Poseurs and Personae

poseur persona style

I love playing around with sartorial personae. Mine are more active in summer and fall, as evidenced by the above photos of me in futuristic tough-gal, cowgirl, and retro woman attire. But I do my fair share of playing with punk, arty girl, and nomad looks through the winter months, too. It’s exciting and invigorating to wear an ensemble that highlights an aspect of your personality, or expresses a part of yourself you wish you could explore more thoroughly.

But I find that there are certain lines I’m loathe to cross, certain garments I feel strange wearing, and certain combinations of pieces that push me over the line into feeling like a poseur. Interestingly, much of that has to do with authenticity.

For instance, I’m obviously not a cowgirl. I’ve ridden horses and that’s my only remotely cowgirl-esque qualification. But I adore Western style, from jeans and snap-front shirts to cowboy boots, big-buckle belts, and prairie skirts. But I would never buy a shirt that says, “This Ain’t My First Rodeo.” I can’t imagine donning an actual Stetson hat. And what puts me off those items is their authenticity. REAL cowgirls are likely to wear those brands and pieces, and I don’t want to give the impression that I think I’m a real cowgirl.

But it occurs to me that any adoption of a sartorial persona could be irritating to someone who actually lives the associated lifestyle. Some subcultures are more welcoming and lenient than others, but virtually all of them must rankle when outsiders adopt their symbols and trappings without any real understanding of the meanings that those symbols and trappings hold. It’s tempting to use clothing, shoes, and accessories to evoke the most obvious or appealing aspects of a group’s behaviors or beliefs, but at some point persona becomes poseur, and deeper in, poseur becomes appropriator. Especially in ethnic and religious contexts, this can be deeply insulting.

So where do we draw the line? What’s harmless play, what’s irritating poseur behavior, and what’s insulting appropriation? When you explore your own sartorial personae, do you ever worry about how you’ll be viewed? Ever been confronted? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  • I once had someone say they did not buy my “cuteness”. Little do they know, I’m not trying to be cute, pshaw.

  • Juli

    As a Texan, I give you permission to wear Stetson hats. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    First things first, I don’t self-identify as “Goth” but other people have given me the label and I go with it only because I do self-identify as “Death punk” which is the bridge between punk and goth.

    That said, I, as well as many of the punk persuasion, are ceaselessly annoyed when people wear band shirts of old, dead punksters that they’ve never listened to. A CD is 45 minutes long, you can listen to it while you’re getting dressed and then have something to say about the music while you’re wearing the shirt. It’s nothing short of insulting when people “go as a goth” for Halloween; unless they do it with taste then I might attempt to reproduce their costume for my daily wear. The best thing about living in Houston is that one can’t properly imitate Gothic style clothing without true dedication. The fabrics are all warm, the style is layered, and the city is hot and humid.

    That said, where’d you get the vest for Persona 1?

    • Barbra

      To be frank, I think this is pathetic. You don’t own the band. You paid just as much money for the tee-shirt as I did. So why do you insist I have to listen to the music to gain permission to wear the shirt? Perhaps the visual appearance is appealing. Maybe the colors work with what I have, so that makes it serviceable. Get over yourself!

      • Maggie

        There’s no need to be hostile – yes, it can be annoying when people know nothing about a band who’s shirt they’re wearing, and yes, it’s acceptable to like a shirt because of the colors or design. That being said, it’s usually a good idea to have at least a vague idea of who the band is, and what sort of music they produce.

      • Would you wear a political T-shirt, regardless of the statement, just because you like the ‘visual appearance’? What about a T-shirt with words in a language you don’t understand? What if those words were offensive or derogatory but the ‘colors work with you have”?

        Why do you so stridently not care about the meaning of what you wear?

        • cinnamonsticks

          Do you feel that everyone sees the same meaning as you?

          • A band T-shirt or a political saying or a phrase have their own intrinsic meanings (“The Ramones!” or “Vote Ron Paul!” or “I Love New York!”), & putting that upon your chest has the pretty obvious meaning in the U.S. & western Europe that “I like or agree with this.” If it’s different where you live, feel free to explain.

          • cinnamonsticks

            This is where we disagree: “you canโ€™t ignore the very blatant message carried by the words or symbols”. Sure, people can ignore things, most are very good at it.

            Words convey meaning if you understand language, without meaning they are pretty pictures. Symbols are varied and vast. What means something to somebody can be misinterpreted or misconstrued by somebody else. The Cross alone can convey a myriad of different descriptions and connotations.

            If I wore a shirt that said ‘Faithful’ on it would you assume I’m ‘Faithful’ or that I have a Faith or that I hold Faithfulness in high esteem or that I just like a band called ‘Faithful’ or all these at once? There’s just too much that is assumption when you judge others on one shirt.

        • cinnamonsticks

          It’s not too much different in my world. ๐Ÿ™‚ I just think that people can assign a value to an item that doesn’t have to do with words, pictures, or phrases on that item. For you to assign ‘the meaning’ for them without their input is assumptive.

          • The meaning is written right there on the T-shirt! I didn’t assign anything other than the culture does. We live in it, we should be aware of that.

        • cinnamonsticks

          So you feel that people can’t assign a value to an item beyond the words or symbols on it? I’m not sure I follow you. I can value an item for it’s softness, it’s size, it’s warmth, it’s history, and many other things. Sure the stuff that’s on the outside of the shirt means something but it just might be that I place a higher value on it’s history or warmth than the words. Sure, that doesn’t seem to coincide with your values but what makes your values more important?

          • There can be additional meanings, but at the very least, you can’t ignore the very blatant message carried by the words or symbols. Start with that, & don’t pretend it’s not there.

        • cinnamonsticks

          For some reason my messages got out of order and it won’t let me reply to your posts in order. Anyways, it was a good discussion. I just don’t think we can judge others by what they wear: symbols, words, or pictures included.

    • Sal

      Vest is by a designer called Yuvita, and I got it at a local boutique!

      • Sunny

        I’m curious as to how people can decide if a person listens to a certain band or not. I have very few band shirts now, I used to be in the punk scene and lifestyle, but 10+ years later I’m completely different. But I do notice some stares and whispers when I walk past teenagers that now consider themselves punk if I’m out wearing my Ramones shirt, or Bad Brains shirt because the rest of my style doesn’t seem to reflect that of a person that typically listens to that kind of music.

        • Juli

          I talk to people wearing shirts by bands I like because when I wear band gear, I’m hoping someone will see it as something we have in common and come talk to me. It’s a conversation starter and a way to make friends.

        • wear that ramones shirt with pride, girl! i used to wrestle with counting propagandhi and bad religion among my favorite bands, but dressing in borderline-cutesy stuff like peter pan collars and critter prints. surely greg graffin would not approve! but then i got over it and gave myself permission to like whatever i like, and if i want to listen to my punk-fueled pandora station while baking cookies or knitting, then that’s what i do. if someone wants to be rude to me because i don’t fit their idea of a punk rocker (or they have negative associations with punks), then i think that’s more a reflection of the judge than the judged.

      • Juli

        And… googled.

        I’m super sorry about the flame war I started over a t-shirt. I was just answering a question, I did not think I would offend someone who would offend someone and then they’d all start flaming each other instead of saying, “Hey, you wear your clothes, I’ll wear mine.”

        • Sal

          Not to worry. People get fired up!

        • cinnamonsticks

          I just wanted to quickly address this comment. If this was addressed to me and Trystan, I don’t feel we were in a ‘flame war’. We were both just arguing different viewpoints. We didn’t name call or bash each other.

          Honestly, I don’t think her and I differ too much in our feelings about dressing and how others perceive the clothes others wear. I work in tech support and I play PvP type video games so it might be that I’ve just got a thicker skin than most in that respect too. ๐Ÿ˜‰

          Anyways, I normally don’t post here often but this topic was just too interesting to pass up. I just wanted you to know that I was pretty careful not to bash or ‘flame’ and I don’t feel I was ‘flamed’ either. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • st pete mom

    Sal, I am a daily lurker since I love your blog but this is my first post. I just had to say how insulting it is to me (and most Catholics) when I see Rosary Beads appropriated as a necklace. In the same vein, I am uncomfortable wearing a necklace with a cross on it because I am not that religious and feel that someone might think I am a fraud.

    • Miss T

      How funny — our posts (mine just under yours) were posted at the same moment! I’m not Catholic, but my point was the same as yours. I think we can blame Madonna, the greatest poseur of all, for the denigration-of-religious-symbols-for-personal-gain trend!

    • Anonymous

      I am not religious at all (although brought up Catholic) and I also am uncomfortable with the nondevout wearing religious symbols. I realize, who am I to judge who is devout, but there’s a difference between wearing a small cross or Star of David as part of your faith and piling on layers of crucifixes. As someone who is militantly agnostic and not at all spiritual, I don’t know why this bugs me so much, but it does.

      • Maya

        From a Jewish perspective (one of them, at least) a Star of David is more a symbol of identity than faith- it isn’t making a statement other than “I’m a Jew”- it isn’t quite the religious, devotional statement that I perceive from Christians when they wear a Cross. Nevertheless, if a non-Jew were to wear one, I’d feel a little uncomfortable, and maybe try to presume that they were in the process of conversion, or the like. Otherwise, it does feel like it crosses that line into cultural appropriation, even for something that is Much less significant than wearing a kippah (yarmulke) or tzitzit (ritual fringes).

    • This is why I will never wear a cross. My Great Aunt was a jewelry maker and made many cross pendants that are utterly gorgeous, but it’s not a symbol that means something spiritual to me, and I would hate to offend those who find it so important.

    • Mistie

      I’m going to argue the opposite point for a moment. I’m an atheist, but I was raised in a devout Christian home. As I grew and distanced myself from those beliefs, I became more interested in the symbolism of mythology–most symbols of Christianity go back much further than the Christian faith (I’m speaking here of Celtic crosses and rosary style beads {the counting bead has been around for longer than the Catholic church}). I wear Christian and Jewish symbols because they mean something to me culturally. I’m not doing it to be offensive, and it does mean something to me. It just doesn’t mean to me what it means to others. I don’t think that makes my personal connection to it weaker or less valid than others.

      • Miss T

        That’s not being a poseur — you are wearing symbols that have meaning for you.

      • Jemima Puddleduck

        I agree. I have some Miraculous Medals that were my grandmother’s, and I wear them because they remind me of her. I am also fascinated by Marian iconography and Mary herself. Mary’s got a personal meaning for me even as an agnostic. I’m certainly not trying to be offensive, that’s for sure! (I also have a small collection of paintings of Mary-I am seriously fascinated!)

        • Kaitlin

          I can relate to this discussion. I grew up Catholic but converted to Judaism in my early 20s. I have many saints medals that I love because they remind me of a story I loved, or a time in my life that was fun, or a friend or family member who gave it to me. For example, I have a St. Cecilia medal (patron of poets) that my atheist grandfather gave me years ago because I’m a writer and he knew it would mean something to me. Now that I religiously identify as Jewish and the only “religious” jewelry I wear is mostly cultural (star of David, hamsa, etc.) I feel weird wearing my saint medals. I guess for me they represent some nostalgia rather than religious sentiment, but I don’t really ever wear them anymore because I don’t want to have to explain myself if someone says “but I thought you were Jewish!”. Interesting topic for discussion, Sally!

      • I’m curious how you feel crosses are meaningful to you in a non-Christian way? My understanding is that, without the meaning of resurrection and redemption, a cross was a humiliating form of torture and execution. I’m not trying to judge you at all, I’m just wondering what meaning the cross has to you?

        [and upon re-reading your comment I saw you said “christian…symbols” rather than specifically talking about crosses, so my question might be in a totally different direction than you’d been going!]

        • Rebecca

          Hi Elspeth!

          In response to your question about crosses, the cross as a symbol has many meanings beyond the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in many cultures, particularly pre-Christian pagan traditions. An equilateral cross (equal length arms), of which the ornate Celtic Cross and even the much maligned Swastika are adaptations, is a “sun-wheel” symbol, representing the turn of the year, and demarcating the four major solar events – the solstices and equinoxes – that mark the passage of the seasons and the worship of the sun god. In this context, a cross may have a very positive symbolic meaning, completely unrelated to the torture and execution of the Christian Christ.

          • Thanks, Rebecca! Now you mention it I did know that, it can just be hard (for me) to get past the meaning the cross had to the Romans when they executed Christ, know what I mean? I’d made that separation in my mind, between equilateral crosses being symbols of time and the cross of the crucifixion being a torture device, so they didn’t feel associated in my mind.

          • Jeanne

            Thank you, Rebecca, for writing this so I didn’t have to!

        • Mistie

          Sorry, I haven’t been on the internet much, so I haven’t been on here since this. Rebecca covered a lot of what I was thinking about, but I was also thinking about my St. Bridget’s cross. It is a symbol from Bridget–the Celtic goddess. It became her “cross” when she made her way from the Celtic faith into the new Christian faith. Lots of saints were appropriated from older, often pagan, faiths.

      • I do the same thing with the Egyptian ankh and scarab! I am ridiculously and belligerently into Egyptology, and, though I am not Egyptian or anything, I sort of feel at home in the mythology and symbols.

        Plus the scarab reminds me of the god Khepri, who’s entire head is just one giant scarab beetle. I LOVE HIM
        I have an…aversion to bugs in general, but I would hold almost any kind of scarab beetle, just because I’m obnoxiously into all the symbolism behind it. NOW THAT’S DEDICATION

        OR MAYBE OBSESSION

        OR POSSIBLY JUST LIKING SOMETHING NORMALLY

        I’m losing track of where I was going with this, if anywhere. This discussion is really interesting though!

    • Jeanne

      Very interesting discussion re crosses, everyone! I had a dilemma recently about this issue. Normally I will not wear Christian crosses because I consider it “false advertising”. But I bought, used, a handmade charm bracelet that was all different shaped hearts, and in the middle, one cross. My first thought was, well, I’ll just take the cross off the bracelet and re-position the other charms. But when I got it, I kind of liked the cross. It was the same style, really well made. It was surrounded by hearts, and it had three hearts running across it, and I figured, well, it’s sending the right message to me when I look at it on my wrist; hearts are about love, and love/compassion is definitely my guiding value in life. I feel a lot of affection for Christ, as a teacher, even though I don’t identify as a Christian; I pretty much agree with everything that’s attributed to him in the New Testament. (Likewise, I feel affection for the teaching of the Buddha, but I’m not really a Buddhist.) A former Catholic then pointed out to me that a cross is not the same as a crucifix. The other thing I came around to is that I’m descended from Protestants of all stripes. That’s a part of my history, like the fleur-de-lis is part of my French ancestry. So for me, the cross is also a cultural symbol, and I feel okay claiming it.

      Hopefully my one cross will never offend anyone, but if it does, I think it’s safe to say that I don’t care. I know that *I* put a lot of reflection into it, and that’s what matters to me.

  • Miss T

    I always shake my head when crosses (i.e., in jewelry) are advertised as, “a beautiful symbol of your faith — or just wear it as a fashion statement!”. HUH??? Equally rankling is when persons of only a certain political stripe (and gender, I suppose) abscond with the right to wear the American flag as a lapel pin, making it darn near impossible to wear it if you aren’t that political stripe or gender.

  • Just the fact that the word “poseur” sent shivers down the neck to read, leads me to believe that I do in fact worry about how I’ll be viewed. The first time I heard that word used as a slur was in my formative junior high years, and it was used by my city-bred cousin. I was a visiting country-mouse and therefore deeply troubled by the fact that people could be judged by how they were wearing a certain style of clothes, or to be deemed “trying too hard.”

    That didn’t scare me off from dressing creatively though. I like to play around with different characters/looks, but generally I stick to facets of my own personality, as you say. Or I water a character down by adding an element or two of another look. Like rather than going full on vintage diva, with a 40s day dress I might wear a studded belt and clompy black boots. The one look I do go full out with is hippie/boho, but I feel like that is fairly authentic for me. With average daily run-errands wear, I do fear that I might be “dressing too young” in other people’s (read:moms) judge-y eyes, but I’m not really worried about evil looks from the youth subculture. I kind of think anyone who “rankles” at the thought of someone incorrectly wearing a piece of their subculture probably has their own issues with their own authenticity.

    • Amen to your last statement! I have had very similar experiences, as I mention in my comment below. It IS indeed hurtful.

    • cinnamonsticks

      I agree with you Sandra. Your last sentence really strikes a chord. Also I don’t feel that you are more or less ‘real’ for attempting to fit into something that may or may not be you. Gah. I didn’t say that very well. I guess my real point would be if you see a ‘genuine’ cowgirl or a ‘genuine’ hippie or whatever… how do you KNOW they are more or less ‘real’ than yourself. The only way I can think of is to talk to them and get to know them beyond the trappings on their body.

    • “I kind of think anyone who โ€œranklesโ€ at the thought of someone incorrectly wearing a piece of their subculture probably has their own issues with their own authenticity.”

      Not necessarily. It could be that this person is annoyed by the mainstream fashion destroying something that has meaning to them. See the earlier comment about band T-shirts & my comment below. Heck, it’s similar to the comments about using religious symbols as fashion.

      • cinnamonsticks

        You are entitled to your opinion, but until you KNOW that persons reasons for wearing that item you are making a big leap in judgement based entirely off your own values. I’ve a shirt from my grandmother who died and it has special meaning to me. Other peoples reasons may not be the same as yours but that doesn’t make them or their reasons any less than your own.

        • Right, & that’s what I’m saying — judging a person as having “issues with their own authenticity” is terribly rude.

          • cinnamonsticks

            I think I’m reading what she is saying differently than you. I’m reading as somebody is getting judged and causing annoyance in another person because of what they are wearing.

            “I kind of think anyone who โ€œranklesโ€ at the thought of someone incorrectly wearing a piece of their subculture probably has their own issues with their own authenticity.”

            To me, I’m reading that the judgement starts and bothers the one judging and that person might want to question why they are judging somebody they may or may not know or fully understand the others motives. I don’t see how these feelings were expressed or even felt by the one who is just wearing the clothes.

          • Apologies if my last statement came off as rude, I guess it does read that way when I go back and look at it in context of all the other replies. It was based on my own experience with rankled name-calling people, who had been called the name themselves and were left overly sensitive.

            Admittedly, I’ve been known to pass judgement due to appearance, I think it is impossible not to. Sometimes I roll my eyes at something I feel has been sold-out or overdone or “hey, I wore that before you did so I’m cooler than you” and so on. In the least, I try to be non-confrontational about it and/or flip it back on myself with the whole “judge not lest you be judged yourself” bit. Peace, love and let’s all be friends. See? I said I identified as a hippie…

            I do agree with cinnamonsticks though, it is very hard to really know if a person is merely appropriating something because they bought it at the mall and they think it looks cool, or if it really has meaning to them… That being said, I definitely wouldn’t wear a symbol or band or religious icon, etc. without having some knowledge of it or meaning behind it.

            However like she says, meanings can be different too- for example, right now I’m wearing a vintage Barry Manilow concert hoodie because it was my late sister’s (who was a huge Fanilow in her day). It is super comfy and has meaning to me because it was my sister’s. She drug me to a few Barry concerts while she was alive, but I wouldn’t call myself a fan. Yet if some Barry fan were to come up and call me out on it, I’d at least be able to defend my reasons for wearing it.

            But I guess I really can’t help it if someone who doesn’t know all that is rolling their eyes at me and thinking I just bought some vintage looking hoodie from UO in order to look all ironic or whatever.

  • Surely the difference is between dress and fancy dress? You may feel cowgirl, retro woman etc in those outfits, but frankly you just look like you. Evidently the clothes are appropriate for different occasions – but as you discuss, we all dress for business appropriate occasions, special times etc. But it is only really you that knows that you are adopting the particular special personae that you mention.
    Interesting though that these are your most monochrome outfits – perhaps the real you is ‘colourful’ and if you can’t do that you want to compensate by feeling that you are adopting a different persona. Good on you if you want to, since you are far from embarrassing imitation.
    So stay clear of the cowboy hat – yes. But enjoy the gentle bit of dressing up.
    For me the most embarrassing thing would be to wear for instance very high tech top end sports wear as worn by Olympic athletes, while going for a very slow jog.
    But we all channel a little bit of fancy dress. Half the women in the UK will look a little like sailors in nautical colours and stripes in the summer. And I have seen somebody looking wonderful in a top that paid obvious homage to a jockey’s sporting colours.
    Really we can do what we like – as long as we still look like ourselves.

    • K

      I find it funny that people see the cowboy hat as the pinnacle of being a poseur. Coming from a city that ritually plays dress-up in cowboy garb, one must ask, if starting to adopt these more specific or distinctive pieces is “offensive” or “inauthentic”, then how does it become authentic within someone’s style at all? Anyone can adopt the cowboy hat, or other really distinctive elements within their style even if they are not full members of that subculture. Often it is just persistence and commitment. Further, those types of cross-over elements are what make a person’s style distinctive, unique and interesting.

      I understand your attachment to something within a subculture, but really people, it is just a hat, or boots, or buckle, or necklace, or t-shirt. Be informed of the what symbols you are adopting, but don’t necessarily let that stop you. Don’t let other people tell you what style elements are “you”.

  • This is an interesting question for me and I’ll be eager to see more comments. Way back in junior high, in the 80s, I went from Garanimals (just about!) to dressing a little bit like a punk rocker. I had become very interested in social justice, dabbled in writing poetry, and really liked the music from The Suburbs, The Clash, etc., and I liked slam dancing. I wore trench coats and dangly chains, and more black, and some other fairly wacky punk-ish things.

    For this, I got called a poseur. And that really hurt my feelings. I was still a “good girl” underneath that exterior, and had kind of a cute baby face, but I really felt that the way I was dressing expressed some deep emotional stuff in me. I naturally gravitated toward dressing that way; I hadn’t studied it and decided it was for me–I just wanted to do it. It didn’t last long, but it was a stage I went through and I really didn’t feel my peers had a right to judge me for that. I did not adopt the punk “lifestyle” 100%, I wasn’t obsessed with it, but I liked it and it was, indeed, “me” for a time.

  • Emily

    I have to say, even though I don’t think of myself as particularly uptight or easily offended, as a Lakota woman, I bristle at the trend of people wearing Indian headgear for fashion. I just don’t like it.

    • FF

      Not Native American, but totally agree. Actually, I’ll take it further — I strongly dislike the recent trend of “tribal” wear and accessories. What does that even mean? Navajo prints? Elephant tusks? Because indigenous people of the Americas and Africa are all one and the same and “tribal” and exotic? So annoying.

      • Sarah

        Also agree. My understanding is that a headdress is earned by acts of bravery and only given to certain people to be worn on certain formal occasions.
        Not to be bought from Urban Outfitters.

        That’s blatant cultural appropriation.

      • Molds

        I completely agree!

  • Interesting topic. I had a bit of a hippie-Grateful-Dead-following phase (ok, a bit of a 5 year phase, from 18-23) and I definitely felt judged, among all the kind brethren and sistren, as a bit of a wanna-be because I hadn’t gone “all-in” ( I didn’t let my hair get dreadlocks, for example.)
    But even at the time, I knew in my heart that the feeling of being judged was mostly a ME problem– that I didn’t feel 100% confident in my own skin, let alone clothing.

    • And of course, that in itself is problematic, because for a lot of people, dreadlocks are a part of their culture which has been appropriated by hippy subculture.

  • D

    As others above me mentioned, people wearing rosaries as necklaces really rankle me.

    I used to dress punky in high school, and now I’ve crossed the line into almost preppy, so I think for the most part, I’m over caring about whether I look like a poseur. I just try to dress like me. It is strange though, when you are a part of a subculture and other people know it, how they assume you should dress. One of my coworkers has made a few comments now about how I “don’t look like a roller derby girl” because I wear skirts and dresses. Am I a poseur because I don’t show up to do my job in booty shorts and tall socks? Silly.

  • 1000Oysters

    I’m from/live in Wyoming and I’m pretty girly. I also work in a field with mostly men so I get judged on a daily basis for what I wear. Most of the time, I wear dresses because that’s what I’m comfortable in and I feel better about myself if I dress up. I feel like I put more effort into the rest of my life if I have put effort into my appearance. That being said, there are times when I have to wear dirty jeans and workboots. On those days, I get a lot of side-eye from other women who wear that uniform on a daily basis. I know they think I am a poseur. BUT, what they don’t know is that I spent eight years working in groundskeeping and can run heavy machinery pretty well. I also grew up in the country and have done my fair share of fencing and outdoor work (and riding horses!). So what it boils down to for me is that I don’t know someone else’s life so I can’t judge what they are wearing at any given moment as true or false to that person. And frankly, I don’t really care if someone thinks I’m a poseur because they don’t know my life or how a given article of clothing or accessory makes me feel.

  • It’s a tricky thing… I also enjoy experimenting with different kind of looks on a daily basis and try to avoid anything that could offend a particular cultural or religious group. However, with so many designers and stores doing their own twists on vague things such as “ethnic jewelry” it’s often hard to know what culture they’re borrowing from and how much they made the design their own vs. just lifted a traditional design. Soooo, I pretty much try to stick to items I love, avoid mass produced things as much as possible, and hope for the best! So far I’ve never been confronted about anything I’m wearing in real life or on my blog, so I must be doing okay!

  • I’ve learned to call all the looks that aren’t me “costumes.” Here’s why: I am a minimalist. I’m also not adventurous at all. Anything that smacks of a “look,” or an “outfit,” or that can be easily identified with one group or another is not me. For the most part, I’ll dress in a preppy or punk style, but I’m a home-grown prep.

    if I’m honest, I like the punk look only in theory. I am not a true punk, and believe me, I’ve read a lot about it. I simply find the look riveting, and I associate it with a big part of meโ€”a part on the inside. When I was a teenager, I often dressed in the punk costume, but it was merely thatโ€”a costume. And in my group of friends, there was a lot of commenting about “poseurs,” who was, and who wasn’t an authentic punk. If only they’d known I wasn’t a true punk, but in fact a huge poseur! But that whole conversation was laughable, because none of us could have known what was an authentic punk ten years after the movement, ten years after the fact!

    I find myself in much more generic looks now that I’m older. I choose to blend in, to be unidentifiable, because I don’t like drawing attention to myself. I rarely dress in any costume.

  • I grew up competing in rodeos and riding my horses, but I haven’t done it for many years. Back then, I could, however, pick out someone that was not part of that lifestyle in about 2 seconds. The men were particularly easy to pick out of a crowd. The crease of your hat generally defines what type of event you competed in (a bullrider vs. a roper) and most of the “poser” men had the store bought crease. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Your cowgirl persona is a cultural image and not based on what actual cowgirls wear, but that is what is fun about dressing for an idea! It’s putting your own spin on it and having fun. As long as you are not pretending to be part of that lifestyle, then I don’t think there is a problem with it.

  • These are some interesting responses… I have some very specific tastes in music and hobbies, but they have absolutely nothing to do with my sense of style. It does drive me nuts when some people blindly follow trends without being aware of what they’re wearing… like people wearing Nirvana t-shirts ‘because they liked the smiley face’ without knowing that they were even wearing a band t-shirt.

  • lisa

    I have always wanted to wear a sari, because they are so beautiful. I have also always assumed that it would be offensive to Indian women, and that’s why I never have. Would love to hear from your readers on this!

    • Anonymous

      Good point, I would feel the same. Remember Michaele Salahi who may or may not have crashed the president’s state dinner? She wore a beautiful sari. Was she a poseur or a poser?

    • Christina

      I think the Sari has a beautiful and exotic look, but I’d be afraid if I tried to actually wear one it wouldn’t really be “me”. I’d love to hear input from anyone who wears a Sari for cultural reasons- would seeing a clearly non-Indian woman wearing a Sari be offensive, or would you be pleased that other cultures appreciate the beauty of your heritage? How about a more subtle interpretation, like a Sari-influenced evening gown or maxi dress?

      http://www.polyvore.com/naeem_khan_one-sleeve_embroidered_caftan/thing?id=39833316

    • Beth C.

      I had an Indian roommate who would dress me up in saris all the time. She never had a problem with it because as far as she’s concerned (and all the Indian women I’ve talked to feel the same ) they’re just clothes, they don’t really have symbolism for the most part, it’s just a dress. Now, again there is context, I would wear them, and other Indian syle dress, when I went with her to cultural events and such because literally everyone was wearing them and you’d kind of stick out if you didn’t. I would also love to wear one out to a nice party sometime. Then again, I think if your intent is to make a “look at me! I’m culturally aware!” kind of statement then you’re going to look like an inconsiderate idiot. So, if it’s a high profile event with lots of photographers and such, probably not. I’m not sure if that makes any sense or not, but I think the big question is WHY are you wearing it, not that you’re wearing it that would offend people.

      That being said this same roommate did get really annoyed when about six years ago or so there was this huge trend toward wearing T shirts and such with Indian and East Asian art on it, mostly with Bhuudas and Hindu gods and such. As she put it, she was happy people thought Indian art was cool and pretty (it is, by the way) and even that it was trendy, but wearing a Tshirt with Shiva or Ganesh on it would be like her running around in a Tshirt with Jesus on it. It’s just kind of disrespectful, and the fact most people didn’t even seem to GET that they were running around in religious iconography annoyed her even more. So yeah, that was her take on the Indian culture cross over thing.

    • Genevieve

      Years ago I was in a play set in India. All of my costars were of East Asian descent. When our show was nominated for awards we went to the Helen Hayes Awards at the Kennedy Center. There we encountered a woman (white, and not in the cast of our show) wearing a sari. Two of my male, Indian companions had completely different reactions to her attire. The first looked at the way she’d wrapped the sari, low to expose a lot of midriff and declared it vulgar. The other ran over to take a picture with her and said it made him happy. So, there’s no clear right or wrong, and there’s always a chance of offending.

    • JB

      This was the one I was thinking of. We have a family friend who is Indian, and she would bring us back beautiful clothes from her visits to India (not just saris, but other interesting pieces). I grew up in the SF area, where lots of annoying hippies borrow ethnic styles, and I always felt when I wore head-to-toe Indian clothes, that was how I came across, so I rarely felt comfortable doing it. But let me tell you, Indian women know how to a)dress for heat, b)dress for pregnancy. I wish I could have worn Indian clothes every day of my pregnancies.

    • Sarah

      Saris are supposed to be given to you if you’re not Indian. So if your Indian friend gives you one, great. But you can’t go out and buy one (a traditional, real one) without it being appropriative.

      • Kaitlin

        My husband’s best friend is Indian, and whenever he goes to visit his family, he comes back with lots of scarves and beautiful items for us. When I mentioned how beautiful I think saris are, he was thrilled and said he would bring one home for me next time! I think a lot of this depends on the person–he is just a sweetheart overall and LOVES to share and learn. He has also taught me how to cook Indian food. He also invites us to his home to celebrate holidays with him and I love it as a way to learn and he loves it when I ask questions. So, I think it ultimately depends on the situation.

    • Molds

      I’m Indian-American, and I wouldn’t wear a sari unless I was going to an Indian event. Many people in my family have married non-Indians, and we all love to see them dress in Indian clothes for Indian events. When I got married, all of my American attendants wore saris that I gave them as gifts. They all looked beautiful! I don’t know what I would think if I went to, say, a regular party and a non-Indian was wearing a sari. It’s not up to me what anyone else wears… but I wouldn’t think it was appropriate for the occasion.

  • Kathryn W.

    Let me preface this by saying that I wear boots more than 50% of the time. That said, sometimes the current trend of wearing riding boots driving me a little nuts… I grew up riding horses and when I see someone wearing extremely expensive “riding boots” that are made to look like those actually worn by people who ride horses, but have a big Tory Burch logo emblazoned on the calf and a big zipper down the inside of the calf (which would eat your saddle), it looks silly. Most boots don’t look like actual riding boots, and usually I’m not bothered, but there are certain styles that just really bug me!

    • Marsha Calhoun

      I have a single pair of boots, and apparently they are riding boots (or look like riding boots) – I bought them because they were the only ones long enough for me, and they had a rounded toe that doesn’t hurt my feet, and they look good. They seem graceful and attractive to me. They are warm and they keep my feet dry and damp weather. I like their lines. They have a zipper. I don’t care at all if I look silly to anyone else, and rest assured, I will never harm a saddle while wearing them. Please don’t be driven nuts on my account – no offense is intended. I don’t mean this to sound snippy, but as a riding boot look-alike wearer, I felt the need to respond because I am probably making similar mistakes with other articles of clothing that distress other people because I don’t have the proper background to wear them, I just like them for reasons of my own. Sometimes this business of clothing our bodies is just too damn complicated!

      • Kathryn W.

        Don’t worry, I’m not offended and your comment isn’t snippy! ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s an interesting topic to discuss and I completely understand why people wear riding boots– they are comfortable and look nice with almost anything. And it’s nice to not feel like a freak when I stop by Trader Joe’s on my way home from the barn and a lot of the women are wearing the same thing I am (tight pants and boots)!

  • Mel

    Sal, what a great topic! I don’t think you look like a poseur in anything you wear – you’re simply showing creative sides of your personality and dressing for different occasions.

    As a bona fide ex-rodeo queen (I grew up in Wyoming), I never felt comfortable in Western wear, which some people around me thought was a little strange. It just didn’t fit my style at that time in my life; but, that being said, I now incorporate pieces like turquoise jewelry or cowboy boots when I’m in the mood! Sometimes I feel inspired to dress like an English dandy (velvet coat, ruffled blouse and black pants or a pencil skirt), and other times, I like wearing a lot of my vintage 60s and 70s polyester stuff (that is, when I’m in the mood/have time to tease my hair and put on a lot of eye makeup!)

    I think everyone has the right to dress exactly how their moods suit them, but they’ll always be snarky remarks/stares and accusations of “trying to hard.” I hate that phrase! Maybe we should just raise an eyebrow and ask them if they’re “trying too little?” ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Colleen

    My rules:

    Don’t rep a symbol you don’t understand.

    So, please don’t wear a band tshirt for a band you’ve never listened to solely because the logo looks cool. Or a shirt with kanji on it that you don’t know what it means. Or a shirt that says “I love nerds” when really you are a mean girl in high school who makes fun of nerds. Or a Native headdress that is from a costume shop that you are wearing to be ironic.

    Symbols are important and should be used carefully. To illustrate, I have worn rosary beads as a necklace. I was definitely making a decisive statement about my Catholic upbringing, sacrilege, and symbol appropriation. There was thought behind it.

    On the other hand I knew someone who frequently wore a Che Guevara shirt, who didn’t know who Che was! They just thought it was a cool screen print. That was not the only thing about them that made it hard to take them seriously.

    • THIS. So much. Understand the meaning of what you wear! Why is that so hard for people?

      As Sal & so many fashion bloggers & critical theorists have written about a million times, what we wear sends signals & messages. Sometimes you’re sending very obvious ones, & they aren’t pretty.

      • cinnamonsticks

        But this is Already Pretty! ๐Ÿ™‚ Sorry couldn’t help myself.

        Not everyone sees signals, symbols, and messages everywhere and even if they did they might be different than the ones you perceive. The judgement cycle starts when you assign something (attribute, trait or other) to somebody you don’t know and don’t understand without understanding the person first.

    • cinnamonsticks

      What is wrong with “just thought it was a cool screen print” value? It’s different from yours, but why is it bad?

      • Sonja

        Okay, so I would like to add something here.
        I think it might be okay for somebody to wear a band shirt if they don’t know the band – I would probably not do it personally, but I think it is an option. Wearing a shirt with the image of Che Guevara, on the other hand, is something very different. We are talking about a person who has become an iconic figure, but actually was a guerilla fighter and is considered to be responsible for the deaths of many people. I had a history teacher who always said “You are wearing a tribute to a mass murderer” when somebody turned up with the famous t-shirt.
        Of course this is a very partial point of view, but I think this aspect makes the Guevara-t-shirt a more delicate item than the band shirt.

      • Sarah

        I guess if ‘desperately naive’ was part of your aesthetic you might want to go there.

        Would you walk down the street speaking gibberish you thought sounded like French, even though it wasn’t, but you thought it sounded cool? Would you be surprised if we thought you were nuts? Sometimes something has value BEFORE it’s put on a t-shirt and it’s that value you need to respect. Find another t-shirt with similar colours that has any meaning you want it to.

    • Jeanne

      Personally, I don’t think Che would care. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Much like one person said about kids wearing punk T-shirts when they don’t know much about the band. The problem is that subculture is easily commodified (it’s not a new problem — Teddy Boy style in the UK was sold on Carnaby St, hippie fashion was sold in the U.S. by Sears). The mainstream sees something on ‘the street’ & tries to make a buck off it. Then anyone can find that subculture at the mall, which denigrates the original meaning & impact of the subculture.

    Slowly, the subculture is absorbed into the mainstream itself. Which can kind of suck for those who felt that the subculture meant something different or special or simply had meaning to them.

    Black nail polish may be just the latest fashion to you today (now Chanel & all the fancy designers make it), but when I first wore it as a teenager, I got hell from all the popular girls for being a freak. That’s why it means something to me. Yeah, I love the way it looks, but it was also a risk I took that you don’t have to.

    • Lisa W.

      I get what you’re saying here. BUT you know there will always be trends and leaders of trends and symbols appropriated and mis-appropriated. I don’t see this as a problem, but the ebb and flow of culture. I will agree that it would be smart to consider why or where a symbol or trend came from or even where it’s been manufactured if you truly care about what you’re supporting and what you’re communicating. It’s just as okay for you to wear black nail polish as it is for a Chanel-buying rich girl to wear it. It may not always have been seen as okay, but times change and our culture keeps changing too. We all have the freedom to represent ourselves in whatever way we wish and for that I’m thankfulโ€” what I think is offensive, you may be communicating in earnest so the poseur is really in the eye of the beholder isn’t it?

      • So why is someone worrying about not offending a religious person by wearing their symbol “being nice” or worrying about wearing an ethnic garment if they’re not of the same ethnicity also “being considerate,” but wearing a band T-shirt without knowing anything about the band is OK?

        One can say it’s all just fashion, but then one would have to let *everything* slide, & not be bothered if someone misappropriates something you hold near & dear too.

        IMO, it’s better to wear what’s true & authentic to yourself. If you dabble, do so in small ways, respectfully, & without co-opting what matters to other people.

        • cinnamonsticks

          I think the sticky issue here are peoples values. The values you hold dear may or may not be the same as somebody else and that doesn’t make their values less. I don’t think it’s possible to go through life not offending anybody.

        • Religion and ethnicity are much more meaningful and important than what bands you listen to.

          Personally I don’t understand why someone would actually *want* to wear a band tee shirt if they haven’t listened to that band, but I don’t find it overly offensive. I have a very diverse taste in music and I have a certain degree of pride in that, but I still don’t find the tee shirt thing offensive. It’s just a band.

          • cinnamonsticks

            I think I’m playing devil’s advocate here and I pretty much agree that religion and ethnicity are more important. What I’m saying is that there are others that don’t value those things to the same extent. Without any context of them as a real person, we make a quick value judgement on their exterior. Sure, it’s quick and simple but not always correct.

          • My point is that to one person, they can all be relevant cultural symbols, while another person can think of them as all just fashion.

            If people are going to argue “don’t do this” in one case, they might consider not being so quick to judge in the other, very similar case.

          • cinnamonsticks

            “My point is that to one person, they can all be relevant cultural symbols, while another person can think of them as all just fashion.”

            This was my whole point all along. ๐Ÿ™‚ I wish the internet could convey inflection and body language sometimes.

    • K

      Instead of being upset, wouldn’t this be a form of acceptance of your previous rebellion? You effectively won. Would you prefer to remain being judged for your nail polish? If what was important to you was the risk in that gesture, there are lots of sartorial choices that still embody the risk and rebellion that black polish once represented. If what was important was your desire to have dark-neutral nails that integrated with an overall sense of style, then you simply get to rock your personal choices with better options for execution and a lack of flack.

  • I think sticking to small details is key. I don’t want to look like I’m wearing a costume, because then it really does look like you’re trying too hard to look like something that maybe you aren’t. I don’t want to look like I learned to dress myself out of a handbook of “how to dress like a __________” (whatever it may be). It would make me look stupid, and be insulting to anyone who actually does belong to that group.

  • Mia

    Ahh, authenticity and appropriation. As someone with a great deal of privilege in the world, I try to tread lightly, and have definitely felt that I’ve made mistakes in the recent past (like wearing Day of the Dead facepaint for Halloween). Even when I try to make carefully considered choices (my choice of facepaint was symbolic and important to me), I try to acknowledge when I make choices that may offend other people, especially in a cultural context (ie. folks who find Day of the Dead religiously sacred would be offended because I was wearing the paint in a personal rather than a religious context).

    I have fun wearing “costumes” occasionally so long as they aren’t appropriative or culturally charged–if I dress up in a suit to come to work, that’s a costume to me, because I’m not regularly a suit-wearing person. I do feel sad sometimes that there are certain items that I find beautiful that may or may not be too culturally sensitive for me to feel comfortable wearing, but that’s not such a hardship.

    I try not to judge other people based on authenticity unless they’re flagrantly appropriating sacred cultural items, but even in that case they’re not my sacred cultural items, so I’m not the person to call them out.

    • Jessamyn

      I very much like what you’re getting at here–I just want to push a little farther to say that when we boil down our ethical concerns about world systems and histories of exploitation and inequality to “cultural sensitivity” and “offending people,” I think we sometimes miss the larger point. The history of colonialism, and exploitation of “the other” by “the West” is incredibly long and complicated, and STILL GOING ON TODAY. So not only do we potentially offend people by making weird choices about how we dress, but we participate in the ongoing marginalization and dehumanization of minority groups. (No one person in particular does this on their own, but it is the pattern of repeatedly and systemically appropriating from minority cultures while financially exploiting them for our own gain that is at issue.)

  • The way one dresses for a subculture or ethnicity is voluntarily wearing a badge of membership in something of a common ground that is unusual to find.

    If someone is wearing those symbols in a manner that suggests that rare common ground and does not actually do or ascribe to any of the hallmarks of membership it is frustrating and can be infringing on a disenfranchised culture’s method of generating enfranchisement.

    This applies especially to ethnic dress, but also to subcultural dress. For example, if a person who was against women getting equal pay in the workplace and regulary said things like she was asking for it was wearing a shirt that said “this is what a feminist looks like” that would be uncool. This stretches to many areas–and yes it does indicate insecurity on the part of the person upset, because they are insecure often because of social injustice of some sort.

    To others it might just be clothing, but for the member of the ethnicity or subculture it might be a play at gaining some security, and when it is coopted by people who don’t care or are threats to that security it is an unwelcome coopting.

    However, Sal, you have always seemed to be very respectful of ethnic and subcultural dress. I have never seen you wearing a feather headdress or a misfits t-shirt.

    Anyone has the freedom to wear whatever they want, and others also have the freedom to think it is rude or uncool. I appreciate that you have more cultural sensitivity than many others out there ๐Ÿ™‚

  • rb

    I grew up in an area with “real” cowboys and cowgirls. So-called Drugstore Cowboys wore Stetsons and elaborate cowboy boots. Real cowboys (typically sons of ranchers) wore John Deere caps, wranglers and waffle-soled work boots. Their sisters who were cowgirls dressed similarlty, though most of them didn’t actually work the ranch with their brothers, so they were more likely to wear Jordache like the rest of us. (Showing my age here.)

    So, what I’m saying is, if you want to wear a Stetson and some hand-tooled cowboy boots, go for it. No one in the know will think you’re really a cowgirl. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Depends on where you live! In some parts of the country (I’ve seen it in Texas and other parts of the Southwest), and in Mexico, cowboy hats and boots are, indeed, worn by cowboys. Also, the fancy Stetsons and hand-tooled boots may not be worn while working on the farm, but they will definitely be on for special occasions (dinners out, bars, even things like weddings!).

  • Great topic! Poseur was a word that got tossed around a lot when I was in college, so I am a little wary of appearing to be one. I sometimes feel like I’m in a costume when I wear the retro style dresses I love, but I really do love those dresses, and they’re not representing any particular religion, interest, or skill set, so can’t really be considered posing outfits.

  • cinnamonsticks

    Agreed this is a really good topic. My main issue with the word ‘poseur’ is that it just tears people down. It’s supposed to be a mean thing to say to somebody that -let’s face it- you are judging for their clothes/what they are wearing. Often, this judgement comes without knowing the motivations behind the choice they made. Even if their choices are not in alignment with your own (they like the color blue or it was what they could afford) it seems that placing whatever values you hold higher than whatever values they hold.

    While being respectful of others cultures and mindful of what you choose is great, not everyone holds to those same feelings. (I’m looking at you South Park boys!).

    Anyways, even if somebody is a ‘poseur’ in your book try striking up a conversation with them and find out what motivates them to choose whatever they are wearing.

  • one of my co-workers once told me i had “school-marmish style.” i was never sure if it was a put down or a nod to my attempt at fashion. but it has made me think differently about what kind of clothing is more “me.”

  • This. All of this. This is why I just try to stay away from the whole subcultural fashion thing. Trystan, where does it stop being appropriation of a subculture? I have a shirt for a band I don’t know, given to me by my beloved little brother, and I wear it because I like going out knowing that a cool person loved me enough to give it to me. Am I the problem? Am I being offensive to Pentecostals when I wear my hair in a bun with a long skirt, when that’s just what I like? Am I being rude to athletes when I wear a sport watch to sit in front of a computer all day? Where does it end? I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just saying it’s disheartening to think about just one more way in which everything I do is wrong to someone.
    I give up. I’m looking forward to Starfleet uniforms more every day.

    • cinnamonsticks

      Woot!! count me in for Starfleet. Wait… I think the Royal Manticoran Navy is more my speed. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Marsha Calhoun

      Yep – I just hope Starfleet has something in my best colors. What a relief not to have to fret about people getting offended when no offense is meant, and how nice to be able to relax and stop worrying that my ignorance is going to upset somebody (because, regrettably, I have a whole lot of ignorance and my inadvertent message sending would probably horrify me if I knew about it).

      • Science/Medical electric blue FTW! My best color ๐Ÿ™‚

        • oh and, I feel the same way about inadvertently offending. I’m already paranoid enough, I don’t need the extra stress.

    • Jessamyn

      So my rule of thumb for determining how much what I do hurts someone (because you’re right, its an endless rabbit hole of more and more potential slights) is to think about my position of power relative to the person I might be hurting. Athletes, in general, are pretty powerful public figures (professional ones, at least, and even amateur athletes are far from a discriminated-against group) so your wearing sports clothes at a computer is not likely to affect them. Pentecostals have nothing to do with buns or long skirts, so they’re fine too (though I think you’re probably thinking of Puritans? And they’re mostly gone?). Mainstream Christians, too, have relatively privileged positions in our society so appropriating their symbols may bring down their wrath on you, but in my book, it will not objectively harm them. Wearing a Native American-inspired necklace from Forever 21, however, as a white woman? The relative power their is striking. You are part of a long history of repeatedly defining an entire culture by a few particularly exotic trinkets, and part of reproducing problematic structures of mass-market appropriation of indigenous artisanal goods.

      • I may be confused – I lived in an area with a lot of non-“Amish”, otherwise mainstream technology-using etc. Christian women who sported the long skirt/bun look as everyday wear as part of their religious observance, and I had been told they were Pentecostal on one of the occasions upon which I was mistaken for one of their group.

      • rb

        The girls I went to school with who were not allowed to cut their hair and could only wear skirts also self-identified as Pentecostals.

    • It’s not about some abstract idea of not offending “somebody,” it’s a very real & concrete fact of cultural appropriation (decent summary – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_appropriation ).

      Jessamyn gets to the point when she IDs those in power & those without. That’s the issue. Don’t willy-nilly take minority symbols & use them as mainstream fashion.

      Some of this is just common sense. You can see mainstream fashion all around you & you probably know what is common (like, duh, athletic clothes, which everyone wears, around the world, not just in the U.S.). It’s when people start to take far less common items & randomly apply them as “fashion” that causes problems.

      You have a connection to a T-shirt, fine, but if the band is relevant to a particular subculture (say, if it’s a classic punk band), I would bet you’ve gotten questions or at least sidelong looks when wearing it in public. And that’s to be expected, so you may have to explain, “yeah, my little bro’ loved this band!” Which actually gives you a connection to the subculture too. (Of course, if the band is something very mainstream, it won’t have any particular meaning & nobody will care!)

      • I pretty much figured that, but just had to get it out, as a super-paranoid person who also tries (and probably fails) to be culturally sensitive (though I’m not one of those weirdos who wears a native headdress as a white-person fashion statement – wow, do they even think first?). I was once told that as a white person, the only thing I could do to help make our culture less racist was to “kill myself so there’s one less white bitch in the world”, so I am a little hypersensitive, I’m sure.

        I’d like to think that in the end the key to doing fashion without exploitation is in the look, like Sal said – are you trying to style yourself to take advantage of the connotations of another group, or are you just doing something to make yourself happy? (Like me and my shirt, it’s what I assume is a local emo band [brother didn’t say], and I just wear it with my fleece cardigan and yoga pants and clogs because I’m not trying to be an emo, I’m just trying to be comfortable and happy.) It requires more self-awareness than some are capable of though!
        I guess it’s just difficult for someone like me, who doesn’t filter well, to understand where the “line” is once the concept’s pointed out to me – I’m used to just assuming that as a middle class able white chick from the suburbs, that everything I do is wrong and offensive, and that I just have to learn to live with it. But it’s disheartening to know that I can hurt so many people with the simplest of innocent gestures just because of who I am. I would never try to be like those weird “Mens Rights Activists” – I accept that this is only fair because of my privelege – but it sure is depressing to have one more thing to add to the list of Reasons Why I’m A Terrible Human Being.

        (I love this blog, but somehow it brings out the depressive in me, despite Sal’s positive environment.)

      • cinnamonsticks

        That’s the problem with symbols. They are open for interpretation. Not all symbols mean the same thing to everybody. For instance:

        I worked in a dry cleaners many moons ago. One day a man walked in and asked for us to clean and press a nazi flag, none of the other cleaners would touch it. The owner came out and reverently did the cleaning and pressing by himself. Later, I found out that the man captured that flag during the war so it had a very personal connection for him that most people wouldn’t guess. That flag was a symbol of loss, victory, and hardship for him, that I will never experience with that symbol.

        The world is getting smaller and smaller as we are able to travel, and connect with others nobody would have thought about 100 years before now. Some people will be oblivious to some symbols meaning and mistreat it out of ignorance, some will respect it but not understand the meaning of the symbol, and some will have a connection just through the experiences in their own lives.

        Just the term ‘poseur’ brands a person with a negative connotation. They may like a symbol, picture, words for different reasons than you but that doesn’t make their view or their reasons for wearing it or displaying it wrong. Context is needed and without talking to that person, without knowing the context I don’t feel it’s right to brand or label somebody.

      • I also feel the need to add, in hindsight, that I do know what cultural appropriation is, and I felt a little talked down to when you assumed I didn’t. So that’s coloring my response here.

        However, I stand by my statement, and I think it applies even more when you replace my clumsy wording with “cultural appropriation”. For example, I’m appropriating Trystan’s culture when I wear my navy nailpolish, because goths and punks suffered as outcasts for it. This is news to me that my nails are offensive and culturally insensitive! What is the line between a culture and a fashion statement here? I love and admire both goths and punks, but I’ll never be one, and I’m kind of on the fence with considering them, for example again, as a protected subculture that I must treat with the same caution as, say, Native American cultures. Not that we should go out and beat them up or something, but with something that is a chosen identity, how come I can’t choose to take part? Do I need to spend 10 years apprenticed to a punk before I can wear black nails and ripped jeans?

        GRRRAAARRR WHY MUST THIS BE SO DIFFICULT I JUST WANT US ALL TO BE HAPPY AND FUNLOOKING TOGETHER

  • I think it’s mostly all fair game.

    There are a few things I wore 20+ years ago that have come around again and again (big glasses – I used to have giant sunglass size frames filled with my ‘script; ’70s punk; ’80s metal). It was annoying but also I wasn’t the first person who wore any of those, either.

    I think you can almost always tell what CONTEXT someone is wearing something in, though. I think a perfect example of this was Rachel on Friends with an MC5 shirt on. Either you are part of the subculture and you’re doing it “right’ or you not and you’re dabbling and it will be completely obvious to anyone “inside” the subculture.

    Everything is so fluid these days though that I can’t see that it matters as long as you’re being culturally respectful, as someone else mentioned.

  • Lizzy

    I think religious iconography and graphic tees with explicit messages are in a different category than “I appreciate the cowgirl aesthetic” or “I’m comfortable in Wranglers and boots” (oops, that would be me — did you know they sell women’s jeans in extra long?!) However, the comments about colonialism are interesting. I live in the southwest and I wear a lot of turquoise jewelery, all Indian-made. I’m a jewelery kind of gal — why would I consider Indian jewelry off-limits? I am comfortable being influenced sartorially by the Navajos (for example), considering my proximity, just as I feel comfortable with the local cuisine (red or green?) I guess someone could look at me and say I’m appropriating Indianness. On the other hand, Latinos refer to the Reconquista when they talk about skyrocketing salsa sales…

    • Jeanne

      I don’t think it’s offensive to wear American Indian-made jewelry. Those pieces are made by artisans to be sold to the general public. Far more socially responsible to buy handmade that mass-produced jewelry from a place where the workers are treated horribly. I think the issue is with appropriation of prints and things like ceremonial headdresses. I agree with Jessamyn above that it’s all about power. An artisan making jewelry and selling it has some economic power, and control over the way the designs and motifs are used. Whereas the Navaho nation has no control over Forever 21 or whoever, and doesn’t benefit financially at all from the use of (watered down, ugly versions, but still) Navaho prints.

      But I’m not American Indian, so I stand to be corrected on this.

  • This conversation is fascinating to me. The idea of adopting different “personas” when you dress is something that I used to do quite a bit when my style was in flux and I needed inspiration for outfits. I would do something like “off duty ballerina” (tight black, long sleeve t shirt with leggings, flats, and a bun) or “sexy librarian” (glasses, hair pulled back, sweater that exposes a bit of cleavage, knee length skirt). Such outfits do reflect aspects of my personality (I love books and reading) or my aspirations (I would love to be a better dancer). I don’t do random appropriations (I wouldn’t wear, say, a shirt from a band I didn’t listen to, because I’d be really embarrassed if someone asked me about it and I didn’t know what to say!), and I would never knowingly wear something from someone else’s religion or culture.
    The whole thing reminds me of how people get tattoos of symbols from other cultures, often with no understanding of what they mean (sometimes quite literally, as in the case of people getting Japanese tattoos and later finding out they mean “pork chop” instead of “beautiful”!). But again, you can’t tell just by looking at people. I have a friend who isn’t Japanese, but he’s lived in Japan, is fluent in the language, and loves the people, so it would totally make sense if he got a Japanese tattoo!

    Haha- as I was just about to post this, a client came into my work. A 50-something business woman, wearing a cashmere sweater, pearl earrings, black slacks… and Chucks! It’s interesting how they have gone from athletic footewear, to practically a uniform of the subculture, to something that adorns middle aged suburban business women… but who knows, maybe this particular lady was a punk back in the day and wears them as a fun reminder of her past. You can never judge unless you know the full story!

  • Sal

    I’m thrilled to see that this topic has generated such a lively and varied conversation. Please, however, remember to be respectful in your comments.

  • Miss T

    This has been such an interesting discussion! A couple of interesting themes popped out to me: 1) there’s a difference between FEELING like a poseur (and maybe no one even knowing you feel that way) and 2) being CALLED a poseur, which appears to be a very hostile act that women in some settings do to each other.

  • Maggie May

    I am particularly self-conscious about wearing anything with a Native American design including Native American-made jewelry: I am not Native but work a lot with Native Americans and travel a lot in Indian country. I own no virtually no clothing with any “native” designs except Pendleton (Pendleton is very interesting as a sub-topic as they have a long history with Native Americans and the designs they use have a back story and are, in fact, very popular in Indian country but I digress.) and honestly I might feel self-conscious wearing that. I own a LOT of Native American-made jewelry, bought directly from the artists and from trading posts (yes, they still exist) and I rarely wear that in Indian country (occasionally but not often). I never wear my antique Native American jewelry there because I do not really know the context always or what message it might send. On the one hand, wearing the jewelry is a sign of my interest/respect in such work and designs. On the other hand I guess I have seen a lot of “costuming” and posing and want to stay very far away from projecting that image. I know for sure that the spirit in which one presents oneself is a large part of whether it is “acceptable” to those one encounters. It is an ongoing internal dialogue for me.

  • N Elf

    To respond to Christina and Beth, and to explore something I’ve thought about for a while:

    I am Asian, and I often find it mildly annoying when I see “Westerners” don the qipao / cheongsam / long Asian dress of silk or brocade with a mandarin collar and frog clasps. The ”fancy’ version of this dress is worn as wedding reception gowns or as formalwear to important events. The context in which I am sometimes irritated would NOT be one where everyone wears it — much like the sari situation where your friend wore it so as not to stand out — but in situations where a Westerner wears it JUST SO she will stand out. Perhaps I am too culturally sensitive, but I read it as this: “I am blonde-haired, blue-eyed, a true Nordic beauty, but I want to be exotic like the almond-eyed shaped beauties in the slinky dresses with the slit up the leg.” The classic dress has been turned into a pay-attention-to-me outfit.

    My husband, who is Canadian (of British descent, not French, as everyone asks everlastingly…), states that I am too sensitive. He sighs and says he “wishes [he] had a culture.” While I appreciate the subtle compliment, does having a culture mean having been politically subjugated, colonized, marginalized in American society — even in the large urban metropolis where we live — or asked if I give 5-dolla-an-hour (fill in the blank from Full Metal Jacket)? The British have a long, proud, and fine history… but, ah, they are / were a culture of power and a colonial power. Is that the difference?

    But then, I argue against myself, too (I teach logic and rhetoric in high school!). I wear jeans, skirts, Doc Martens… Does this mean I’ve sold out to my own culture and am trying to be a poseur taking on the culture of which I am not part? But, I think: I do it to fit in. The women who wear the qipao to a restaurant (whether Asian restaurant or not) are doing so to stand out.

    It reminds me as of past trend of getting a Chinese character tattooed on your shoulder and the person didn’t even know what it meant and only took the tattoo artist’s word as the truth (quite embarrassing when what you took to be ‘Strength’ or ‘Honor’ turned out to have a more negative connotation if not outright different meaning…).

    But, ultimately, I am still trying to figure out why my gut reaction is so strong. I amend my original statement of being mildly irritated to stating that, indeed as I’ve proven while typing this long tome, I am upset. Perhaps I try not to get upset that my husband might not think me too sensitive. Is this a reaction to the cultural stereotype of the submissive yessee-yessee-girl that I am trying to fight?

    Who would have thought that clothing choice could be so loaded? I would love to hear other readers’ thoughts, and Sal’s, and hope that I have not offended in my reflection.

  • N Elf

    I realized that I forgot to add a super-important caveat: my strong feeling does NOT apply to Asian-inspired garb; so, a shirt with a mandarin collar and frog clasps worn with jeans is fine. A dress inspired by a qipao, but not actually one, would be fine. You’ve taken something and made it your’s… there has not been an exoticizing or glamorizing of another culture when, to be part of a culture, you have to take the good AND the bad all together.

    I guess therein lies my true problem. Those in a position or culture of power (some, anyways, perhaps not those who are marginalized regardless of race, religion, etc in any culture…) can CHOOSE what they decide to want. The Nordic beauty doesn’t see her extant gorgeousness but feels compelled to put on the plumage of another culture. To me, my culture is wonderful, yes, but there are dark moments in its history, and its cultural beliefs or practices or raising of children ad nauseam, that I cannot ignore BECAUSE it is my culture. I cannot shed the sexiness of the dress when I get tired of how exotic it makes me feel…

    Does that make sense?

    I like the idea above that it’s irrelevant whether you think others are poseurs or not, but that you look at WHY you do what do.

  • sigourney

    I remember Jezebel picking apart a women’s magazine cover. One of the headlines was about looking affluent. They translated as follows: How to Look Rich = Dress Like You Have A Horse.

    That is indeed the one persona I don’t like to see. Not without a horse, no. Funny since I’m very open to a calculated mixture of urbane and casual/rustic. Maybe it’s the “rich” connotation …

  • Gail

    I cannot really work up steam over what people choose to wear, but I can work up steam over how clothing companies sometimes portray themselves in the backdrops used in their catalogs. In particular, I’m offended when a company like Anthropologie places their models in foreign third-world countries for the exotic backdrop, often including residents in the shoots who are much older, shorter, or otherwise somehow more “real”, giving the impression that the models are there hobnobbing with these residents. And all the while the company is charging top dollar for clothing made in such places when the people living there could never afford to buy them. Or to travel to the land(s) where the models come from. I find this backdrop appropriation to be laden with all manner of offense.

  • Sarah

    I’m very live-and-let live when it comes to clothing. I am literally a suburban soccer mom, and my style can be all over the map. Some days I like to wear my beat up motorcycle boots, and other days go full-on “Buffy at the country club” with pearls and a pink/green outfit. Whatever people want to wear is generally fine with me. The one thing that rankles, though, is crosses as a mere fashion statement. It’s hard to know whether a person wearing one is Christian or not so I don’t judge, but I wonder if the people who design and market such things are thinking about the cross’s history and what it really represents. If I do wear one (I am a Christian), it’s more to remind me that I belong to Jesus than anything else.

  • hexia

    It’s not just clothes. I’m a natural redhead and sometimes get kind of annoyed with the countless fake redheads out there, especially the look-at-me showbiz types. I suppose it’s because for me it’s part of my identity, whereas they see it as kind of a cool, throwaway accessory.

    Though it’s also an indirect compliment, I guess. And they have to keep going to the hairdresser every 5 minutes, and I don’t. So there is that.

  • jii

    If you are comfortable with yourself, if you are authentic, then who cares if someone who doesn’t know the Ramones wears a t shirt that honors them?
    My fashion isn’t about you, it is about me.
    No one is dressing at anyone, geez.
    I wear a USC sweatshirt all the time, never went there, my son was rejected for grad school there a few months ago, but it is huge, mostly cotton, and looks cool with leggings. I think the Trojans won’t care.

  • I don’t really know if this counts, and I’m sorta coming at it from the other side of the issue, but I’m going to say it anyway: fake glasses. I actually don’t really mind them, but my boyfriend (he and I are both glasses-wearers) maintains that you have to earn the right to wear them. I guess I agree sort of, but only because I recently ran into a girl who used to tease me to the point of tears about my glasses when I was eight, and she’s now wearing fashion glasses. Without the dignity of fake lenses, even! I should have poked her in the eye.

    That being said, the fact that I’m already naturally on trend with this is kind of cool, and a little flattering.

  • Oh wait oh wait! I have a Second Comment that pertains to the Subject At Hand.

    I have never been to New York (though my big sis lives in Boston and keeps promising to take me…once I make the trip from West to East coast that is. Plane ticket prices are steep for a college student!) but I really want this shirt: http://www.modcloth.com/shop/tshirts/new-york-s-all-right-tee#

    I dunno. Every time I look at that ridiculously apathetic emoticon it gives me the gigglefits. But I’m afraid if I wear it people are either going to be insulted or they’ll start talking to me about New York. I guess I could throw in some vigorous nods and occasionally say things like “Big Apple!” “Fuhgeddaboudit!” and “Skyscrapers!” and maybe they would buy it, but by that time I would have already nervously sweated through the underarms of the shirt, so it would be a lose-lose for me. ๐Ÿ™

    • Go with your gut — if you’d feel weird wearing it, don’t wear it.

      That’s a real key. If you feel like a poseur, if you feel like you’re wearing someone else’s clothes, if you feel like you’re Doing It Wrong, pay attention to that feeling.

      It’s amazing the number of comments here that say with “I don’t mind what other ppl wear, but when someone does this one certain thing, it really bugs me.” Which just points out how most of us do understand this issue at a gut level, that some symbols are off-limits for the general public & are only OK for specific groups of people for specific reasons.

      What we nitpick are the types of symbols & what groups.

  • beth

    great discussion! For anyone interested in some outstanding writing on cultural appropriation and Native fashion, I recommend Jessica Metcalf’s blog — here’s a link to her list of 2011’s Top Ten Native Appropriations:

    http://beyondbuckskin.blogspot.com/2011/12/top-10-native-appropriations-in-fashion.html

    But she often talks about appropriation, etc in cultural and historical perspective and brings a lot to the table. Check her out.

  • Daniel

    I agree with Sandra as well. Why do others care about whos real or not? I get mistaken as a ‘poseur’ sometimes and I’m not even pretending to be a ‘goth’ (it is ridiculously hurtful, close minded and immature) and I do admit it I’m a mix of things, mainly goth with its punk rock roots. Trad, deathrock, victorian and romantic, geeky and creative tendiencies. A poseur is someone pretends to be something that they are not.

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  • I found some discarded clothing with Arabic writing on the tags, some scarves and loose caftans with fancy sleeves, thought of wearing one simple black one as part of a costume, but felt kind of funny about it, not sure what to do with the pieces, donate or?