolizes within the culture and what it might mean for an outsider to wear it,” Mayra Monroy, an adjunct professor at Baylor University, discussed with NPR. As much as cultural appreciation, over appropriation, must start with the right intentions, it’s a moot point if there is no effort to understand the context and significance of a garment within a culture that is not your own. “If you’re [not] wearing it as part of a cultural exploration or education, you should be hesitant,” Erich Hatala Matthes, an assistant professor of philosophy at Wellesley College who studies the ethics of cultural heritage, told Gharib. Tread lightly.

Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance content creator and manager. Audrey is incredibly passionate about conscious fashion and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.

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