Ready-To-Wear Cultural Assimilation

Sarah wrote this in the comments section of the last post:

“PB, Here’s a question I’ve been stewing over since reading this (and other recent) posts re: muumuus, caftans, Hawaiian Shirts, etc. I think a muumuu or Hawaiian shirt is great if you’re Hawaiian. Otherwise it has an inauthentic tinge to it. Clothes associated with a culture other than one’s own have the potential to look very out-of-place on one’s body. For me, this begs the question: What is “good etiquette” regarding wearing clothes associated with cultures and ethnicities other than one’s own? Like a white non-Latina non-Spanish speaking minister who wears a Guatemalan woven dress (and hasn’t been to Guatemala), or a non-Indian wearing a salwar khamise to a professional meeting. I think some issues that need to be taken into account are one’s relationship to a culture and the context in which the clothing item was received/acquired. Also, to be frank, whether the wearer is “posing”–trying to appropriate some of the “vibe” or stereotypes about a culture into their own vibe.Personally, I’ve sometimes felt like a poser when I’ve worn clothes associated with ethnicities other than my own (I can legitimately claim Jewish, Scottish, and English ethnic clothes. Yay for grandmotherly head scarves, riding pants, and tartans!) What do you and others think and feel about this issue?”

Dear Sarah,

PB just today bought an adorable scarf at an outlet store. As she tried it out in her hair, the lady at the cash register said, “Some people can pull that look off, but most people can’t. You can.” Quoth I, “Well, I come from a long line of babushka-wearing women from Eastern Europe so I come by it naturally.”

PeaceBang, you see, feels ethnic enough on her own without having to borrow other people’s ethnicities to give her some mojo.

I think you put it perfectly. Sometimes wearing clothing from another culture can be a compliment, a tribute, an expression of affinity (like when you just plain LOVE that dashiki and it feels it belongs on you). A lot of the time, however, people don ethnic garb with a smug preciousness as if to say, “Look at how down with the people I am in my little Guatamalan hat.”
When they do that, I want to pinch them. I think you’re right, Sarah. There’s a lot of “vibe appropriation” going on out there, and as much as I don’t want to live in a world of Eddie Bauer and Dockers, I also don’t want to go to another gathering of liberals and be treated to the self-satisfied mug of the old white guy in the kimono, if you know what I’m saying.

Dudes and dudesses, if you scored that Indian shirt while on tour with the Maharishi, okay. Props to you (mostly because you can still fit into it). But if you have no personal, experiential connection to the garb, or an ethical relationship to the people who would customarily wear that garb, please.
Give it a rest.

9 Replies to “Ready-To-Wear Cultural Assimilation”

  1. Love it, love it, love it! Preach on, PB! I just hate seeing the aging lefties in our presbytery sporting their Central American fair trade while trying to peddle the same. It looks stupid.

  2. good post. thanks ladies. I guess I have felt the same way but never actually put into words.. like I think an African American woman looks beautiful in a caftan (?) and turban and love the look, I’m pretty sure I would just look stupid in it.

    But, I do love Eddie Bauer.

  3. Wow, “smug old white guy in the kimono” image – too weird, and now it is etched on the brain. Yick.

    Thanks for the fine post. As someone who has more ties to kilts than anything resembling a kaftan, I love to look at cultural dress. I enjoy absorbing the visual richness and wondering about how that form of dress evolved in that society. I figure if I can’t claim direct experience or at least understanding, I should not risk looking like I do. It is all too easy to fail miserably.

    I’ve been thinking about this with regards to stoles as well. While the kente cloth stoles in the catalogs and on many colleagues look great, I know I am way too white girl to begin to feel comfortable in them.

    I find this can translate to clerical dress, too. Some years ago, I noticed a trend in the Guatemalan stoles – many people gave them as gifts because they are pretty and fairly inexpensive for their strong visual impact, as well as having a certain “Look at my cultural diversity” factor. I have at least one such stole – which was a gift from another colleague – but on some gut level, I hesitate to wear it for church.

    I don’t think any of the potential for wearable assimilation is a hard and fast rule – outside of the very important question of does an item help you look and serve your best. Gifts should have various degrees of dispensation.

  4. I have spent some time in Guatemala and speak Spanish but definitely have Scandanavian coloring so I was pleased to meet up with a Guatemalan weaver who had noticed that gringas had other color preferences than are common there. She had woven a stole in various blues and some black rather than the bright multicolors that are more common. So I have a stole with Guatemalan designs and crafting woven especially for Yanks. Actually, though, most of the stoles are woven for gringos and gringas and provide a living for the women who weave and a way to continue old crafts and work with the babies nearby. Buying them helps third world women if you buy direct or from a co-op. So better that than a tartan made from slave labor in China!

  5. Thanks, faithful reader. I appreciate your points. I’ll have to ask my brothers to look at the tags on their family tartan kilts. The guys look great in them with or without the need to be dressed up for a special event, such as their respective weddings.

  6. Some further thoughts I’ve had since I brought this up:

    We live in a multi-cultural world where the boundaries of culture and ethnicity are not hard-and-fast. Styles of clothes flow between cultures through time and in the US get all mixed and matched. I think it would be silly for most contemporary Americans to only dress in traditional styles associated with their ethnic heritage(s). But it’s also often silly when they (we) wear other cultures’ clothes to look “exotic.”

    Another thought I had is connected to cultural appropriation. Some American ethnic communities, especially some immigrant communities, preserve a distinctive way of dressing which expresses their identity. If people of other ethinicities start appropriating their styles of clothing, it risks taking away some of the special feelings that the original wearers get from their distinctive clothes. A piece of identity gets obscured. I noticed this at a wedding when a friend of Indian descent wore a sari–and sitting a few pews over from her were two white women who wore saris to the event “for fun”–because it was something exotic to do. My friend was not pleased.

    Another thought: There’s a role for the minister (especially a white minister) in looking approachable and welcoming to people of many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. I don’t think dressing like a multicultural mannequin is the best way to do this, but I also don’t think that wearing only Northern European clothes is the answer, either. Perhaps the key is to wear clothes that are reflective of our selves, our ministry, and the congregations we are trying to create? Tall order.

    My oh my, clothes do communicate a lot. Good thing PeaceBang is here helping us out with all this.

  7. This is a very interesting subject. I like your approach… I will definitely be back to display a more appropiate comment.

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