28 April 2010 – Feminist Intersection: Appropriate vs. Appropriation?

April 27th, 2010 § 45 comments

28 April 2010 , originally uploaded by academichic.


  • Navy blazer – J.Crew
  • Gold shimmery top – Old Navy thrifted
  • Maroon purse – Picard, thrifted
  • Jeans – S.Oliver
  • Wedges – Report, via Solestruck.com
  • Gold and pearl necklace – gift from mom
  • Earrings – UO, gift from A.


This is what I wore the other night to a girls’ night dinner followed by a concert (John Butler Trio puts on a mean show!) The shimmery gold top and gold accessories were perfect for the concert venue, but the navy blazer toned things down a bit for the pre-show drinks and food. And I also have to add that if you’re going to be standing on your feet and dancing in place for several hours and want to wear heels – wedges are the way to go.

Details 1, originally uploaded by academichic.
Details 2, originally uploaded by academichic.

I used to be wary of wearing gold accessories and have only recently embraced this trend. The reason being that the few times I wore gold (especially in the form of big hoop earrings), I would get told by well intentioned people and without a trace of irony, ‘you look like a gypsy’. This would especially happen when wearing my hair down, long and curly. For some reason, this statement always made me feel a wee bit uncomfortable. As E. would say, ‘there is a lot here to unpack’.

I suppose that it’s easy to gloss over statements like these when ‘gypsies’ are mythical figures from Disney movies, stories like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and popular Halloween costumes. But it carries a different connotation when you’re aware of the actual group of people, Roma and Sinti, who form a disadvantaged and disenfranchised minority in most European countries. Romania, my birth country, hosts the largest population of Roma and Sinti in Europe and the racial and ethic tensions between Romanians and Roma is rife. So it makes me somewhat uneasy when I’m told that I am unintentionally appropriating symbols of ‘exoticism’ from a culture that I know little about and that has such tenuous relations with my birth country.

Add to that this recent article in the feminist magazine Bitch, that sparked a huge controversy in the comments section and has given me even more pause when wearing garments and symbols that could be construed as appropriating another (disadvantaged) culture’s artifacts. While I don’t entirely agree with the position taken by this article’s author, I do think that it’s worth exploring the role that fashion and the media plays in disseminating tokens of a specific culture and turning them into articles of mass consumption, completely divorced from their original meaning and symbolism.

Yes, that’s a lot to unload on you just to say that I’ve steered away from gold accessories in the past. But, really, this is more about my thinking of how certain symbols of exoticism come to signify ‘Otherness’ and how that meaning remains ever-present due to popular media and an all too often lack of reflection regarding the things we wear. I have no answers or concrete conclusions, I’m just trying to think about what this means for my own appearance and for the way I sometimes (even quite unintentionally) present to others.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter! S.

Post Script: Thanks to reader Amie for pointing me towards this great post over on a l’allure garconniere on cultural appropriation in particular to Native culture. I agree with much of what Julia writes in her post, especially about the importance of context and of making self-conscious sartorial choices. It’s the thoughtless appropriation that leads to reductionist assumptions of Other cultures that is harmful and it’s for those reasons that I like Julia’s points about asking yourself the following questions when incorporating tokens from another culture or group (I’m paraphrasing here):

  • how are you incorporating these items into your existing outfit? Are you creating a romanticized and fantasized depiction of a cultural persona that has little to do with the actual group or person you’re emulating?
  • are the items you’re including mass produced by a company that has unethical business practices in some far away factory but is selling these ‘ethnic’ goods as ‘authentic’ cultural artifacts?
  • are you asking yourself what it is about a particular ethnic aesthetic that appeals to you and why? and why you associate these particular associations with a given ethnic group and their aesthetic?

I suggest taking a look at Julia’s entire post here and also checking out the recommended reading sources she lists at the end of her post if you’re interested in further exploring this topic. Great post and thanks for pointing us that way, Amie! S.

28 April 2010 , originally uploaded by academichic.

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§ 45 Responses to 28 April 2010 – Feminist Intersection: Appropriate vs. Appropriation?"

  1. Nadine says:

    Well, firstly, you look SUPER-cute!!

    Secondly, probably like everyone really, I think ‘other’-culture stuff is cool and beautiful. BUT if I see anything being inappropriately used from a culture I am familiar with (specifically Maori), I get really annoyed. Either you don’t know better and it doesn’t bother you, or you DO know better and other people’s mis-usage bothers you!

  2. Amie says:

    Great post. I’ve been seeing a lot about cultural appropriation lately. Julia over at a l’allure garçonnière wrote a particularly thought provoking post on the subject which I can thoroughly recommend. I personally think that if you’re not wearing the item for gimmick effect, you’ve taken the time to find out the cultural significance and it’s not blatantly offensive then there shouldn’t be a problem. Plus if it ends up being a conversation starter, it might even give you the chance to educate a few people.

    And excellent choice of music too. I’ve seen JBT live a couple of times and they’re always awesome.

  3. Franca says:

    Hmmm, I don’t know. I haven’t got time now to read the article. I personally don’t really see a problem with using ‘other’-culture stuff (good phrase, Nadine!) in a way different from the way it was intended. I don’t have a problem with using ANY stuff differently from the way it is intended. It’s the way culture works and develops. But then I don’t associate with any one culture, and identify myself in a sort of inbetweeny place, so I would say that. I can see that using religious symbols in very revealing clothes for example would be offensive for adherents of that religion.

    What I personally find much more problematic when people of an ‘other’ culture are reduced and essentiallised to their traditional clothes. At the moment, there are a posters in bus stops round where I live which depict various footballers with bare chests, body paint and ‘animal’ facial expressions in an advert tie in with the South Africa world cup. Because everyone in Africa walks around with a painted chest snarling at people all the time! And it’s not just Global South countries either: I cannot stand the way Scotland is marketed as this mythical place where everyone walks round in kilts, playing bagpipes and drinking whisky. I’d much rather see tartan imagery appropriated and messed with.

  4. Franca says:

    I meant to say: I haven’t had time to read the article, so I don’t know what points they are making!

  5. admin says:

    @Amie – thanks for pointing me towards that most awesome blog post! I wasn’t aware of the site and was excited to read her thoughts on the same issues that I was exploring in my post. Thanks again, great tip!

  6. Inés says:

    Hi Nadine!
    So Romania is your birth country? That’s why you’re so pretty! I have a friend from Galats who is a very nice girl. Don’t worry, I think you wear those earrings with a lot of style, and I think there’s nothing bad about wearing other cultures’s tokens in your day a day outfits. Fashion should be something personal, everyone should dress in a way they feel confortable and good looking at the same time. And we should be free to add some personal accessories even if they are symbols from another cultures, just because we like those things or because we like that culture and we want to have it in our thoughts during that day.

  7. This is interesting. I don’t mind “other” culture items. But I make sure that I don’t wear anything that other cultures will find intentionally (i.e. swastika shirts, etc.)

  8. This is a tough situation people have put you in by saying you look like a “gypsy.” First, because it is hard to respond to that comment unless you know the person well and can explain to them tactfully why it’s insensitive. Second, because I don’t see any reason why wearing gold jewelry alone should connote “gypsy.” This is a long way from wearing, say, a Native American headdress, which threadbared discussed recently:
    (They also link to several other articles on the subject that have been helping me think through this issue.)

    The way you’ve styled the gold accessories above certainly doesn’t read to me as cultural appropriation. I think you look great, and you seem to have already asked yourself all the questions you introduce in the post script. If you’d added, say, a stack of gold bangle bracelets, I could begin to see the line blurring. I think you’ve shown that a good editorial eye is one of the important elements of wearing items that you recognize have the potential to be misunderstood in this way.

    (and on a much less thoughtful level, have you ever shared what product(s) you use in your hair when you wear it curly? it looks fantastic!)

  9. Someone says:

    Ok, here’s another angle, through a feminist lens: I have begun to feel recently, after a few decades as a feminist, that there is something creepy going on when fashion gets costumey…we may look at cultural markers of the other as you’re discussing here as something fun, to add interest – but I have begun to feel that on some level this practice activates the Western male’s self-entitlement to sexual variety and “exotic” female prey, a kind of sexual tourism made easy at home.

    Other constantly present tropes of exoticism are the animal print clichés we have to endure the pushing of every season as if they were a new discovery, the pressures we often feel to present “variety” in our dress in a way men don’t, the frequent references to the many “sides” of women’s personalities, as if we were being encouraged to be 10 women in one, as if we ourselves are never enough. It is particularly creepy that mass-market Halloween costumes are now largely little but repurposed stripper costumes.

    So I guess I’m thinking about the impetus for much of such appropriation, a different angle from what happens if/when we do it.

  10. Emily says:

    Hi Academichic,

    Well, this is a lot of food for thought, and so well written and well presented. I just wanted to say that this is why I enjoy your blog so much. I don’t find these kind of topics many other places.

    And I also wanted to say that I understand what you are saying. I’ve long known the historical roots of gypsies and the connotation of the term is often lost when people mean bohemian style. Boho style is seeing a resurgence so perhaps your post is even more relevant.

    I really appreciated the links to the other articles.

    Thanks for a good discussion.

    There IS Much to unpack. :)

  11. Sally says:

    I’ve given more thought to this mass of subjects as they pertain to tattoos than clothing. I see so many people with Asian, Hebrew, or other foreign characters inked onto their skin and know from conversations that many of them went to the parlor, picked out some flash, and trusted that the character really DID mean “harmony” or “luck” or whatever. I think it’s unwise to appropriate language and symbols that you don’t fully understand, especially in something as permanent as a tattoo.

  12. Alexis says:

    So glad you (and your camera!) are back.

  13. i’m not sure i have anything insightful to say given that i haven’t gotten my coffee yet (sigh…why does the academic brain not work pre-caffeine?) but i do have to say that you look so fabulous in jeans!

  14. aj says:

    Thanks for a great discussion once again — and the John Butler Trio is great!

  15. Elle Sees says:

    Cute, fun outfit!
    I’m slowly absorbing gold too–I don’t wear it very often.

  16. Courtney says:

    That was a really interesting article, thanks for posting about it. It did make me think: many times people have no problems being stereotypical in the same manner with “country” clothing (plaid flannel, overalls, kerchiefs, straw hats, cowboy boots, etc). However, having grown up in the rural south, sometimes those looks bother me. They always portray either a quasi-romantic lusty farmgirl aesthetic, or they portray a dumb hick aesthetic. It makes me even fiercer about not losing my southern accent as a counter to the stereotypes. But at the same time, as a person who looks for all the world like a generic white American, but who has a significant Native American heritage, how it it possibly to sartorially explore that heritage without politically correct bystanders getting their panties in a wad because they can’t see my ancestors for my red hair ? I hate having to explain myself to everyone, and wearing a sign that says “I am part Cherokee, I have a right to wear this.” seems overkill. :) Thoughts?

  17. Jane W. says:

    Great post, S. I live in New Mexico and interact with Native cultural forms every day, from architecture to food to jewelry. I could go on and on, but I’ll limit myself to my experiences with jewelry.

    There’s a huge demand around here for “dead pawn”—vintage jewelry that was never claimed from pawn shops and is therefore “dead” under federal law. I have received two such pieces as gifts, and always have mixed feelings about wearing them. A local Native writer has stated that “at best these pieces have poverty and desperation in their past and at worst, theft.”

    That’s one of the reasons I purchase only contemporary pieces at Native-owned stores or at the Pueblos. I also shop at those places because the artisans have had some say in how their culture is interpreted and distributed.

    It’s always a tough call, though. One the one hand, I’m supporting local artisans. However, I’m also supporting a tourism industry that originated with colonialism and is largely fueled by exoticizing the “Other.”

  18. Morgen says:

    First and foremost, I love this outfit, and I don’t think that the gold jewelry makes you “look like a gypsy,” at least not when they are paired with skinnies and a blazer. :)

    Second, I read the article that Amie suggested, and I’m not sure I agree with it. I was originally born in Ohio (in Gnadenhutten, the site of the largest Native American massacre during the Revolution), but I have lived in Arizona for the past 8 years. I went to high school here, and now I am in college here: and I have silver and turquoise jewelry and a Moon tattoo inspired by a necklace bought for me on a Reservation. Am I being trendy or racist? No. These accessories don’t only symbolize a Native culture, but they also symbolize the Southwestern region that I call home. I would like to think that these symbols are a part of MY culture, and they represent the land that I lovingly call home.

    I think if you read too much into things, if you think “oh, these earrings make me look like a gypsy,” or “this turquoise, opal, and silver ring is beautiful, and my birthstone, but I shouldn’t buy it just because I’m not Pueblo” (in reference to a gorgeous ring I just bought from a street vendor in Sante Fe), then you are severely limiting yourself. If I did that, I would be limited to kilts and lederhosen when I wanted to wear something “cultural”.

  19. admin says:

    Thank you, all, for all your thoughtful and insightful remarks!

    @Liz of Scholar Style Guide – to answer your hair question: yes, I have discussed my routine on here a couple of times as I was trying out new things. To sum up what I’ve come to after some trial and error – I was my hair 1 -2 times a week using a shampoo that doesn’t contains sulfates and conditioner without any silicones (you can find those at any organic goods store and also at Target!). I air dry my hair and use a bit of Garnier Nutris Curl Enhacing Foam in it. Hope that helps!

    @Someone – great comment. While I’ve thought about the ramifications of appropriating culture, I hadn’t considered the impetus for it as you see it – linked to this idea of woman performing many (sexualized) roles in a heteronormative and patriarchal society. I think there is definitely something there to your idea of this being a sort of sexual tourism one can engage in at home. I think the ‘gypsy’ costume is especially prone to that since the widespread connotations regarding ‘gypsies’ are of them being dark, mysterious, attractive, seductive, and sexually and morally free and uninhibited. But my only concern with your point (if I understood is correctly) is that it robs women of all agency and it implies that they’re always in the (desired/desirable) object position and that the male is always in the predatory subject position. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    @Courtney – thanks for chiming in with the Southern example, it’s one we don’t often think about but a very valid example as well! As for your thoughts on including Native tokens into your wardrobe although you pass as ‘white’ – this is why I said I didn’t entirely agree with Jessica’s article in Bitch Magazine. I don’t believe that you have to (visibly!) belong to a group or identity in order to partake in that group’s culture. That would be a very sad and limited way to live. I think the emphasis should lie on being aware and cognizant of your subject position and how you’re using certain cultural artifacts, which it sounds like you definitely are.

    (Sorry for such a long response, but you guys really got me thinking with your awesome comments!) S.

  20. jesse.anne.o says:

    I do remember reading the original article it was linked to and now have read the article that you just linked to.

    While I agree that really overt signifiers (headress) are pretty offensive if you have no cultural claim to them, I wonder about the less obvious stuff – like scarves, gold earrings, plain mocs (which look like modified penny loafers to me). It seems like the folks picking them out are usually doing it innocuously because, thanks to merchandise/manufacturing, they’re readily available in a retail context.

    How offensive the wearing of these things, in that blindspot retail context – and the context of how we wear things (i.e. had you been blonde, would that association have been made?) – is still confusing to me. I want to say we should never wear them, but I think that would entail being aware of all cultures’ wearables so we know not to appropriate or holding merchandisers accountable? I think some are more obvious than others (headdress, beaded mocs, the mexican embroidered sundress, saris, etc.)

    This is where I find it hard to come up with a realistic answer – because I don’t think all people who wear clothes are going to do this. I don’t even think a small number of people wearing clothes are going to do this.

    For full disclosure – I wore a pair of beaded mocs until they had a hole in them and didn’t really think anything of it, as they’ve been for sale via Minnetonka for years.

  21. I don’t mean to be shallow and ignore your valid point, but what lip color are you wearing in those pictures? I love it.

  22. admin says:

    @ Strange Attractor – haha, no offense taken that you’ve forgone my very ‘thoughtful’ post in favor of my lip color ;)

    Actually, thanks and I’m flattered, because I don’t wear any lip color. My daily routine is limited to Burt’s Bees Wax chapstick. The very best. S.

  23. Shay says:

    This is a very interesting discussion. I don’t know that I’ve consciously thought about things like this, but there are some things that I’ve been hesitant to try because I’m not familiar with the cultural connections, or because I would feel uncomfortable with the connections. My biggest example is kimono, since I am in no way Japanese in appearance.

    I hate to say this, but at some point, some symbols lose whatever cultural meaning they may have once had, or that meaning is replaced by a different meaning. A classic example is the Japanese manji (or swastika), which used to have many other associations throughout Asia, such as being associated with Buddhism. But you won’t find anyone wearing one today. This is an extreme example, of course, and I’m not trying to offend anyone. But I think it is something to think about. Can something lose its cultural connection enough to become ok to wear without thinking about it? Can a symbol make enough (slightly-altered) appearances in the fashion world so as to take on a new meaning?

    I keep trying to come up with examples. Celtic knots, dream-catchers, tribal tattoos, and Claddagh rings are a few of the examples I thought of.

    Either way, great discussion. I love that the academichic posts always get me thinking about what I wear.

  24. Kelly says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, actually.

    I think the problem comes when you wear something that is exclusive to one group or culture (or a small number of groups).

    For example, there are birds all over the world and many cultures have put feathers in their hair or on their hats or their clothes. So if you put a feather in your hair and someone immediately thinks of a Native American, I think it has more to do with their own personal associations than with what you are actually wearing. So no harm there. But if you wear a headdress, that can cause problems because there are a limited number of cultures who use feathers for that specific purpose, so it’s pretty obvious which culture “inspired” you – and on top of that, from what I understand you have to earn the right to wear it in those cultures. It’s verging on costumey and cartoony because headdresses don’t really *exist* outside of a small group of cultures (from what I know) so there’s no way to see that item and not think of that culture.

    Similarly, the Catholic pope carries a crosier. But you can still walk all around town with a tall walking stick if you want to – plenty of other cultures all around the world use walking sticks so I think it’s “fair game.” But if you get an ornate gold crosier and wear it with a whole outfit that looks “popey” then it’s costumey/cartoony and offensive. Same if you are not religious at all and you wear a big crucifix necklace – that symbol is pretty exclusive to a small number of groups, is NOT universal, and is a sacred symbol within the groups it “belongs” to, so I don’t think there’s any way to wear that and not be offensive (if you’re not Christian).

    So to sum up my point is: gypies do not “own” big gold earrings so I don’t think there is any problem, or anything offensive, about wearing them.

  25. Kelly says:

    I should own up to the fact that after I said all that, I did recall that I wore earrings yesterday with some Chinese or Japanese characters in them. I have absolutely NO IDEA what they say or mean, and I could be walking around with something truly offensive hanging off my ears all day. And honestly for a long time, for almost 10 years, I didn’t wear them because I was afraid of disrespecting another culture wearing something I didn’t understand. Eventually I broke down because they belonged to a family member who passed away, and to *me* those earrings represent her, not the culture they came from. I have some very nice religious jewelry that I no longer wear, and I struggle with that as well – I received these pricey gifts when I was younger, and I don’t have the heart to get rid of them, but I started straying from my religion when I was a teenager and now I don’t subscribe to it at all. I don’t want to wear my gold necklace with the figure of Mary on it because it doesn’t apply to my actual beliefs. But when I look at it, I see my grandfather (or whoever) and I feel bad for letting it languish in my jewelry box.

    Gifts are a tricky area and I have to confess I have no answers there. If I don’t wear the gift, I feel bad because it feels like rejecting the person who gave it to me. But if I do wear it, I’m self-conscious all day about advertising something that I don’t subscribe to. It’s such a gray area.

  26. Someone says:

    @ S: “But my only concern with your point (if I understood is correctly) is that it robs women of all agency and it implies that they’re always in the (desired/desirable) object position and that the male is always in the predatory subject position. Please correct me if I’m wrong.”

    Well, some believe that all our agency as women is fully circumscribed at this time by what patriarchy permits us. If you’ve ever read the I Blame the Patriarchy blog, that’s the assumption being worked under there.

    I don’t know at what point any of us (including men) have full agency (defined by some as “free will”), but it can’t be argued that we’ve ever been free of continual, overt patriarchal acts of control and the interest in defining us as sexual objects above all. It’s something some of us fight continually, but the pressure has not yet let up.

    What type of agency would you argue for here? Let’s say that we do have some – in what would you say it consists? I’m interested to see where you would find that. I’m not arguing, I’m asking for more detail.

    For instance – would you be implying that the choices of what to wear and how *we* might define the meaning of elements of dress is where our agency might lie? I’d surely agree, but it still operates within a sphere of reception that might be patriarchal, and then there is the fact that the choices we make can be strongly pre-defined by what’s available in the marketplace and also limited by the ways whatever not-our-culture comes to us through our own cultural filters.

    I just wanted to contribute a reading of the colonialist/exoticist factor in Western women’s dress that I see, it can be one of many subtexts that may be there.

  27. R says:

    I’m not sure if I entirely agree with you in this particular matter. I understand where you are coming from with your concern, but big gold hoop earrings have been around for centuries and are not exclusively attached to the gypsy culture or, I dare say it, to the general image attributed to gypsies. Same goes for curly and long hair.

    Several museums around the world shows gold hoop earrings as one of the oldest artefacts to adorn women, for example I’ve seen such pieces in a Peruvian museum, from way before the Spaniards arrived (and destroyed). China Ancient Egypt, Turkey… the list is long.

    In my corner of the world, I see every morning teenagers going to school with big hoop earrings and their curly hair down. Nobody would bat an eye and nobody would call them a gypsy, UNLESS they wre wearing long skirts and that kind of flouncy “gipsy” top. The whole “Esmeralda” look, if you want, which is, of course, kind of costume-ish.

    Would you share who exactly called you a gypsy-like? Romenians? Eastern Europeans? Americans? I understand the visual idea that qualifies one as gypsy looking may vary from country – and generation – to country – and – generation.

    I honestly don’t think you are appropriating symbols of ‘exoticism’ from the gypsy culture, because these symbols are not exlusive to gypsy culture and there is nothing offensive in wearing the hair nature gav you with big earrings!

    And as far as appropriating symbols of another culture goes… There is appropriation and there is appropriation. I would never wear a Native American headpiece, or a full Japanese geisha kimono, but aren’t we all using the French sailor stripped shirt? The draped dresses first used by Grecians and Romans? What about gladiator sandals? The Mao collar? Sarouel pants?

    For me, particularly, it all about costume-ish x non-costume-ish. If you can rock the boho look without looking like you are dressed for Halloween, go for it.If you can incorporate aspects of the gypsy looking/culture without sounding offensive, why not?

  28. the spanish lady says:

    Hi S!

    You look great with that outfit!

    The comment about the gipsies is pretty used here in Spain (actually, one of my best friends, who has a marvellous black long hair and dark skin never wears that kind of earrings due to this comments), and, unfortunately, it is usually done in a scornful way.

    Talking about appropriating symbols… I think it is harmless if done with respect, otherwise I don’t like it. Have you seen those football players or pop singers with a rosary as a necklace? wow! I do have a problem with that.

  29. kelly says:

    I find discussions like this to be just another reason to love academichic. Its very provocative, as the comments have also been. I think its a valid point to bring up, so often we go out to the store and look for whats affordable, practical to our lives, and “cute”. While ethical business practices and green products are becoming more popular, often we forget about the origin or inspiration for that item. Or, we are aware of them, but don’t fully grasp the message that we are sending by wearing that piece and that someone from your culture will have one idea of the meaning, someone of a seperate age/gender/culture may have an entirely different perception, as will someone of the actual culture that item is inspired by. To take in all of this is a large task. I think its important to be respectful, not to be costumey, and to make an effort at not misrepresenting yourself as a member of that group or to be offensive. At the same time, I think a piece can be worn or had as appreiciation of that group. As an RA, I had several exchange students from China, one of whom bestowed a lovely red knotted tassel(which she told me meant “many good things”) on me for helping them with some difficult things throughout that year. I was touched and thought it was very sweet. I am not Chinese, not would I lead anyone to believe so, but I do not think its wrong of me to display this gift in my home.
    Additionally, I am not of African, Native American, French, Mexican, Eskimo, Southwest US, Dutch, ect ect decent. Yet I find each of these cultures to have beautiful and meaningful tradions, languages, music, clothing, and jewelry. How can one show support or appriceiation for groups and yet not offend? Should I not wear fur lined hoods? Should I not wear clogs? Or beaded bracelets, or breten stripes? To push the boundaries further, should I not wear purple because historically it signifies royalty and I am not royal? Should I not drive a red car, because at one point it was reserved only for law, and I am not an officer? Should I, as a single white female, be restricted to jeans, tennis shoes, and tshirts, because those are generally considered “American” clothing? Or maybe jeans are not ok, because they originally were meant as a mens garment. Where does one draw the line? What is acceptable? What is too far? I do not mean to belittle this at all, because it really is a very important issue, and I believe that the way we dress does sent a stong message. THis is a very complex debate, and I am not sure that there is any one correct answer. And I am not really sure how to handle the situation. I think the best we can do is to be aware and knowledgable about all of this.
    Thank you for bringing light to this issue that I think can sometimes be difficult to engage in conversation. I enjoy reading all the viewpoints and looking at fashion as more than just a shallow interest, but rather something that can have have deeper meaning.

  30. Sarah Jane says:

    Two thoughts.

    The first: one thing that complicates this question further is the long history of appropriation and re-appropriation that leaves most pieces with a wide variety of cultural baggage attached. Big gold earrings and long curly hair might say “gypsy” to Europeans, but I suspect most Americans would interpret those as hippie-inspired pieces since that’s where they have most recently surfaced in American culture.

    The second: when I try to explain kitsch to my college students, I use the example of my mother-in-law, who at one time had her entire house decorated in mass-produced Southwestern-themed… stuff. I then describe my friend Deb, who for the past 25+ years has spent her summers working on the Navajo reservation and whose house is filled with various hand-crafted objects that she has purchased or been given over that time. Both are Caucasian women living in the Midwest; both have Southwest-themed decor. You might not see the difference the first time you meet them. But Deb’s collection is authentic; it’s tied to her life and experiences, and also to the artisans who created these objects. My mother-in-law’s decor had none of these roots — and blessedly has since been replaced with an eclectic variety of family antiques and farm-related objects, which directly reference her life and experiences as an Indiana farmer. I don’t know if that story is about appropriation or kitsch or the decorating choices of middle-aged women, but it does seem to make sense in the minds of college freshmen.

  31. Thanks for the hair feedback!

    I’m really intrigued by the conversation that’s developed in the comments, and I have one more thing to add–

    I think it’s important to recognize a difference between wearing things that come from cultures of oppressed and marginalized populations as opposed to things that come from more dominant cultures besides one’s own.

    I don’t get offended if non-Americans want to wear staples of “Americana,” for example, because there’s not a long history of victimization tied to those pieces. However, if I were to wear a feather headdress I bought from UO to a party because I thought it was “chic” to look like a “native,” that is (in my opinion) a way of perpetrating the victimization of this continent’s indigenous peoples. Sensitivity about that particular issue is what I sense in S’s post, not any suggestion that cross-culture mixing is a necessarily bad thing.

  32. sabrina says:

    You look great in this outfit.
    This is a complicated issue for me. I am East Asian by ethnicity, and growing up in the 1980s, being Asian wasn’t “cool” or “trendy” the way it is today. If anything, it was a social difficulty, as I fit the nerd, glasses, musical instrument stereotypes to a T. I spent much of life (and still deal with) coming up with sarcastic answers to “Where are you from” inquires (innocent and malicious). The answer is Southern California, but the question changes to “No, where are from ORIGINALLY?”
    This is not to claim that I am oppressed, but rather my situation made me not want to draw attention to my difference, not matter what the circumstances. So I shy away from cultural markers. However, I reject the idea that culture is in any way a singular, stable concept, and that we should investigate and question all types of cultural appropriations that occur in the name of fashion. Furthermore, without disregarding the suffering of oppressed groups, I argue that it is difficult to defend anyone’s claims to have authentic ownership of certain kinds of cultural styles. I find interesting that hipster appropriations of working class (and class is a form of oppression that often goes unnoticed in American contexts), culture are not objectionable, even though hipsters are often upper middle class (and sometimes upper class) young people. In addition, the popularity of Western wear also masks the fact that much “Cowboy” style was originally appropriated from Mexican cattle ranchers. However, it’s important to note that much of Mexican style is influenced by European immigration to Mexico, especially Polish, Jewish, and German (hence the polka themes in Tejano music).

  33. GingerB says:

    Tony Hillerman mysteries often have a Navajo character thinking things about white people who come and turn into wanna-be Indians.

    I’m sorry to say that often they’re Californians.

    I love a little blue turquoise, but I think it is worth considering whether you’re looking like you are dressing up like an Indian Princess before walking out the door.

  34. admin says:

    First of, thank you to all of you who took the time to participate in this conversation! I really enjoyed getting to read all of your viewpoints and to be prompted to think about this issue further.

    Here are just a few responses:

    @Someone – thanks for the blog tip, I didn’t know of that one and am interested to check it out!

    You ask some really great questions and I’m not sure I know how to concisely answer them here. But I guess I’m reluctant to say that women are without agency when making certain sartorial choices that may suggest otherwise (like dressing for sex appeal) because that assumes that their sexuality is only defined in terms of the male partner. Are women who dress seductively only to be understood as doing so for the pleasure of another man (this seems to leave out different kinds of eroticisms that fall outside of a male/female dichotomy.

    @Liz of Scholarly Style – I appreciate the distinction you make between appropriating the cultural tokens of a historically oppressed culture vs. that of a dominant culture. I think that’s an essential aspect of this debate and one that shouldn’t get forgotten.


    Overall, I’m not arguing that any specific item (like certain kinds of earrings or accessories, fabrics, patterns) are ever the cultural and intellectual *property* of any one group and that others should not have access to them. How does one define group belonging and inclusion anyway? I think it’s far too difficult (and dangerous) to start debating whether one has a right to be part of a culture or group and to start making rules about who should be ‘in’ and who should be ‘out’.

    But I think there’s a difference between wearing items that come from a specific culture, and adopting a look that borders on costumey and on mimicry of a certain ethnic stereotype. I think many of you argued this as well and it seems like the whole UO ‘headdress’ debate came out of it looking a bit costumey and caricature-like.


  35. Golla says:

    Very well formulated post and interesting links, thank you! I love the fact that this is even discussed (can’t remember ever seeing that before) and I find the different views extremely thought-provoking. My mother is Sámi and I am ambivalent about the whole thing, but when I read the comments, there is something in Courtneys reply that feels familiar somehow.

  36. Katie says:

    As someone who specializes in the interpretation and representation of cultural groups from a museum perspective, the most common problem I encounter is the appropriation of clothing, objects, language, names, etc. from groups that have been colonized by the colonizers.

    I live in the West, and there’s A LOT to unpack when looking at the way American Indian “culture” (as defined by non-American Indians) is incorporated into “Western culture.” There’s a level of ignorance at play, with people not understanding what these symbols, objects, etc. mean and also not understanding why they SHOULD know what they mean, but there’s a greater issue of guilt.

    As a nation (and especially here in the “Wild West”), there’s a tremendous amount of guilt over what the American government has done to the American Indian tribes over the past 300 years, but that guilt can often lead to a lot of hostility and anger on the part of those who feel guilty. So we see them claiming to embrace Native culture and history, being proud of it, and wanting to celebrate it, but what they’re embracing, celebrating and feeling pride in is their interpretation of the history, their interpretations of those cultures. And none of that makes anything better.

    I do own some American Indian accessories, but they have all been gifted to me in tribal ceremonies. To put it bluntly, I’ve been given permission to wear those objects by the people who made them, so I wear them proudly. But the knock-offs, “homages,” and outside interpretations of other cultural pieces? I don’t wear those.

  37. Frances Joy says:

    I really appreciate this post and all the links you’ve shared. I’ve been thinking about it since I read this yesterday, and I’m not sure that I’ve really finished mulling it over, but one of the things that struck me, as a Latina in the US, is that there seems to be an idea that being White in the US means that you are somehow acultural. So there is the whole issue of “appropriating” what comes from minority cultures, and I get how it can be quite offensive or foolish to wear some pieces as a person with no connection to the particular culture, but there’s also the perceived neutrality of jeans and a t-shirt (or anything along those lines). Like I said, I’m certainly not done “unpacking”, but you’ve got me thinking.

    Also, love the outfit.

  38. Kyla says:

    I think this is a really interesting topic. I was just thinking about this exact same thing as I’ve been noticing a heaving Eastern influence on my summer wardrobe. Is it okay to use elements of other cultures in a stylistic way, completely separate from any cultural tradition? Or is it like Hot Topic bastardizing everything of my youth? I have no idea…

  39. [...] this one! Blazers, Florals, Belts, originally uploaded by academichic. Now, for my thoughts on the very interesting discussion S. started the other day.  I am very interested in S.’s post and especially in all the thought-provoking comments, [...]

  40. [...] week we began a fascinating conversation about the appropriation of cultural artifacts by ‘outside’ cultures and I stated that I was somewhat weary of seeing the symbols of [...]

  41. [...] very late to this party, but I wanted to throw in one more comment to the discussion S. started on appropriating cultural artifacts and to which A. added her thoughts on camp and costume. As S. emphasized in her last post, clothes [...]

  42. [...] clothing narrating personality. One discussion I’ve followed closely is what author S. called Feminist Intersection: Appropriate vs. Appropriation. A., the second of three authors at academichic, expands on it. There’s a slew of great [...]

  43. Amanda says:

    I know I am extremely late about commenting on this post, but I’m hoping that my “excuse” about being a student who was in the middle of her last days of the semester and finals will suffice!

    I read the Bitch article and came away a bit torn/confused. My great, great grandmother was 100% Cherokee on my father’s side and my great x3 grandparents on my mother’s father’s side were 100% Cheyenne. So I do have Native American blood in my background. I also recently discovered that come from Irish and Greek ancestry as well (great x3 on my mom’s side for both).

    To put it bluntly, I am a mutt and I look like it. To look at me, I don’t believe I have any distinct features that would classify me as being anything distinctive. Yet, the Bitch article left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

    The most amount of culture specific things I own/wear consist of a decent amount of Irish/Celtic knot jewelry. My husband works for an Irish themed pub and is required to be present at least once during our city’s annual Irish festival. And part of his “marital” requirements is to purchase something from one of the vendors for me, since it’s rare that I’ve been able to make it in the past.

    I suppose I have the luxury of not having any baggage, positive or negative, for any particular culture. My background is so muddied that I can’t fully identify with any specific culture, except for the generic “American”.

    But perhaps with the melting pot that is the classification of a native born “US American” comes a bit of envy of people who have a hyphened nationality.

    I am a fan of the late night talk show host Craig Ferguson. He was born in Scotland and became an American citizen in 2008. He has stated his confusion at least once at American citizens who have said that they are “X-American”, because further inquiry has uncovered that they have only a bit of “X” blood and aren’t actually from “X”.

    Until I heard him talk about it, it honestly never occurred to me that latching onto a culture that I was only mildly apart of might be offensive to those that might have a larger investment in it than me.

    But I believe that most people who choose to wear things from another culture aren’t trying intentionally to be offensive. And that is where I have an issue with the Bitch article. There are plenty of things in my life where I could be offended about, but rather than decide to become angry, I’ve decided to educate when I can. I personally think that we are too dismissive of ignorance and automatically assume that people are too stupid or too lazy to become educated on subjects that we are more knowledgeable about.

    This will probably be a very unpopular opinion, but I feel that if I’m willing to be offended about someone’s perceptions about something of which I’m knowledgeable, then it is my duty to try my best to educate them. I feel that it’s hypocritical of me to be both offended and unwilling to share what I know to people who know less than I do about something. I’m speaking personally about medical issues, but I know that when I’ve had culture issues that I’ve had questions about, my interest has been doubled when I’ve talked to people who have been willing to answer my stupid questions.

    In college, I was a member of an academic organization. One year, we decided to participated in some homecoming festivities, one being to do a dance or skit for the student body. One of our members was a black woman who suggested we do a step dance. We thought that would be fun to do, so she organized rehearsals for it, bringing in teachers from the African American studies department and from the dance department to educate us on the genre. It’s been a decade and I look back on that time period with fondness, because I not only learned a new dance, I also learned about a new culture.

  44. [...] but it got me thinking about a kind of cultural appropriation that we don’t often think of. S. brought this up in April last year with a post about wearing gold jewelry and being asked if she was a gypsy. A. also wrote on this [...]

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