(This post was originally published in the Huffington Post)
If words could come to life, “appropriation” would arrive promptly on time, dressed in a grey suit, pushing a standard regulation pencil, telling everyone to stop doing that, it’s not appropriate.
It’s the ultimate party pooper, especially if it’s a costume party, and woe betide you come dressed in anything your lineage does not implicitly give you the cultural right to be seen in.
I couldn’t tell you exactly when the word left the domain of stuffy academia and infiltrated everyday speak, but I noticed it becoming increasingly commonplace around the time Katy Perry deigned to dress up as a Geisha on her tour. The Twitterati were up in arms: Katy Perry who she fink she is dissin’ on da japs lol #culturalappropriation.
It happened again the other day. Pharrell Williams was found guilty of wearing a feather headdress. Hold the front page. The front page in question, it’s worth noting, belonged to Elle, a women’s magazine still licking its wounds for its embarrassing decision of turning its cover black and white when it featured Mindy Kaling earlier this year, and here they were, featuring not just a man, but a black man at that. There were enough points being made in that photoshoot that day without anyone worrying about his choice of headwear. Pharrell likes hats, here’s a colourful one, what’s the worst that could happen?
Pharell who he fink he is dissin’ on da native Americans lol #culturalappropriation.
So if he can’t wear a feather headdress, who can? The idea that there’s a descendant of a Cheyenne warrior sat somewhere in a feather warbonnet feeling righteous is laughable. And does anyone genuinely think Katy Perry’s reasoning behind dressing as a Geisha was to insult her army of Japanese fans, and not simply because she thought the outfit made her feel cute and her tits look lovely?
If we’re really to humour the notion that we can only wear outfits that are culturally appropriate, what does that mean for me? As far back as I can trace my background, I’m Bangladeshi through and through. So going to a fancy dress party dressed as Gandhi in a loin cloth would be insulting to Indians, putting on white face paint and a bowler hat to go Clockwork Orange would surely be offensive to Englishmen, and what? I can’t go dressed in a tunic pretending to be Sauron in case I offend the sensibilities of the residents of Mordor? What does that leave me with? Wear a rag on my head and chant “cholte cholte” and tell everyone I’m the Bangladeshi rebel poet Kazi Nozrul Islam? Wow. That look is sure to open doors for me to the hippest parties in town…
Notwithstanding how racist it is to suggest that someone who doesn’t come from a place can have no right to sample its wares, the fact is most people don a foreign garb as a mark of respect. In my career in Asian media I’ve seen the likes of Cherie Blair and Samantha Cameron attend Asian social events and openings of temples clad in saris, and myself have dressed JLS in sherwanis and put Alesha Dixon on the cover of an Asian magazine wearing a lengha. Not only did more Asians buy those magazines, the makers of those garments used their patronage to boost sales. Ask Marni Kaur from fashion boutique Bibi London, who imports outfits by top designers in India, what Lady Ga Ga has done to promote Asian clothing in the western market. And as anyone with any knowledge of the Asian fashion industry in the 90s will tell you, the likes of Madonna and Gwen Stefani pretty much revived the bindi and henna tattoos as must-have fashion accessories… among Asians. In the fashion world, cultural validation isn’t a bad thing.
They’re. Just. Clothes. I’m sure your Facebook photo roll isn’t too different to mine: there’s my mum in China wearing a kimono, a mate in Mexico sunning himself in a poncho, and that really fit girl who I’ve never really met but like having on my timeline enjoying the football in a Brazil t-shirt. Nothing insulting to see here.
That’s not to say costumes can’t be offensive. Wearing an SS costume or a Ku Klux Klan cloak is offensive, but then they’re offensive even when those with a legitimate claim to them wears them. I doubt there were any German Nazis looking at Prince Harry in a swastika armband and crying ‘cultural appropriation!’
Wearing someone else’s national outfit isn’t the same as blacking up, wearing a big-nosed Jewish mask or taping up the eyes and wearing chopsticks as teeth. This is someone looking at an outfit that looks pretty or fun and thinking: I’d like to wear that.
Granted, Madonna’s latest attention-seeking gambit of donning the burqa isn’t quite so harmless, but her intentions are cut from the same cloth. She’s out to make a point about the freedom to wear what she likes, and she’s done it in that half-baked, slightly embarrassing way she’s always made her points, and while we have every right to mock her for trying too hard and looking ridiculous, it’s just plain wrong to say her dress sense is a slur on Muslim women the world over.
Next time you see me at a party wearing a Katy Perry-esque Geisha dress and Pharell-style headdress, spare me the sanctimonious cultural appropriation lecture about being insulting to the Japanese and Native Americans, but by all means, take the piss out of me for dressing like a tit.