A Few Thoughts on Mindful Costuming
DISCLAIMER: These are just my individual thoughts. I am not an authority or expert on cultural appropriation. This post is meant to start a conversation, not to give definitive advice. Feel absolutely free to disagree with me! (but trollish comments will be trampled by billy goats)
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So! What if you want to dress up as a historical or mythical or even totally fictional figure from a culture that is not your own? What if, for instance, you’re a non-hispanic person who wants to go to the next Comic Con or Halloween Party as America Chavez?
Or, what if you’re a Real Life Mermaid who wants to be the Aztec goddess Chalchiuhtlicue at the next rave? (heh heh, no, I’m not hinting at an actual personal costume idea…but ZOMG check these out!)
Here are my three main suggestions:
- To quote BBC Sherlock: Do your research! Have people discussed this very costume idea before? What are people from the culture itself saying about it (and be aware that opinions will vary within the culture)? I don’t know of anyone who’d really object to a Cleopatra costume, but even a historically accurate Pocahontas costume would probably seem tacky (at best) if you’re not Native yourself.
Another angle to consider: would people from that culture wear their traditional clothing or symbols for fashion or games, or dress as that historical figure for Halloween? I, personally, wouldn’t wear a Lithuanian folk costume to a Halloween party because it just doesn’t feel like the right occasion. To me, Halloween is about being goofy and geeky, and Lithuanian folk costumes are meant for more formal, sometimes even solemn, occasions (plus, all those woolen layers can get really hot).
- If you want to dress up as a character — say, America or Moana — focus on their clothing and props. Like America’s red-white-and-blue-striped shirt and star portals, or Moana’s heart-of-Te-Fiti necklace (or one of these gorgeous Te Fiti tops!)
DO NOT, in other words, try to mimic physical attributes like skin color.
That said…I’m really not sure about the Maui costume in the Good Housekeeping article. He’s a Disney character…but he’s based on an actual figure from Polynesian mythology…and the tattoos are a major part of his look (and wearing a tattoo-covered t-shirt is waaay better than letting your kid get ink’d for real, temporary or otherwise)…but, again, actual Polynesian culture…??? I, personally, would be super flattered if someone dressed up as the Baltic goddess Jūratė or as Eglė, Queen of Serpents, but maybe that’s a privileged perspective? Thoughts?
- Really think about the tone of the event you’re going to. Is the party or faire or convention mostly focused on fantasy/fairy tale costumes, or on superheroes and anime characters, or just general tomfoolery? Would wearing your costume to this event contribute to a stereotype about that culture? For example, the stereotype that Gypsies are just fairy tale villains who steal horses, or magical circus performers who read crystal balls? And, yes, I’m fully aware that one of my favorite books — Castle Waiting, Vol. 1 — perpetuates both the scary and the romanticized versions of Gypsies.
Point 3a: Think about the tone you’re trying to project. Are you trying to be a goofy or sexy or zombie version of that character? I don’t see anyone getting upset over a vampire Sherlock Holmes, but you miiiight want to think twice about a sexy Mother Teresa outfit.*
So! What are your thoughts, Postcardians? Have you ever dressed up as a character from another culture (yep, I did the “Gypsy” costume when I was a kid)? Do you feel like you pulled it off (as far as I remember, I wore a long green skirt and a scarf-belt…pretty tame stuff, I think, but, again, privileged perspective)? Have you seen people dressed in costumes representing your own culture? How did that feel?
* See Season 2, episode 6 of Modern Family.