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Wearing Cultures: A Four Step Guide to Avoiding (In)appropriation

Annie in dirndl

You shouldn’t wear that.

Whether it’s a magazine article admonishing women over thirty to remove crop tops from their closet, or a school dress code demanding that girls keep their kneecaps under wraps; we women are often confronted with arbitrary rules on what not to wear. And for the most part, they’re bullshit.

I am generally of the opinion that women should dress however they want, except when it involves the inappropriate “borrowing” from marginalized cultures. It is perhaps the only time when I think it may be necessary for women, in the spirit of respect and camaraderie, to follow a set of clothing guidelines. It may also be the only time when the words of the Apostle Paul can be successfully used as a feminist slogan: “I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful.” (CEB)

And indeed, cultural appropriation can be incredibly unhelpful and even harmful to women of color and oppressed cultural groups. While it may be “edgy” or “fashionable” for a white woman to tuck her hair under a turban or place a bindi on her forehead, women of color often face very different, prejudiced reactions for appropriately wearing the same cultural artifacts. This reality speaks to one of the biggest objections to cultural appropriation: the epistemic violence of “speaking for” marginalized groups.

In most situations, I believe that that this violence is completely unintentional. I also believe that while “violence” may be an accurate description of the phenomenon, it is also highly inflammatory, putting many women on the defensive. Before continuing, I want to emphasize that it is not my intention to shame women for their clothing choices. Cultural appropriation is a highly contentious subject, and too often, I have seen women publicly humiliated for committing cultural faux pas. I think this is unfortunate and largely unnecessary. While cultural appropriation is a serious issue, I do believe it is possible to hold each other accountable without being unkind or self-righteous.

With this in mind, the following discussion seeks to encourage a vulnerability that leads to true change, rather than producing a sense of shame and condemnation that leads to defensiveness and justification.

First, I think it is helpful to define what is meant by “cultural appropriation.” While several definitions are in circulation, in its most basic delineation, cultural appropriation is the act of “taking over…creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another” (Oxford Reference). Cultural appropriation, as a theoretical concept, is intrinsically neutral and often inevitable. The espadrille sandal, Tex-Mex food, and mathematics are all rather innocuous examples of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation only becomes problematic when power differentials come into play–when dominant groups begin inappropriately “borrowing” from marginalized cultures. Jesse Williams, in his recent BET speech, elucidated this injustice, eloquently stating “…we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.”

This is what makes cultural appropriation offensive–when we love black culture more than we love black people. When we fail to recognize that black women are often forced to assimilate to Eurocentric standards of beauty, while we white women have the luxury of adopting “ethnic” accessories, often without any appreciation or knowledge of their cultural significance.

And our ignorance has consequences.  With every unwitting instance of inappropriate appropriation, we reinforce oppressive hierarchies. Personally, I’d rather not be complicit in that practice. Furthermore, as a pin-up feminist, I believe I have an increased responsibility to avoid inappropriate appropriation since my aesthetic already borrows from a time when women, especially women of color, faced considerable discrimination.

With all that said, it can be incredibly difficult, both philosophically and pragmatically, to identify what constitutes inappropriate cultural appropriation. Philosophically, cultural appropriation is a dicey issue, principally because it’s difficult to establish what cultural appropriation is without first defining an “inside culture” and an “outside culture.” This dichotomy inevitably leads to essentialism, and as we know, there is no monolithic “Asian culture” or “Black culture.” So, how do we formulate distinctive groups without engaging in some form of stereotyping?

It’s tricky.

It’s a theoretical problem that causes some practical challenges as well.  For instance, how do I determine which culture “owns” a particular artifact? How do I know if my clothes reflect an appreciation for a particular culture or if I am engaging in inappropriate appropriation? Sometimes, it can be difficult to arrive at a definitive answer.

For this reason, I compiled a series of questions to help establish the cultural appropriateness of an outfit. When you find yourself wondering, “does this ensemble make me look offensive?” ask yourself:

  1. Do I identify with the culture I’m appropriating?

    Considering that cultural appropriation, by definition, involves borrowing from another culture, this particular question may seem superfluous. If I identify with a certain culture, presumably I couldn’t possibly be engaged in cultural appropriation. Right?

    Not necessarily.

    Many of us, especially those of us in the States, can trace our ancestries back to a myriad of sources. But simply being told that I have “Cherokee blood” doesn’t make it okay for me to don a headdress at Coachella. While many of us can claim nominal membership in various cultural groups, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we understand the history, speak the language, or suffer the same level of discrimination.

    We need to exercise some discretion when borrowing from the peripheral limbs of our family tree. For instance, I feel relatively comfortable appropriating German artifacts, having been exposed to the various traditions, songs, and language from my grandparents. I would not feel the same level of comfort borrowing from Native American customs.

    Also, it is important to recognize that individuals are often grafted into other cultural traditions through marriage, adoption, and the like. This is why it’s crucial not to assume that strangers are engaging in cultural appropriation just because their skin tone doesn’t appear to match their aesthetic.

    Did you answer “Yes”? Proceed to Question 4.

    Did you answer “No”? Proceed to Question 2

  2. Am I appropriating from a marginalized or an oppressed group?

    This may be the most salient question we can ask ourselves when determining the appropriateness of a given item of clothing. Unless you identify as Native American, Black, or Asian, there’s really no good reason to wear artifacts traditionally associated with these and other historically oppressed groups.

    Now some may insist that a few European cultures, including the Irish and the Germans, have been victims of discrimination in the United States. And while that may be true, I would argue that this is no longer the case; moreover, many Americans can claim Irish or German heritage. By contrast, Native Americans, Black Americans, and Asian Americans still represent minority populations and continue to combat systemic racism in the U.S. Consequently, appropriating leprechauns and dirndls really isn’t tantamount to appropriating “Indian” chiefs and kimonos.  The former is acceptable, the latter…not so much.

    *As an aside, I think it’s significant to note that cultural oppression is culturally contingent; an ostracized group in one society may be the dominant culture in another.

    Did you answer “Yes”? Tentatively proceed to Question 3.

    Did you answer “No”? Wear it!

  3. Who made the products I’m appropriating and where were they made?

    Who is profiting from the clothes I’m appropriating? Is it the original culture or Western corporations? Unfortunately, some companies inappropriately borrow from a cultural tradition and then utilize sweatshop labor in the very country whose customs they are appropriating. It’s a form of double exploitation.

    Alternatively, there are companies who actively invest in the women who work for them. For instance, organizations like Punjammies and isanctuary provide economic opportunities for survivors of sex trafficking in India. I believe that while some of these clothes and accessories may be considered examples of cultural appropriation, to the extent that these products raise awareness and support women, I believe that they are appropriate.

    If the products you’re wearing benefit marginalized women and facilitate awareness of social justice issues: Wear it.

    Anything else: Don’t wear it.

  4. Am I using the cultural artifact in the way in which it was intended?

    This question is especially relevant when appropriating religious attire and symbols. The bindi, the Native American war bonnet, and even the rosary all have particular religious significance. As such, employing them outside of a spiritual context is probably in poor taste. Similarly, using items like chopsticks as hair accessories is not particularly respectful either.

    Did you answer “Yes”? Go for it.

    Did you answer “No”? Don’t wear it.

If you come to the end of this guide and are still feeling unsure, my advice is to put down the article of clothing and pick up a book on the culture it represents–not so much in the spirit of “better safe than sorry” but with the knowledge that it is better to appreciate than appropriate. Better still? Become an advocate.

What are your thoughts? Are there any questions you would add to the guide?

Get the Look: Dirndl-inspired DressAnnie in dirndl

Dress: Bernie Dexter (Manor print-pictured), (Fox print). (Texas print)

Necklace: Vintage (similar)

Shoes: Jessica Simpson

This Bernie Dexter dress makes me want to run across some green hills while belting “The Sound of Music.” Almost. I even think Maria would be impressed by the craftsmanship of Bernie’s dresses, even if they aren’t made out of curtains…This particular style is also accommodating of larger busts (I’m a 32E) which I know is often a concern for Bernie Dexter fans. Never fear: this style has you covered. For reference, I measure 36-25-36 and took a size Small. Sizes range from XS-4X.