the politics of fashion

posted by jroselkim

Thanks to my barely employed/”working from home” days, I have fostered a new internet hobby: reading fashion blogs. I know, I know. Can’t I read about more important things, or do something more productive with my time? I often wonder about the same thing.

But on one of my morning browsing photos of high-waisted skirts and vintage dresses, one thing caught my eye – a video tutorial on “How to Wear a Headscarf, Turban Style.” Yes, you guessed it; the use of a religious garb as a fashion statement (by a white woman, nonetheless) made me feel rather…uncomfortable. But I watched it, and to be fair, this isn’t tying a “complete” turban, and I could even argue that this style itself doesn’t appear very problematic (as the style itself does not resemble a full turban), save for its name.

However, as I dug around to see the posts where the blogger actually experiments with this style, I was met with this phrase: “Just yesterday my friend and I were saying how we couldn’t rock turbans.”

Now, this is where I have more of a problem. To say that one can’t “rock” a turban without even slightly thinking about how people in other cultures/religions wear them seems like the fashion world has stripped this religious garment of all its significance, only to reappropriate it as it sees fit. Then again, my quick Wikipedia search of “turbans” also reveals that women in the Western world also wore a modified version of “turbans” at the turn of the 20th century as a way of keeping hair out of their faces. I also admit that I do not have an extensive knowledge of turbans myself, so perhaps I shouldn’t be speaking too much on this matter.

Reappropriation (and its problematic implications) is what I’ve been thinking about a lot these days, with hipsters wearing native headdresses and the popularity of keffiyeh as scarves. You might say, but wait! people in Asian countries and African countries wear western clothes all the time. But the difference there is that many of those countries’ citizens were also forced to wear Western-style clothing and banned from practicing/continuing their native cultures as a means of colonization. The effect of such practices is that while “Western” clothes are the most affordable and available clothes there, while traditional garments have become more of a luxury and special occasions items.

So where do you draw the line? How might you distinguish between paying homage or tribute to a culture (or making “XX-influenced” things without making it totally problematic) and disrespectfully ripping off a culture?


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3 responses to “the politics of fashion

  1. I think the discourse on cultural re-appropriation was valid when it was first opened up. However, lately I have been talking to many of my friends that cannot see beyond the very limiting aspect of constantly just rehashing how re-appropriation is problematic and going on and on about it, rather than trying to understand how it can either stop occurring, or be re-articulated …

    I don’t know exactly how I stand on the issue (and I know i’m being vague but I’m not just being contentious for the sake of it) but I’m ruminating on the epistemology of the Other and Othering, and I think that it’s much more than just ‘problematic’ and not always so…

    I also think that dismissing wearing religious garb for fashion purposes as inappropriate or uncomfortable fails to see the history of religious dress in many many cultures. And with that kind of linear thinking, you can go so far to problematize everything…

    and shoot me for being honest, but I really like wearing head dresses and I’m struggling with why I shouldn’t be allowed to .. why is it that there are such strict rules in our continuous cultural fluidity and border fragmentation (of which I am a strong proponent of)

    • Thanks for this comment, it made me think about a lot of stuff – which I will try to convey as coherently as possible.

      On the one hand, I do agree with your statement about needing to say more about issues than pointing out that things are “problematic.” But I think the reason people keep saying it has to do with the fact that many people will flat-out refuse to see such issues as problematic, let alone willing to discuss them.

      Moreover, I think it’s really difficult to pose some kind solution to issues like appropriation because a) culture is a shifting and fluid concept but b) historical treatment of cultures (or mis-treatment of cultures) has real consequences, such as years of oppression and disenfranchisement.

      The problem I see with wearing headdresses is that native people are one of the most victimized, silenced and disempowered communities in North America. So for us to be appropriating their cultural symbols when the continuation of their core culture is in jeopardy seems somewhat disrespectful to me. I also think there’s a difference if you have a lifelong connection to a certain culture (i.e. sustained volunteer work) and collecting certain artifacts of a culture vs. blindly following a trend that rips off a culture without acknowledging its history or its origins.

      I don’t want to argue that you should never reappropriate certain items for fashion. But I think it’s a problem when a religious/cultural garb becomes a fad because a white person wore it, as opposed to somebody connected to that culture reappropriating it/reinterpreting it from their point of view. The former act appears as cultural colonialism (or neo-colonialism?) to me. But then again, I realize that such “fads” are the realities of our society.

      • I’ve been thinking, Rosel, that the best current example of this is the pop “star” K$sha, who has worn a full native head dress in videos and television appearances (she says it’s because she loves animals and that all the feathers are found, not farmed, etc.). For me, it officially became not OK to wear a head dress ever when I saw that white girl wearing one while singing about getting wasted. I’m sorry Magda, but when you wear a head dress all you’re doing is perpetuating a culturally insensitive trend, regardless of whether you want to be or not. Why is it that there are such strict rules on certain things like that in our minds? I’m not sure I can answer that, but I wonder how many Native individuals seeing you wear a head dress think to themselves “thank goodness the borders of my culture are being fragmented AGAIN!”

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