Ethnic Ethics

This photo is EXTREMELY old. I’m thinking early 2008 or so. I’m wearing a handmade red tunic that I thrifted in a color and cut that I adore. What drew me to this piece, though, was that interesting neckline. I’d never seen anything quite like it, and loved the modified keyhole shape it created.

About a year later, I found several tunics in identical shapes in a thrift store in Chicago. I bought another one in a funky black, white, and red pattern, which I wore a couple of times. But the moment I happened upon that second set of tunics lurking in the thrift store racks – also handmade, all with that very specific neckline – doubt began to creep in. These weren’t just fun tunics and great thrift finds. These garments were likely cultural, and from a culture unfamiliar to me.

I asked around to try to find someone who had seen these tunics in action. I Googled my little heart out, guessing at possible cultures and groups who might have made and worn such garments. No luck for years. Finally a fellow blogger posted the exact same style and I had a name for this garment: Shalwar kameez. And, after a bit more searching and unearthing a little bit of background info, I certainly respected blogger Terri’s research and informed decision to wear hers, but I’ve long since stopped wearing mine.

Garments and accessories are often deemed “ethnic” as a selling point, and “tribal” patterns always seem to trend for spring and summer. In many cases, the fashion version of “ethnic” means “non-Western, non-Caucasian, and therefore exotic.” In this context, these descriptors can be insulting, subtly racist, and may encourage cultural appropriation. Of course, the fashion world is guilty of near constant cultural appropriation and it can become difficult to discern which items are merely influenced by the aesthetics of certain cultures and which items are mass-marketed ripoffs of culturally significant garments. So, as a rule, I avoid purchasing and wearing anything that’s specifically billed as “ethnic.” The lines blur a bit with something like the thrifted shalwar kameez, but even minus the marketing push from the fashion world, I feel uncomfortable wearing just about any garment that hails from a culture about which I know so little and to which I have no personal connection.

Now, I don’t think that cultures should segregate by dress and never cross-pollinate. I don’t think that only Irish people should get to wear Claddagh rings or that only Icelanders should get to wear patterned wool sweaters. And I don’t think that the leather wrap belts I wear are an insult to the traditional Japanese obis that inspired their design. But I do think that Americans are considerably more detached and casual about clothing than many other cultures, and often accept any interesting or cursory explanation of cultural significance as sufficient without investigating for ourselves. We can be quick to glom onto anything that is made cool and alluring by its foreignness, and adopt versions of it into our wardrobes without understanding its origins. To me, it seems unwise to wear garments and accessories that hail from other cultures without understanding the potential religious, historic, and cultural implications they may be invoking.

Of course, it can be extremely difficult to tell by looking at someone where they’re from, what they’ve studied, if they are devout, or really anything at all about their heritage, knowledge base, and beliefs. At least, without making some pretty broad generalizations and potentially dipping into racism and stereotyping. And it’s next to impossible to know the cultural origins of every single item of clothing ever designed, made, and worn by humankind. (Unless you study fashion history and have a truly spectacular memory.) So I try not to judge other people who wear “ethnic” or foreign-seeming clothing and accessories, trusting them to make their own decisions about representation and broadcast.

I’m of Western European descent myself and feel pretty comfortable adopting and wearing tartan, berets, and even dirndls because I understand their histories and am personally connected to the cultures that created them. But those shalwar kameez? My only connection to them is the thrift store that sold them to me, plus a few general descriptions on a few websites. To someone who understands what they mean, my wearing them could be insulting, offensive, or comical. I’d rather move through the world with a more complete knowledge of what my clothing means.

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  • Rushika

    Hi, I’m an Indian, living in India. And let me tell you, my first reaction on seeing this photo was a smile, thinking “Yayyy! She’s wearing the working wardrobe of so many of us today!”

    • Sal

      Wow! Well, there’s another perspective, Rushika. 😉

      • raina

        i have a lot to say, but rusika is right, i was okay with seeing you in it, although i do also agree that selling clothing as “ethnic,” “foreign,” or “other” is very problematic for how we view other cultures. i am a woman growing up in America whose parents are from India, and I don’t wearing a salwar kameez as problematic idea itself, because as a piece of clothing, as your friend said, it’s comfortable and women in india do wear it daily because it’s comfortable while also capable of being pretty, and just like how women here have nice tshirts to wear out and crappy home tshirts, women in india have house salwar kameezes (sometimes just mismatched ones) and going-out ones which all depends on how much money you have, wear you live, what kind of social circle you’re in, etc, just like here in america. In this article I only had a problem with the fact that you said that you stopped wearing the salwar because “My only connection to them is the thrift store that sold them to me, plus a few general descriptions on a few websites. To someone who understands what they mean, my wearing them could be insulting, offensive, or comical. I’d rather move through the world with a more complete knowledge of what my clothing means.” I understand you want to make sure you’re not “appropriating” clothing, but it seemed to me that you didn’t do enough research to realize how daily the clothing is worn and it is just so foreign to you where there is no way that you could somehow “understand” it, and to me, I just don’t think there’s anything to understand. Yes, salwar kameezes were made with pants and a long shirt to protect the modesty of a woman, but as of today in India and in America, women of Indian descent wear them with leggings,etc because they’re comfortable and adopt western clothing (like the leggings and heels) to wear with salwar kameezes. I just believe you’re research was looking farther back than where you really had to look and that is at Indian women- even the Bollywood actresses. I don’t want to blame you or anything, I’m truly taking into account the research that you did (kudos!), but it’s like you said, the mixing can occur, and you don’t have to look so far back to find the real culture, and honestly the comfort of the salwar kameez and the array of places it can be worn really gives it room for variety and style, and like Rusika said- it’s their working wardrobe- women wear these to work, home, parties, dates, etc. It’s already modern for these women, and I think that should be a selling point, and you’re right that making the exotic elements of the clothing as the selling point is wrong and problematic, but for you, girl, they’re comfy and daily wear and VERYYY versatile depending on how blinged out yours is. If you’re a yoga person, these would do very well also, so just think about the modern practices, not just the ancient meanings, to figure out if you’re offending. You just look comfy as hell to me 🙂

        • raina

          p.s. i’m sorry for all of the spelling and grammar mistakes such as wear (where) and you’re (your) i just had a lot to say

  • Nihongo Dame Desu

    It is interesting to read this and view my current situation through the filter of this piece. I live in Japan and shirts with English words are everywhere. Everywhere. They seem to be especially popular with children. Oftentimes, they are nonsensical, and occasionally they are offensive.

    I had a student (12 years old) show up to class in a shirt with random words all over it. “Happy” “Cute” “Young”. Nothing wrong there. But also included was “naive” and “ignorant”. The girls mother asked me about the words. I’m certain she had no idea what they meant, and even if she had looked them up, she probably got the impression they were related to “innocent”.

    It isn’t just clothing (I’ve seen a store called “Titty” and a photos of a sign at a department store reading “Big Fuckin’ Sale”).

    I think this is what happens when you try to appropriate (or just borrow) a culture you don’t fully understand. It’s why I’m not a big fan of most “ethnic” clothing. I don’t want to be walking around with a shirt that announces to the world that I’m mentally unstable, when I think it just means “crazy, in a fun sort of context. Or worse.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to wear a kimono, dressed by delightful Japanese ladies who were pleased to share their traditions and make sure I was doing it correctly and, most importantly, respectfully. And I have a few other Japanese items that may make their way into my rotation (for now, they are closet orphans), *but* I have cleared them with people who are completely familiar with their history, and I’ve been assured that there is nothing offensive about wearing an haori (kimono jacket) with jeans, for example.

    But to take traditional (and sometimes even sacred) items and make them into purely sartorial pieces without any research or based on a quick google search makes me uncomfortable. Having a cute shirt isn’t worth the possible offense. And I think this is even more so when there is no tie to the culture and it is just a piece you picked up on vacation or at a yard sale because the color appealed to you.

    But for me, the potential to offend when wearing something that is strongly rooted in another culture and tradition is great, and just not worth it. And my awareness of that potential would create so much anxiety every time I wore the item that I’d never enjoy myself, no matter now pretty the pattern and how well it matches my eyes and emphasizes my assets.

    I think influences can be fine, depending on just how literally they are using the concepts. Shirt with kimono style sleeves and a crane print? Just fine Entire dress made to look like a kimono but with fewer pieces and easier to put on? Not for me, unless I have some connection to that culture, and also some way to vet the piece to make sure I’m unlikely to offend.

  • Fab

    Sal, wonderful post!! What you are wearing in the photo is actually a Kurta, i.e. about half a complete Salwar Kameez set, the bottom part usually being pants made of cotton – either loose or fitted. But as a result of globalization, the borders have begun to blur and now you’ll find a lot of women and girls in the Indian subcontinent dressed the way you are, a Kurta with Jeans – fusing the traditional/ethnic and the modern/western. I agree, in fashion, ethnic or exotic means non-Western; but I think the fact that a lot of people are including different cultural elements into their wardrobe is actually a positive sign – I just wish everyone went about it like you did, studying the history and cultural significance of that element. Kudos to you for bringing up a great thought provoking topic!!!

  • This is a really interesting topic, Sal, and one I have thought about before. My father in law is Indian, and he’s always on at me to wear a sari. It’s partly because he’s elderly and I think he misses India a lot, and the thought of seeing me in a sari is pleasing to me. But at the same time it’s something I’m really uncomfortable with because I’m not Indian. I’m Irish, and the sari as a garment has absolutely no meaning to me, I’d be putting on a costume – and to me, that seems a bit disrespectful. In addition, well, I don’t know anyone who could show me how to dress in a sari – so, there is a practical concern for me there, too! I don’t like to hurt his feelings but it is something that I feel reasonably strongly about.

    Anyway I don’t really have anything more intelligent to add except that I think wearing a kurta like that isn’t insensitive or disrespectful – but it is a good thing to know what you’re wearing!

    • Beth C.

      I have a friend in your boat and she compromises by wearing the sari to her husband’s family events but not really out in public. Basically, like you with your father in law, she does it out of respect to and love for them and their culture, just as if a man attended a Jewish service it’s respectful to wear a yarmullka (sp?) even if they aren’t Jewish. I mean, it’s totally up to you, and if it really does make you uncomfortable go with what feels right, but just to give you one option that I’ve heard.

      As for learning to wrap it, if there is a significant Indian population near you there is likely a sari shop. My friend went in and just explained her situation and the woman there was super sweet and understanding and taught her how to do it right.

  • Sonia

    I’m from India and I think you’re way overthinking this. Wear, enjoy.

    • LinB

      Agreed — although I am not from India. This tunic-over-pants look is common to many folk groups, over thousands of years: from Germanic tribes in the Roman empire, to the Indian shalwar-kameez, to peasant work wear in medieval Europe, to similar garments worn today by men in Pakistan and by women in Viet Nam. Were you to visit districts in the Indian subcontinent where these garments are commonly worn in daily life, you’d look odd were you NOT wearing them!

  • Aimee

    Sal – interesting topic. I’ve never given much thought to dressing with items from other cultures. However, I am single and I DO occasionally wear a ring on my left ring finger because I think it’s extremely silly to omit ornament on one digit just because American culture seems to think it should be reserved for a certain relationship status.

    • Anneesha

      Exactly!

    • Adey

      Wow, now this is a novel idea 🙂 I love it. The only time you hear of unmarried women crossing into the forbidden territory of the left ring finger is when they’re trying to fend off unwanted advances!

  • Anna-Lisa

    If it’s just a pattern or a neckline that’s interesting but still fits within the parameters of normal western dress (like what you have on in the picture) I wouldn’t be too worried. A t-shirt with an “eastern” or “tribal” pattern is no big deal to me. I don’t know if it makes a difference that my heritage doesn’t really have sartorial traditions that are likely to be “appropriated” by Forever 21, haha.

    I’d feel uncomfortable in an entire non-western outfit for sure though. The area where I live has a large Indian population and there are all these shops that sell GORGEOUS saris and I would actually love to own one but I would feel like a weird poser even going in there.

    Like a previous commenter said, I’d definitely be concerned if it had WORDS on it that I didn’t know the meaning of. (No random-chinese-character tattoos for me, thanks!)

  • Colleen

    I am a henna artist and ethnically I am Irish and German. A lot of non-Indian henna artists will wear a Salwar Kameez or Sari if they are doing henna at a wedding, as a gesture of cultural respect.

    Personally I think it’s all about thoughtful use of symbol. It’s when people thoughtlessly, say, put on an “Indian” headdress as an ironic fashion statement at a music festival that I get my hackles up because it’s turning a sacred symbol into a throwaway, insulting fashion statement.

    • poodletail

      Colleen, I like very much your phrase “thoughtful use of symbol”.

      Great, thought-provoking topic, Sal!

    • Seconding poodletail. When I do get henna’d, I try to go with a symbol that actually means something to me (the lotus has been part of my spirituality since age 13–and I’m a white German girl) and if there is text, it is text I can actually read and have chosen for just that purpose. Yes, I know what I’m scribbling on my skin in Nasta’liq. 🙂 To every symbol, I try to bring context. Without the context, I feel like I’m spitting on the culture.

    • “Thoughtful use of symbol” is where you hit the nail on the head.

      I used to draw Celtic style art because I like the symbolism of the connected lines (eternity, cycles, etc) and the motifs themselves. Yet, to this day, I don’t know what the precise meaning of the Celtic circle tattooed on my back is. I just LIKE it. Was it a symbol used to represent the sun? Or the harvest? Or the seasons in general? No idea. Am I disrespecting Gaelic peoples by having it on my body? I don’t think so, because it means something TO ME.

      There’s a huge difference between wearing moccasins bought at a trading post that were handmade by a Native person and a craft-feather headdress you bought at Forever21.

  • Claire

    I’m so glad you tackled this topic! I think colonialism/imperialism (and white privilege) also play a role — especially in terms of the difference you articulated between how it feels to wear “ethnic” items from Europe and those from elsewhere. Adrienne K at Native Appropriations writes about this in terms of Native American culture really well, particularly in dealing with the hipster headdress phenomenon.

  • Stephanie Davidson

    I understand your point of view and I respect that you care so much! It bothers me, also, to see people take items that have significance and wear them for fashion, at a whim.
    You posted a link, though, sending us to Wiki and it states that it’s just their everyday wear. Made for comfort and ease mostly. It is what they wear and points directly to their culture, but, would you feel upset if you saw them wearing our jeans? Or a simple cotton A-line skirt?
    I think this also ties back into that other cultures (it seems to me) have more of an appreciation for their roots and their cultures. I don’t think they would go running to what we wear for the most part.
    I think it’s tricky because the question of posing would come up and there will always be nosy people that judge. I personally think you rocked that red Kurta.
    I know it’s not always the case but I think that not being able to share (in part) with other cultures would be sad. Other cultures fascinate me. It could be because I wasn’t raised with any traditions or past knowledge of where I came from. No connections.
    Gah! There is so much to think about! In short I respect your position but I think my desire to nod to other cultures would win me over and I would wear the piece.

  • Isabelle

    Hi there! I read your blog often, comment almost never. But this is something I’ve given a lot of thought to.

    To my mind, the issue of appropriation is not fundamentally about culture/race; it’s about power. We often think first about whether we’re connected to a culture by heritage – so we rationalize that it’s fine to wear, say, a Breton sweater or a tweed jacket either because we are of French/Scottish descent specifically or of “white”/Western European descent. And therefore, we would not wear (generic, non-gift-type) Kenyan styles, for example, unless we had Kenyan relatives or friends who wanted us to wear them. I think this line of reasoning is motivated by kindness (and it’s a good general guide to practice – as a white person, I’m not breaking out the qipaos any time soon.)

    But it bumps into contradictions (and trolls always zoom in on these): lots of very ordinary Western clothing is appropriated, from the bathrobe and smoking jacket (derived from the banyan) to the brogue (Scottish people were basically colonized by the English; it has been forgotten now except to the Scots, but it was not pretty). Paisley patterns started out as sacred to Zoroastrians. And lots of Western clothing has a very ugly history – Clarks desert boots are basically the military boots used in colonizing lots of sandy places and stealing land and resources, and lots of elite/preppie/trad clothing basically gets its status from being the clothing of the exceptionally nasty robber barons and wealthy elites of the Gilded Age and the 1920s. Why would we say that it’s not okay to “colonize” clothing but it is okay to assign high status to the clothing that the actual historical colonizers wore? There is very little “innocent” clothing.

    So. I’d argue that power differential is the issue with appropriation. First, because when cultures are roughly equal there tends to be an equal exchange (you wear jeans, we wear breton sweaters) and no racism. We may exoticize French people and Swedes a tiny bit, but there’s no racist charge to it. I’d argue that the “appropriation” between Japan and the US is (with the exception of geisha costumes and overtly racialized stuff) much more equal than the “appropriation” between, say, India and the US – we wear obi-influenced belts and anime t-shirts; Japanese subcultures get into vintage workwear designs, etc. It’s possible to have an “obi-influenced” belt because the obi is recognized as a legitimate source of fashion rather than an exotic gew-gaw. Basically, Japanese fashion is seen as much more equal to US fashion because Japan is seen as a much more equal nation in terms of power and status. (There’s still plenty of racism and exotification, but I’d argue that Japan illustrates how power differentials change over time.)

    But why is this important? I’d argue that it’s the “exotic” factor. “Exotic” is always a descriptor for a weaker Other. You don’t say that your boss is “exotic” even if he is extremely handsome and from another culture; you don’t say that the Egyptian military is full of “exotic” people, because it’s a full-on, functioning military. “Exotic” is not just about othering and sexualizing; it’s about your power to other and sexualize without being called to account. When Edward Said talks about “Orientalism”, he’s talking about colonial powers exoticizing and sexualizing “the Orient” as a way of legitimating colonial rule.

    And as you observe, Sal, a lot of the allure of appropriated clothing isn’t in the clothing itself – especially when the appropriation is really offensive. Consider the perennial source of awful appropriation, the “native” feather headdress. Now on one hand, a lot of headdresses sure are pretty – and the lavishness of the feathers and the beads looks very well against the hair. But there are a lot of ways to arrange feathers and beads and fur and pretty things to make a hat – Western fashion is full of them. The headdress gets returned to again and again precisely because of its aura of Otherness, and because white folks do not have to live the unpleasant realities of colonialism. The headdress symbolizes a bunch of stereotypes: the “noble savage”; the glorious American frontier.

    If we didn’t live in a society where Native people were kept down – and we had acknowledged and made restitution (as much as possible) for stealing all the land – that headdress would no longer have the attractive aura. It wouldn’t symbolize noble savages or the glorious frontier because those ideas would no longer have any emotional charge or social traction. White folks wouldn’t think of Native people in stereotypes, or resent them if they talked about colonization – so the headdress would no longer be an emotionally charged object. Frankly, no one dresses up in fashion versions of the religious robes of the Lutheran church – in which I grew up – because Lutherans just aren’t exotic or disempowered and there’s no real emotional charge in the various choir robes, chausables and so on. What’s more, if someone did do a “sexy Lutheran” costume, it might strike me as frivolous and mildly rude (except I’m not religious now) but I basically wouldn’t care that much – it would just be some dumb thing, because I am not exploited, disempowered or stereotyped in any meaningful way because of my Lutheran heritage.

    There’s a quality of “ooh, look at that! it’s so naive and primitive! That’s so cute!” that we attach to the clothes of the “Other” – like when expats come back to the US wearing “funny” tee-shirts with incorrect English on them. Basically, that implies “ha ha, how funny it is when those silly foreigners think English is cool and then mess it up!” It’s the equivalent of when men say “you’re cute when you’re mad!” – something that is serious and real to you (or to another culture) gets turned into something so miniature and adorable precisely because we don’t have to take it seriously. The sacred garments of tribal people are fodder for fashion precisely because many westerners assume that these sacred practices are not “real”, not as serious as the religions of the developed world. Where it would be considered transgressive to dress as a priest or a hassid (and the few fashion shows with those images have been controversial), it’s considered just fine to wear sacred clothes of less powerful religions, because we assume it’s okay to treat them as unreal/toys.

    The power differential is also why it’s not appropriation for, say, Chinese t-shirt makers to produce shirts with random English on them, or for an Iranian to wear jeans. White folks in the west are not disempowered in any meaningful way because of their whiteness and westernness by Chinese people or Iranians. (As much as there are incidents with Westerners being jailed in Iran, that’s not systemic – it’s specific political incidents. It is not the constant, lived reality of white westerners the way racism is for people of color.)

    I think appropriation gets misread as being about culture-in-a-vacuum, as if there is something Purely And Authentically Indian about the salwar kameez – and as if there is some kind of Pure, Authentic Indian Identity that all people from India conform to. As if the reason a white person probably shouldn’t wear a sari is because White Folks Are Totally Different From Indian People And We Must Stay With Our Own Kind.

    When really it’s about 1. the emotional charge and thus allure we attach to the clothes of the “Other”, when the “Other” is always stereotyped and often exploited; and 2. the inequality and stereotypes that prevent a fair and equal exchange of ideas and culture.

    To my mind, the solution to “appropriation” is to work against racism and colonialism. (In the meantime, it’s probably best to skip wearing extremely culturally-marked clothes, because who wants to make people feel bad or to look like a clueless jerk?)

    • poodletail

      Thanks for taking the time, Isabelle, to make this eloquent post. It’s really just about being informed and respectful, isn’t it? Because, as you say, “who wants to make people feel bad or to look like a clueless jerk?”. Right on.

    • This is an amazing and enlightening post. Thanks for typing all that out!

    • Anneesha

      This is an excellent and thought-provoking post!

    • pope suburban

      I love this comment to pieces. It is everything I wanted to say, but better. And the last paragraph is why I try to avoid super-charged cultural clothes, because I know I would run a high risk of looking like a thoughtless hipster and I would personally rather not offend people; it’s not their job to know that I think about this stuff and I find it easier just to stick to my jeans and t-shirts.

    • Anonymous

      Just a brief rejoinder. Clarks Desert boots are not “basically the military boots used in colonizing lots of sandy places and stealing land and resources”. They were designed as a fashion item by Clarks in 1949 based on boots worn by soldiers of the Eighth Army in the Western Desert during the Second World War. These original boots were made by Egyptian cobblers and the soldiers who wore them were conscripted from all walks of live in the UK (may of whom died in the conflict). To reduce their origination to a signifier of colonialism is at best glib and at worst ignorant.

      • Isabelle

        Well, that just goes to show what I know! What’s more, Clarks was actually founded by Quakers. Honestly, I had a conversation with a fashion studies friend about her Clarks back in maybe the early 2000s in which she described them as worn by British colonial forces while colonizing. I wonder what underlay that miscommunication – was she talking about another boot company? Did I just think her boots were Clarks? Was she confused? Was she talking about some point of style rather than the Clarkness of her boots? I wonder if she could have confused the first and second world wars? It doesn’t look like Clarks made army footwear at all. In any case, I ought to have checked since I had not seen a primary source.

        So I’ll sub in the vogue for combat boots and Israeli-style canvas boots with rubber toes (which were quite fashionable in my corner of the world in the nineties). (And also, Brooks Brothers? Got their big start cheating the US Army during the Civil War – see this NYT link.)

        I

    • Thank you for this post!

  • Maggie May

    I think about this a lot because I work with Native Americans and often travel to reservations (yes, we can also think about that word but in this context it is the most descriptive). I am very sensitive about wearing Native jewelry for fear I don’t know the context (I do not have any “Native influenced” pieces, only genuine Native American made pieces but many are old, making the significance tricky to discern). I don’t know the meaning of all the symbols (animals etc.) and rarely wear them when conducting business. On the other hand, I know the people I work with are often very happy to see that I do wear jewelry made by people from their tribe. Also Pendleton clothing generally gets a “pass” from the general ambivalence about appropriation of Native American designs for all sorts of historical reasons.
    More similar to your outfit: many years ago, Old Navy had beautiful tunics, in linen and cotton, which seemed reminiscent of Indian (subcontinent not Native American) designs. They were very high quality and I bought a number of them on sale. As it turns out, I learned they were very close to real Indian garments, men’s garments as it turns out, and were in fact made in India. That felt “costumey” as opposed to wearing a tunic with some slight influence via pattern or decoration….

  • Acorn

    I enjoy the cross pollination of fashion. I love traveling to Asia and seeing American brands and sportswear embraced and I love walking on the streets of any large metropolis and seeing the diversity of clothes on people from variable cultures. Sensitivity is a good thing, but I think intent goes a long way. Purposefully disrespectful would be inappropriate, playfully and artistically (and that is what style is isn’t it?) incorporating various traditional clothes just doesn’t seem disrespectful to me. Of course, no one should wear what they aren’t comfortable wearing.

  • I wrote a couple of epic posts about India as a fashion inspiration and how to incorporate Indian clothing items into a Western wardrobe. I love the color combinations and patterns that seem to exist in Indian clothes and nowhere else, and I love the comfort of a salwar kameez in hot weather, but it’s definitely hard to wear the whole suit over here without looking like you’re a bit in costume. But pair the tunic with some American style pants and, well, why not? Or wear the longer, more dress-like styles as a sundress with sandals. I have a gorgeous one that’s sitting in my closet, needing to go to the tailor to have a side zip installed.

  • Victoria

    Sal, if it’s not your skin, it’s a costume. Period. It’s how we tell strangers “I belong to your tribe.”

    All clothing is context dependent. A sequined ball gown may be western in origin, but you still wouldn’t wear it to the office. In my closet, I have Geek Ethnic, Business Casual Ethnic, Business Formal Ethnic, Garden Party Ethnic, Farm Kid Ethnic, Steampunk Ethnic and so on. Every culture and sub-culture in the world has a uniform. (I have a friend who delights in freaking out geeks by wearing twin sets and pearls to sci fi/fantasy conventions. But she’s built like Jessica Rabbit and likes messing with people’s heads.) Mixing and matching ethnicities merely says, “I’m fun, creative, open minded and/or a little bit eccentric.”

    This born and bred American mid-westerner has and wears a kimono on a semi-regular basis. Every time I do wear it, the Japanese people I meet are approving of this gaijin. (Mostly because I took the time to learn how to wear it correctly.) To them, it’s as every day wear as jeans is to us. I think it’s only polite that if you’re wearing a fully traditional outfit, you wear it correctly as dictated by tradition. And act normally while wearing it. If a person is uncomfortable wearing something, it shows, and the stiff/awkward body language puts the viewer off.

    Derivative fashion (aka: Inspired by _____ clothing design) is okay for most people in most situations. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and all that. For the people who are uptight about derivative fashion and mix-n-match ethnic outfits are generally uptight and disapproving of everything they don’t directly control or that doesn’t meet their expectations/standards of couth.

    How do I know this? I wear hats all the time. Hats, for me, are like shoes for other women. I can tell a lot about a person by how they react to my hats — especially the more creative ones. A really good litmus test is when I declare Geeks in Tiara’s for me and my friends. (we always go to a coffee shop for it, and I Iike to people watch, so….) Some people smile at the combo of a dragon-emblazed T-shirt combined with a prom-queen’s tiara. Others frown and actively avoid making eye contact thereafter. It’s especially amusing to me to run into people I know from work when I’m doing it. I think it’s fun to watch someone explain to their spouse (usually) why this weird person is someone they not only want to talk to, but are friendly with.

    Yes, my reputation as an eccentric is firmly established. I enjoy my eclectic ways and don’t care who knows.

  • My personal tastes run very standard Western, so not something I run into often. However, in the three months I spent in India, I was struck by how often people would tell me I should wear a sari, and how happy they were when I’d wear salwar kameez. There was a pride in the dress, similar to pride in cuisine. So I would have assumed that people enjoy seeing hallmarks of their culture in fashion, as long as nothing is mocked.

    • This is very much the same reaction I get. Over here, Indian friends and acquaintances are often thrilled to find out I spent so much time in their country, and my technician (who is moving back to Delhi with her family soon) is overjoyed that I am familiar enough with the country to contemplate coming halfway around the world for a visit. This post is lighting a fire under me to get the dress I bought altered and ready to wear.

  • Anamarie

    My ethnic heritage is Mexican. I don’t feel offended or insulted if a non-Mexican wears a Mexican peasant blouse. I wonder where they found it! I think it depends on the spirit in which the garment is being worn. If you took that tunic and wore in a provocative way (belted very short, with hooker heels), then I could see that being offensive. Same with a Mexican peasant blouse that is altered or paired with too-sexy items to make it slutty. Personally, I love that tunic, but I would wear it with leggings, not jeans, or maybe a slip dress underneath.

    • Reeda

      I admit I am perplexed by the “as long as it isn’t slutty” mind set. Would it be OK for a Mexican to wear a slutty peasant blouse but not a non-Mexican to wear one? Can one only wear “slutty” clothing that reflects one’s genetic makeup? Or maybe it’s never OK for Mexicans to dress slutty but it may be OK for those of Scandinavian descent (as long as the clothing is traditionally Scandinavian)?

      • Anamarie

        Reeda, since Sally was talking about wearing “ethnic” clothing native to a culture not her own, that was the context in which my comment was made. No one in my family wears “ethnic” (Mexican) clothing for any reason other than a celebration, festival or other special event.

      • Sam

        I think what Anamarie is refering to is the sexualizing of the “exotic other”… Orietalism, etc. (See Isabelle’s comment above.)

        Kind like Gwen Stephanie’s kabuki/geisha girls or the sexy Native American costumes Outkast backup dancers wore for a live performance of Hey Ya.

  • Aziraphale

    My thinking is along the same lines as your own. I probably wouldn’t wear the shalwar kameez, either, because the culture is so foreign to me. On the one hand, I’d feel like a poseur, and on the other hand, I’d be a little worried that my wearing it might appear insulting to those who belong to the culture.

    But a white woman with an Asian husband can go right ahead and wear any clothing belonging to his culture that she likes. She has in effect married into the culture, so in that case, I think it’s a sign of her participation in the culture to incorporate items from that culture into her wardrobe.

    It’s a bit like the “rules” of naming your child. There aren’t a lot of rules, really, but one of the unspoken ones is that you’ll look like a total poseur if you use a name that is clearly and wildly different from your obvious ethnic background. We gave our daughter a Scandinavian name and our son an Irish name and it felt natural — not because either of us can speak Danish or Gaelic, but because we’re clearly as whitey-white as can be, and our ethnic backgrounds do in fact include mostly British Isles and Scandinavian components. There was an Italian boy name that I liked, but it was so Italian, a culture I in no way belong to, that using it didn’t feel right.

  • Tina

    Hmmm, shades of gray, I think. I’m not white, and I don’t mind when people wear ethnic clothes from my country, as long as it’s done respectfully. Which is why the Icelandic sweaters example I think is palatable to most of us. Same with claddagh rings, etc.

    But I had an Indian friend who was offended when white girls wore the tight revealing t-shirts with Hindu religious symbols that were popular about ten years ago. Or when people wear “kimonos” that are cut to be slinky or sexy. Or how some tribes were offended by Urban Outfitters’ use of tribal patterns. If you’re wearing the traditional dress the same way someone from that country would wear it, for the same types of activities, then all the power to you.

    I think your instincts are right on, Sally, and also thank you. I heard too many people say, “It’s just clothes – chill out” to my Indian friend – but when the clothes have a meaning behind them, it’s more than just clothes.

    • Beth C.

      I think this is the imprtant thing, what you mention here. I remember having a discussion in a class once basically about this exact thing, no one from other cultures had an issue with others wearing day-to-day clothing from their culture like the Shalwar Kameez, most of them thought it was kinda neat. The only thing that was offensive was either obviously wearing it in a mocking way or if the garments and/or images were religious in connotation. Like, at the time it was trendy for girls to wear bindis and such, and some of the Indian girls in our class thought that was kind of insensitive, especially when it was the elaborate bridal ones because that really did have a specific meaning and use in their culture. Also, things like Hindu gods or Bhuddist imagry on t-shirts and such. As one girl adeptly put it, “How would you feel if I decided to wear a nun’s habit or a t-shirt with Jesus on it just because I thought it was neat?”

      The whole class period was a really interesting, awesome exchange of ideas from all sides and I really wish more people had these opportunities. Since then I’ve always kind of used that as a guide. If the garment has any kind of spiritual or religious connotations, I stear clear. If another culture has just found a beautiful way to dress my body, though, I don’t mind adopting it in respectful moderation. As far as that goes, it’s more a loving sharing of ideas, which is kind of awesome in it’s own way.

  • Mia

    I know I mentioned some of my feelings on this, like you said, in the “posers” comments, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot more since then. I tend to avoid anything blandly labeled “ethnic” because, to me, that clearly says that the people marketing the items don’t know or care about the cultures they’re appropriating. On the other hand, I think it would be a mistake to avoid non-Western (or non-Western inspired) items entirely, because that would be missing the opportunity to learn and grow. It makes me think of the whole “Girls” debacle, where Lena Dunham said that she didn’t write in any non-white main characters because she didn’t think she’d be able to write from their perspective–but that just reinforces the thinking that non-white people are impossible for white people to understand because they’re JUST SO DIFFERENT. We’re all people! Just because someone is different from oneself doesn’t mean they’re an ineffable space fairy or something, and I try to remember that if someone calls me out for making a mistake or cultural appropriation, they aren’t doing it to be mean jerks, they’re doing it because they want to be treated like real, three-dimensional human beings, and that’s not a lot to ask.

    Um, I got off track a little bit. I admit I would feel wary about picking up a kurta and incorporating it into my wardrobe without becoming more well-informed, but as long as it’s all part of an open discussion, I think that it’s fine to try, so long as one isn’t going in half-cocked about it and so long as one is open to understanding that something might NOT be okay. I’m not talking about blatantly offensive or sacred items–a war bonnet isn’t okay for someone to just play dress-up with–but items that are simply a part of normal daily dress, etc., can be fine, so long as one takes the time to understand what it is and where it comes from instead of just thinking of it as exotic.

  • Catherine

    I agree with Sonia that you’re overthinking this. Since the garment is casual wear with no specific religious significance, there’s no reason to miss out on enjoying such an attractive and comfortable garment. We certainly think nothing of it when people from other cultures wear jeans or business suits.

  • paisleyapron

    You mentioned: “I feel uncomfortable wearing just about any garment that hails from a culture about which I know so little and to which I have no personal connection.” That is an interesting perspective. I got excited when I saw you wearing this top because I also recognized it. Our family lived for years in a very diverse community of SF Bay Area and made great friends with our Punjab neighbors. When they visited India, they would always return with wonderful gifts of clothing for us. I wear my Punjab tops with pride because they remind me of our friends and their wonderful generosity, not only of clothing, but food and laughter.

  • Jessamyn

    I feel like there are two really different issues at play here that touch on the power differential a previous commenter mentioned. For me, its really important to separate individual choices from mass marketing. An individual wearing a thrifted garment, or a gifted garment, or a garment purchased somewhere else isn’t a huge problem. Even if they wear it incorrectly. Even if its a sacred article of clothing. Those are choices I try to make for myself in as informed a way as possible, but really the biggest risk you run is making yourself look silly or having a singular unpleasant encounter with a single person you’ve offended.

    To me, a much bigger problem is the systemic marketing of “ethnic” or “tribal” prints, and the mass marketing of those kinds of derivative clothing patterns. That does several things–1. actually displaces local artisans who were previously making and selling those patterns/garments/etc. 2. provides a much bigger platform for the kind of offensive gestures and styles, and 3. fools us (Americans–or really anyone who buys into the marketing, could be European, or merely people with enough money to buy into it from any country in the world) into thinking that what we’re purchasing is our to purchase. It detaches styles of dress, patterns, and artwork from the cultures to which they belong, making them seem as if they belong to a global pool of “inspiration.” Its here where the power differentials mentioned by Isabelle get super problematic.

    At any rate, while our individual choices are certainly important in terms of how we present ourselves, how we are perceived, and the degree to which individuals are what make up the systemic problems, I feel like its more important to call out major fashion campaigns, marketing trends, and mass marketed fashion for issues like appropriation. Discussions about wearing a garment “correctly” or “with permission” I feel like miss the point. Appropriation is not problematic because you might give offense to another individual (especially if you live in the US and are likely to only encounter people from the appropriated culture who have a certain degree of power and mobility themselves), it is problematic when it allows for systems of global dominance to economically or socially disenfranchise other human beings. In that vein, whether or not you wear the particular piece of clothing you thrifted, bought from a local manufacturer, or were given is of minor concern.

    • This is a great comment, thanks for this perspective.

  • I love this post and all these comments! My style leans toward bohemian, which often includes ethnic influence in things like embroidery and patterns. I also sew and do a lot of needlework.

    I have many times passed on a beautiful garment because it felt inauthentic or costume-y for me. Occasionally I buy it anyway (if the price is right) and repurpose the fabric or embellishments in to something that works better with my eclectic wardrobe. Hand embroidered/knitted/woven/dyed pieces are too precious to let waste away in the thrift store. In my head, I feel maybe more connected to the artist than the culture or origin.

    My only exception might be if there’s a religious symbol or tradition involved. I don’t want to offend someone by doing it wrong or without due respect. I see so many things at places like Cost Plus that I like, but unless I get the origin, I generally pass.

  • Celia

    As long as something is worn appropriately and respectfully, I don’t think there’s an issue with it.

  • LK

    I think its good to think about these things but honestly in this case of a kurta its over thinking. My Indian girlfriends encouraged me to wear them. Not one was ever offended by seeing a “white” person in a kurta. Now someone running around in a ceremonial kimono would be different because then you are disrespecting the meaning of the garment. But if the garment does not have particular meaning, in the case of the kurta with jeans, I highly doubt anyone would be offended. Do we get offended when people wear western clothing in Indian countries? Its the same, in the case of a kurta. What you need to look for is whether or not the garment has a cultural or religious significance before you don it. If it doesn’t, then why not? Of course with all PC items there is a line even with garments that don’t have meaning. You’d look pretty silly as a European in full shalwar kameez (kurta, scarf, flowy pants). It would look in this case like a costume which could be disrespectful. But just the kurta or just the scarf wouldn’t cause a problem.

    Its all about how you use the garment and if the garment has a meaning.

  • My perspective comes from being a religious minority (Jewish, observant) with some fairly identifiable aspects of ethnic/religious dress, but not one of the ones that gets identified as romantic or exotic. I’m happy to have other people take on some aspects of my cultural dress- it makes it easier to find clothes that work. On the other hand, taking on the whole thing bothers me, because it confuses the quick communal identifiers that I’m used to, and it feels like appropriation of something that has meaning to me, and none to the other person.

    On the other hand, dressing like an observant Jew when coming to a religious event is just polite- the rules change completely, because the situation is different. Maybe because some of that has to do with communal notions of modesty?

    • Erika A

      This is really interesting and struck a chord with me. Could you comment more on *which* signifiers you find confusing when others adopt? I am genuinely curious.

      I am secularly Jewish (more like Jewish-Buddhist) and dated an orthodox man for a while and dressed modestly around his family. We are long broken up (though still close!) and I dress generally however I like. Sometimes though, years later, despite an undying love of close-fitting clothes and brightly colored pants, I still like to dress modestly on occasion, largely because it seems to drive me to a place of greater contemplation and connection. I look forward to being married so that I can wear full headwraps around certain groups of friends (as opposed to draped scarves) without inducing confusion in people.

  • Really interesting, thought provoking post. I am going to come at this from 2 angles.

    First angle: I am African American. My “tribes” so to speak are based here in the US but obviously in Africa as well. Much of Western wear (vast majority) is not African in origin in any way. I generally wear what I want. I don’t really identify with African fashion and it holds no meaning for me (at least until 5 years ago see second angle), so I wear largely Western clothing and trends. I do enjoy some pieces that could be seen as appropriated—kimono style jacket, some skirts I found that were made from recycled sari material. I don’t wear them disrespectfully and I think that’s okay. I would never wear a full sari unless in an appropriate context (ie I was attending an Indian wedding and it was requested of me which has happened). I really like the points the above poster made about power related to appropriation as well as the perception of “exotic.” Certainly I find these pieces beautiful but I do not wear them for their “exoticness” and I certainly respect the cultures from whence they came and dress and pair them accordingly.

    Second angle: about 5 years ago I had the opportunity to begin spending about a quarter of my time working at a hospital in Southern Malawi in Africa. Malawian women dress very differently from US women. Always skirts or dresses, covered and modest relative to a lot of US dress, beautiful stunning cotton prints. When I arrived I found many of my coworkers dressed as they would in the US, including wearing pants on a regular basis, something Malawian women never do. When I arrived, I naturally wanted to dress similar to the native women for several reasons.
    1) I felt it respected their culture to do this (not to say my colleagues were disrespectful per se, but I felt I needed to do it for me).
    2) I thought it would make native Malawians more comfortable with me, which was very important as I was working in a hospital with children and families under stress, so this could be helpful. It made a tremendous difference in this regard.
    3) I found the clothing utterly beautiful
    4)it was weather appropriate.
    5) I also made an active decision to wear lower end items for a couple of reasons—the vast majority of Malawians are very poor, and I would have felt very conspicuous wearing high end items in that setting. Many of my colleagues did, which was also fine for them.
    I did have one male (Causcasian Western) colleague say “Aren’t you worried you will be mistaken for one of them?” which I found a very rude and divisive statement. I saw no negativity in being mistaken for a Malawian (obviously he did). Obviously once I opened my mouth, it was very clear I was not Malawian (my Chichewa is getting better but I am no native speaker for sure). It was an interesting bias I had not thought about, the question are you trying to fit in too much. However I think when you are in a place, adhering to the clothing standards/wardrobe is overall respectful and pereceived as such and not trying too hard. When in Rome so to speak, and the Romans will appreciate it in my experience.

    • I like your “when in Rome” approach. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable enough to wear exactly what the, er, Romans in question wear, but I think I’d try to capture the essence of what the garment does. If I’d worked in Malawi, for example, I’d have felt appropriative wearing the same things as the women around me, but would still have adhered to local standards of modesty and cost. Probably no prints, but inexpensive cotton skirts and dresses that covered what local women covered. That’s just my personal comfort level, though, and I applaud your line of thinking. The truth is that as a white Westerner, I have no idea how I’d react if I were native to Malawi. We make our best guesses, and your best guess appears to have worked out splendidly for you.

      The one area in which I would feel no shame imitating a local woman? Practicality. Because if she’s doing something to stay safe, I should take my cues from her. If she wears a certain type of shoe because it saves her feet, I need to ask her where she buys her shoes! And I wouldn’t take it out of the environment in question; it’s an adaptation, not a fashion statement.

    • Litenarata

      “Aren’t you worried you will be mistaken for one of them?”

      WOW. First of all, way to show contempt for the people he is living amongst, as though they are lower icky life forms. I’m curious, did you ever talk to him about that statement?

      Second of all, I love being mistaken for a local when I’m traveling or living overseas. As with you, as soon as I open my mouth it’s clear I’m NOT a local, but no one has ever been mad at me. Usually, they grin with delight and want to know where I’m from and what brought me to their country. People generally like it when visitors make an honest attempt to adapt to their new surroundings, whether it’s wearing locally appropriate clothing, learning a few phrases in the native language, or trying out the food instead of eating only at Western chain restaurants.

      • Litenarata,

        I did talk about that and many other narrow thinking ideas he had. When you have no TV you are forced to have conversations and they can get pretty deep. He was raised in a very homogeneous community without a lot of diversity. I actually am surprised he ended up working in Malawi. Over the several months, I do believe he grew a lot. My reply to him was “What would be wrong with that?” which to his credit, gave him pause. Small steps of enlightenment.

    • Sam

      This is a really interesting perspective. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • GingerR

    I agree that it’s intelligent to know what you’re wearing. I was going to buy a black t-shirt with an islamic graphic on the front on a trip to Spain but before I purchased it I got the saleswoman to tell me what it meant. I didn’t think I wanted a shirt with some slogan like “death to infidels” to wear to Yoga. She confirmed that it actually was a symbol for Peace, and I thought that was OK.

    Was it that the garmet is a modified Chador and you don’t want to be seen in something that some Westerners associate with the oppression of women?

    • FF

      Your first thought was that an “Islamic graphic” (what does that mean? there was Arabic writing?) could be “death to infidels”? You have some issues to sort out.

    • Different cultures, Ginger. The chador (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chador) belongs more to Islam, as a garment associated with modesty, and Iran’s history. While you might see a Muslim in a shalwar suit, I’d guess she was wearing it because she was Pakistani or Indian. 🙂

      • AnnR

        From the Wiki entry Sally cites:
        When women wear the salwar kameez, they usually wear a long scarf or shawl called a dupatta around the head or neck. For Muslim women, the dupatta is a less stringent alternative to the chador or burqa (see also hijab and purdah). For Sikh and Hindu women (especially those from northern India, where the salwar kameez is most popular), the dupatta is useful when the head must be covered, as in a Gurdwara or a Temple, or the presence of elders. For other women, the dupatta is simply a stylish accessory that can be worn over one shoulder or draped around the chest and over both shoulders.

  • Lots of excellent comments here that I really can’t add much too. Just that I agree with Sal’s basic sentiment of ‘if you don’t know about the garment’s cultural significance, don’t wear it.’

    I wear things that I feel a connection to, whether it’s subcultural, ethnic, historical, creative, otherwise, or a combo of all. What you wear has meaning & will be seen as such, so it’s best to take the time to try & construct that meaning from the inside.

  • Great comments on this post! I think it’s admirable that you’re concerned about this, but I think it’s almost impossible to live by this rule in a practical way. Cultural borrowing is EVERYWHERE: in clothes, music, art, etc. We simply don’t have the time or the tools to research the origins of every single thing and determine the sociopolitical dynamics of the borrowing.

    And besides: even from horrible, exploitative history, beauty can be created. How many musical traditions emerged from cultural cross-pollination caused by colonialism? Now, would I wear a complete garment that I knew to have sacred origins? Probably not: as somebody else said, I’d be wearing a costume, and it might feel disprespectful. But as for mixing and matching different elements, I say, why not?

  • I have thrifted a number of kurtas in the past couple of years. And received quite a lot of encouragement when wearing them. I’ve worn mine over skirts, sewn up the splits to wear them as a dress. They are some of the coolest clothing (temperature wise) in my closet, they cover me up a little more than my daily summer wear. I didn’t really think much of it, but I do see where something like that can merge into making another culture’s clothing into a costume. I think that’s where the line hits.

    Thanks for talking about this. It’s been a subject that’s been skirted around due to the “tribal” print option in our Fashion Challenge, and while I neither knew much about it or wear it myself, I think this is one of the discussions that the fashion industry doesn’t address, but needs to.

  • Marie

    I knew what it was!
    My best friend is from Pakistan, and I have two beautiful shalwar kameez, one kind of fancy everyday, and one really fancy that I have never had an opportunity to wear. I have thought about wearing them like you have in the above picture, but I usually feel as though they are too costumey, I have thought about making a similar garment to wear with leggings, since I really like the length and coverage of them.

    My husband is from Ghana, and he brought me back some skirt suits that he had made for me (pretty traditional “Sunday” wear for them) and I wear the jackets quite a bit, with no qualms. It’s part of my family heritage now. I do get comments on them, because the traditional patterns and colors are very loud and definitely not anything you would see in American clothing. My favorite comment on them so far has been: “That jacket is really pretty! I would never have picked that off the rack, but it looks great on you!” Well, you never could have picked it off a rack, they were made for me 🙂

  • When my dad was in the Gulf War, he came home with trinkets and clothing from Saudi Arabia — some of the items were custom-made for my mother and me. Some of the clothes are still in my closet at my mom’s house — maybe I’ll go through them again and keep them in my home out of appreciation for my dad and the cultures he got to experience abroad.

    Such a thoughtful post, Sal. I think it’s smart to know more about the cultures from which you borrow.

  • Sal

    Fabulous and fascinating discussion, everyone! Thanks, as always, for your varied and thoughtful contributions.

    Just to quickly respond to a few points:

    The shalwar kameez was mainly meant to be a launchpad for discussion. An example of wearing a garment that has origins in a culture unfamiliar to the wearer, and a reason to examine that choice on a broader scale.

    The vast majority of those who have said I’m “overthinking” wearing the shalwar kameez itself are people who have had some direct personal experience with the culture from which this garment originates. I have not. It’s fantastic that you feel comfortable wearing it, and view it as an innocuous garment with few cultural implications. That doesn’t make me, personally, any more inclined to wear it. I’ve never been to India, Pakistan, or any of the countries where this garment is commonly worn. If I’m going to wear something from another culture – as I do with my dirndl and my giant Icelandic sweater – I want to have had a connection with that culture. Just my own choice and preference, here.

    The question of whether I or other Americans would feel offended or affronted if people from non-Western cultures wore blue jeans or suits is a curious one to me. I don’t actually consider many fashion items to be culturally “American” and both of those examples have been worn across the globe for so many decades that I don’t of them as quintessentially American anymore. As I mentioned in the post itself, I believe that Americans are considerably more detached and casual about clothing than many other cultures. I can’t speak for my entire country – which is itself a conglomeration of many and varied cultures – but I can’t think of any clothing that I regularly wear that I’d cringe to see someone from another country don. Again, though, that doesn’t make me any more inclined to wear a shalwar kameez or any other less-globally-worn garment with specific cultural heritage to which I have no personal connection and about which I have only cursory information and knowledge.

    It’s been so interesting to hear from those of you who have traveled extensively, are living as expats, or who have had personal experiences with specific cultural garb. I look forward to reading more!

    • Litenarata

      In reference to jeans and suits being “American”, I think it depends on the country and even regions within countries. In many developing nations, poor people still wear traditional clothing and rich people wear “American” clothing. In big cities, jeans might be fairly normal, but in a small village a person wearing jeans or a suit will look weird or extremely out of place, pegging them as a foreigner or someone trying to look like a foreigner.

      I can’t think of any time where I was offended by seeing someone wear an American clothing item, but I frequently saw people who were obviously trying too hard to look like “an American”. Sometimes it was a rich person who thought they was being trendy or were trying to display their wealth. Sometimes it was a poor person with a single item of “American” clothing like a major league baseball cap, which they wore constantly because they knew exactly where it was from and it held important meaning for them. (whatever that meaning may have been, I have no idea)

    • Litenarata

      I also meant to add that mainstream American culture really doesn’t have clothing with significant meaning, religious or otherwise, like many other ethnic groups/countries do. The only thing I can come up with that might make some Americans angry to see would be a foreigner wearing a real American flag as clothing, since it’s customarily not done in the U.S. (and some people get really ticked off when the flag is treated improperly)

      • Sal

        That was the only thing I could think of, too, Litenarata. Flags on shirts and accessories and other worn items. Though you certainly see American Anglophiles wearing the British flag on all sorts of stuff …

        • Around the fourth of July you can see many Americans wearing the flag on all sorts of clothing and thinking it’s out of respect, not mockery. The official flag rules forbid that, but most people don’t know those rules.

        • Wendy

          Interesting. In Britain it is fine to wear clothes with the British flag on – I can’t imagine anyone would be offended by it. I have seen clothes with the American flag on too and I had no idea this was seen as disrespectful.

          • Wendy

            Or, to clarify, it is seen as patriotic to wear a flag such as the British or Scottish flag, and not disrespectful. I guess under some circumstances it could be tacky.

  • Peldyn

    I have both a sari and a Punjabi suit that I wear for everyday. I also have historical Middle-Eastern garments that I have made for re-enactment. There is something so beautiful and sacred about the wearing of them. The culture of the region is just amazing.

  • I simply adore some ‘ethnic’ styles, but my Irish Barmaid’s figure tends to lessen my enthusiasm about wearing saree or authentic kimonos. I have to agree with the poster who said that it’s how you look and act in your clothing, and I would extend that to weather-appropriateness.

    I wouldn’t think twice about wearing a desert-inspired outfit, from say the Middle-east/Morocco, during the hot, dry months of summer here. The weather is similar, albeit less extreme, and the sun is an enemy. I’m not trying to echo someone else’s culture, I’m gratefully accepting their centuries of experience dealing with this climate.

    Since I *do* have a barmaid’s figure, I will happily wear vests and peasant shirts and long wide skirts. Hey, they look cute on me!

    If someone comes up with a way I can wear saree and not look like an idiot playing dress up, *please* let me know!

    • Uma

      I’m Indian and I think most Indian women would identify with the “barmaid figure” description so the sari is actually quite evolved to flatter it :). It highlights exactly the curves you want highlighted and is very forgiving because of the flowy material. There are a lot of tutorials including videos that show draping saris. Personally though I reserve my saris for special occasions because they aren’t the most practical garment.Go for it 🙂

  • savxg

    sally- great thoughts. I am of indian origin living in the US (an lived in India for a large part of my teen years). I love that you tried out the tunic/kurta with pants- look. This isindeed the go-to look for many girls living in the Indian subcontinent these days. I wear something similar on weekends when i am not working. I agree about not feeling comfortable with clothes from other cultures that we are not exposed to. With the world becoming flat, Western wear has become quite common in traditional India – this has been only in the past 10 years and previously even wearing trousers was not something i was comfortable with. Now I live in pants/trousers most days. That being said, tunics are quite mainstream, I think- from Target to Tory Burch and Calypso St. barth, Indian subcontinent-made tunics are everywhere and I think you should rock ’em if they are your style.

  • Kirsty

    Sorry to nitpick but Clarks desert boots are not “basically the military boots used in colonizing lots of sandy places and stealing land and resources”.

    They are a fashion item first sold by Clarks in 1949. They are based on a military boot. But these original boots were made by Egyptian cobblers and worn by soldiers of the Eighth Army in the Second World War. The soldiers who wore these boots were conscripted from all walks of life within the commonwealth and many of them died in combat.

    To reduce this footwear to a signifier of colonial oppression is at best glib and at worst ignorant.

    Plus Scotland has never been colonised, as any Scottish person will testify.

  • Uma

    I am Indian but now live in the US and I think that it’s great that you made an effort to understand the background of the clothing. But I think that the kameez (the kameez is the top, salwar is the bottom) may be wrong example in this case. It isn’t quite like the kimono, sari or native American examples. The kameez/kurta you have on is a very modern and cosmopolitan take on the dress and is very far removed from any religious connotations. As a commentator pointed out the combination you had on is probably very close to what a lot of young women in Indian cities wear daily to work or school. Jeans and a kurta are very popular because of their utility. So I don’t think you’d be offending any sensibilities by wearing it and you appreciated exactly the right things about it, the material, colour and the cut. I used to get mine tailored in India and the tailor would have a whole book for neck patterns to choose from. I think you should go back to enjoying them they are perfect for summer 🙂

  • my feeling is, like some of your other commenters, that cultural appropriation becomes problematic when it is a.) widespread/being exploited for profit or b.) demeaning. You found this garment at a thrift shop; its former owner had clearly either outgrown it, passed away, or changed her style. If she released it to the winds of chance, would she have been offended by who picked it up and wore it?

    In this day and age, there’s so much exchange. I’m not sure we can avoid appropriation/borrowing. But we can have reasons for wearing what we’re wearing. We can be invested in the culture; we can be tied to the place where it was made or the people who made it. I think it might even be okay to be so madly, personally in love with a certain pattern or colour scheme that you wear a garment that isn’t “yours.” But these are all personal choices, not mass choices. I think when appropriation becomes a trend, *then* we have a problem. And personally, I hate this “ironic” trend – whether it’s what you wear, how you talk, what you read, where you live, etc. To let a certain kind of hip cynicism determine any action you take in life is, to me, demeaning to life. But that’s just me and I’m crotchety and totally earnest (not ironic) about life.

    I appreciate your note about considering how ready we are to point fingers and shout, “ORIENTALIST!” (to bring Said, power dynamics, and imperialism back into the picture). Maybe we should ask questions before we accuse, and maybe we should allow for others to have different opinions on what is wearable or not wearable, when, and by whom. Because if we start down that path, where do we draw the line? Am I allowed to wear my lapis and silver necklace, with the star-and-crescent on the clasp, from Afghanistan because it was a gift from my sister-in-law, who purchased it in a market outside of Kabul when she was in that war-torn city, risking her own physical safety to work in women’s health and family planning clinics? Those family planning clinics themselves are antithetical to some monotheistic (not just Muslim, but also Christian) tenets, so is this slapping Islam in the face? Is it okay to wear the necklace if I have Muslim friends? (which I do. Good ones! Many pork-and-alcohol-free dinners!) Am I on safer ground if I only wear the Islamic jewelry my Muslim friends bring back from their trips home to Palestine and Egypt? Or is that not okay because not all of them are practicing Muslims? Should I never wear any of the gifts brought to me? Eventually … we end up at this impasse. I appreciate that you stress that we must make our own choices and allow for each person to have their own reasons for their own choices, though I think many of us agree that some reasons will seem more legitimate than others – apathy and denigration are the no-nos in my book.

  • I do karate, so I wear a gi. Gei? I don’t know how to spell it. I tied it wrong for the longest time, and my dear sensai, sensei? took me aside and said that I was wearing it the way they dress the dead.

  • Fascinating discussion. I purchased my kameez at a thrift store and then it hung in my closet for two years before I wore it. I wore it only after an excellent post Cynthia had done on the garment.

    In the mid-80s, I was involved in a conservative Protestant church. The church had “unwritten” rules about appropriate dress for women–my arms should always be covered, my knees should be covered, and the majority of women in the congregation wore highly floral prints. I had one dress that I considered my “church” dress–all in the name of modesty. The dress in spite of the sacred place I wore it is not “sacred” in its meanings to most folks. And while I still see a similar uniform in women with similar beliefs online, I am NEVER offended that another should wear something similar. Of course, if you translate this into power relationships, it remains to be seen which persuasion might prevail in the November elections.

  • In point of fact, there is a contributor on BurdaStyle from India who has shared her method of making dhoti pants because they “are so comfy to wear.” Why would she share it in an international online community if she didn’t have the expectation that non-Indians would make use of it???

    http://www.burdastyle.com/projects/dhoti-cowl-pant-tutorial

    Right this instant, I’m wearing jersey hareem pants I made several years ago. They’re comfy as all get out but aren’t as skeevy as running around in pajama pants or sweats. I LIKE THEM. If someone has a problem with them, that is THEIR problem. I wear what I wear because *I* like it. You liked the neckline, a very personal reason to appreciate a garment. If you make it your own, make it mean something TO YOU, then that is all that counts.

  • Tohnia

    I am of mixed descent (Vietnamese/Chinese on my mom’s side and Dutch on my dad’s), and I have many friends who are sisters and brothers of Islam. I have worn traditional Dutch clothing as a child, and now as an adult, I wear traditional Chinese and Vietnamese dress when I have a formal event. This includes the Cheongsam/Qipao and the Vietnamese Ao Dai. I have also received a Salwar Kameez as a gift from a family friend, and other tops that are of Indian origin. I wear the Salwar Kameez because it is a gift, and because I love it. It is very similar to the Vietnamese Ao Dai in construction, and it is easy and comfortable to wear.

    I have thought through whether or not I will be insulting people who are not of Muslim or Indian descent when I wear it, but I feel that those who see me wear my Salwar and are curious to why I am wearing it can come and ask me why and I will explain my reasons. Mainly that this is a gift from somebody that means alot to me, and by wearing it I am respecting their culture and their choice to give me a part of it.

    My friends have worn Cheongsam/Qipao/Ao Dai’s before, and they were not of my culture, just as I have worn Sari’s and Salwar Kameez’s even though I am not of their culture. I feel that as long as you respect the culture that you are borrowing from, and know the history, then you have a right to wear it if you are comfortable in it. My viewpoint is influenced by the friends that I have and where I grew up, but I still feel that respect for a culture is what is paramount.

  • Mandy

    Just my thought- the previous owners must have known someone ‘non Indian’ would buy this and enjoy it, when they donated it.
    I figure if they are happy to donate it they must be happy for you to wear it 🙂

  • Loved loved loved reading this post. I don’t think I have much to contribute as most of what I was going to say has already been said, but I cannot stand the overuse of the word “tribal” and “oriental” in fashion (and even in nail polish art). Urban Outfitters is notorious for using the word “Navajo” to describe some of their clothing pieces. It doesn’t help when the uninformed consumer buys these items because they are “trendy.”

    It’s funny you talk about this, because this can even be related to food. As in, should someone not of your culture cook your food? And so forth. I think clothing and food are very personal things in one’s life: you remember who made your comfort food, who bought you your favorite top, etc. If the respect is there, all is good. All I want to see is respect for others.

    • wow, I had never even thought of transposing this to food. And as someone who cooks a LOT and who has cooked a lot since her childhood, I have done some experimenting over the years with spices, techniques, and recipes from all over the world. When I announced on facebook that I was going to try making khoresh-e-fesenjan for the first time, the only Persian I know (a former student of mine) was so excited he instantly messaged me to provide tips and ingredient recommendations. I wonder if clothing is more touchy than food? Or just more public? Food, after all, is often something we do at home.

  • Kristin

    The problem I have is where to draw the line. Is wearing a particular garment cultural appropriation and therefore offensive? What about eating at a Mexican restaurant? Or watching Japanese cartoons? Or taking belly dance classes on Saturday mornings? I’m sure all of these things could be horribly inappropriate and offensive to someone given that I’m a Scandanavian-English-Germanic-American.

    But if I use the things I find beautiful (/tasty/amusing/fun…) as a springboard to learn about the culture they’re from, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Learn about others, talk with them, connect? I certainly don’t want to be isolationist and exclusionist. Rather than “I don’t” or “I won’t,” I prefer to be someone who says “How interesting! I want to learn more.”

  • Candice

    It’s not a bad idea to make sure what you’re wearing isn’t offensive and it’s not a bad idea to look into the cultural aspect to make sure it’s something you’re comfortable with but I don’t think it needs any more thought than that!

    The kurta isn’t offensive for a non-Indian or Pakistani to wear and doesn’t symbolize anything that I am uncomfortable with so I wear it. My main goal is to be modest and comfortable. When I was living temporarily in Egypt I wondered if it was OK to wear hijab sometimes and they didn’t understand why I’d hesitate even if I was not Muslim at the time. I only got very positive comments for wearing it. Since I was comfortable with being mistaken for a Muslim, that was that and I wore it if I felt like it!

    I really think it’s pretty simple and all about your personal comfort level.

    What is it specifically about the kurta that makes you uncomfortable Sal? Feeling like you’re imitating a culture you have no tie to? Honestly that kurta you wore looks like an Indian-inspired tunic and does not scream “other”.

  • Shaye

    On a tangent only very slightly related, I was at Target the other day buying hair products and noticed something interesting. Awhile back they created a section they called “ethnic haircare,” which was obviously geared toward black women – mostly chemical relaxers, etc. However, they also had some fabulous, natural products for curly hair that I started using because they were moisturizing and dimethicone-free, which my mop desperately needs. I didn’t feel at all weird about buying hair products geared mostly toward black hair – I’ve done that plenty of times, because the hair needs what it needs and it’s not like I’m depriving anyone else of their shea oil in a spray bottle – but I did feel vaguely icky about the fact that they were calling it the “ethnic haircare” section. It is SUCH a problematic word at times, especially when used alone, precisely for the reasons you outline above. (Not to mention, it implies that there is only one way to have a less-common-for-that-area ethnic background, which is obviously not true.) Though I was glad to see that Target was expanding their offerings to people with a different set of haircare needs, and that I could benefit even if I wasn’t the target audience, “ethnic haircare” didn’t sit right with me.

    At any rate, yesterday I was at Target and noticed they’d changed it to “therapeutic haircare.” I’m still not sure they’ve got it quite right – chemical relaxers are hardly therapeutic, although I guess they did throw the Rogaine into that section too – but I was glad to see they’d recognized the ickiness of “ethnic haircare”.

  • Adi

    As an Indian, I love it when women of non-Indian origin take the trouble to learn how to wear a sari, or try out a salwar-kameez.
    Thanks to the internet, fashion is becoming incredibly universal. I myself can wear a sari to office and a skirt-suit in the same week. As long as I am comfortable and appropriately dressed, it really doesn’t matter.
    However, there are examples of Indian garments worn improperly. For instance in Goa, I once saw a (non-Indian) lady wear a tight choli with a knee-length skirt. Now a choli is supposed to be worn under a sari, and needless to say, the short choli-skirt combo looked odd.

  • Marsha Calhoun

    Everything is cultural – it comes from some culture, somewhere, formed by some people. If certain clothing has special meaning in one culture, then that is where the meaning resides – in that culture, and in those who participate in that culture. I can’t imagine any decent person getting upset or annoyed or affronted by seeing some part of her culture being worn by a person outside of that culture, as long as it isn’t being done unkindly or maliciously. My mother (who never saw the inside of a church from one decade to another and was certainly not religious in any traditional sense) used to be distressed to see people wearing crucifixes as jewelry, which was at least consistent but pretty silly, since she knew those people intended no disrespect. It’s all in the intention, and if you go examining other people’s intentions overzealously instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming that they have chosen to wear something because they think it looks nice on them, or maybe it means something to them that isn’t exactly what it means to you (because you “own” it as a member of a certain group), you should probably do a little self-esteem work and ask yourself why it upsets you so much. Why not take the high road? As others have said, we’re talking about clothes here – the map is not the territory, and the symbol is just a symbol – not the thing that it symbolizes (the culture, or the religion, or the country, or whatever demarkation you may choose).

  • I do agree that you are being over sensitive. My concern would be more about wearing these garments badly, or looking stupid to the people who understood them. I suppose that wearing a kurta hitched up high with fishnets and tarty shoes could be. But I think you should wear something western with it to make it clear you are not in fancy dress.
    I bought a patterned kurta in a charity shop, and was wearing it in the local fruit shop when the owner looked at it and said ‘That is the pattern from my village’. I wonder if one of his relatives gave it to the shop.
    When I was a student I bought a pinafore dress in the high street which had Chinese characters embroidered on it. After several months, I met a Chinese man. He said it meant something beautiful about wind and music, but I was never sure if he was telling the truth!
    My father went to Turkey when I was a child, and brought back beautiful intricate silver and paste jewellery worn first by my mother and then by me. Some of it included swirling Arabic script and my mother was told by someone on a train that it meant something religious, a statement of faith in Islam. Which as a Jew I think she did find a little inappropriate. She still wore it though.

  • Ingrid

    Hi, I lived in Tanzania for some time and was given gifts of kitenges and kangas (printed cloth that Tanzanian women wear wrapped around their body). I wear them a lot in the summer (not tied the same way because I don’t have the same knack) and I love them. They remind of my time in Africa and the women I met their. And the fabric is beautiful. I also wear a Maori greenstone pendent. I am a New Zealander but not Maori. However, I feel that pounamu has become part of the Kiwi culture – not just limited to Maori. When I travel overseas it is a symbol that I am from New Zealand. It is a symbol of where I am from.

  • Hi Sally, thanks for such an interesting & thought-provoking post! Like you, I like to know the cultural significance (if any) of what I’m wearing. I don’t really wear too many items that are inspired by other cultures, but I guess I get the same thought process wearing vintage clothes. I wear a lot of ’50s dresses & are often asked if I’m comfortable wearing clothes that signify a not-so-great era for women’s rights.
    It was so interesting to read your point of view! I love that you bring up these topics, and I loved reading through all the responses as well.

  • I think about this a lot, because I used to belly dance, and in belly dancing we would often wear costumes that were appropriated from Middle Eastern cultures and styles. I always wondered if that was okay. I mean, you could say the dance itself is cultural appropriation, but Americans have been belly-dancing for over a century, and I think we’ve made it our own at this point. On the other hand, we still dance to Middle Eastern music and take Middle Eastern stage names, even those who do the made-in-America styles of dance such as American Tribal Style. So I’m not so sure.

    Anyway, I only knew what a Salwar Kameez was because of belly dancing, and there are other pieces of clothing I’d never know about if it wasn’t for my dance education. I used to search for interesting belly dance clothes on eBay, and they would often be described with the word “ethnic,” which is such a meaningless word in that context and always put me off. But I still coveted stuff like Kuchi tribal jewelry, tassel belts, and choli tops without knowing very much about their histories. The only thing that mattered was if it LOOKED cool.

    I haven’t danced in years, and sometimes I think about going back to it because it really was a lot of fun, but I don’t know if I’d be as comfortable with the implications these days. Any other dancers here want to share their thoughts?

  • M

    Growing up, my dad travelled all over the world for his job. He’d bring us home all sorts of little treasures from Morocco, Thailand, Chad, Brazil and other countries that, on quick inspection, one can likely conclude have nothing to do with where my family originally came from (Poland, Germany and a healthy representation of other, mostly European, countries.) Truthfully, I never thought about the offensive nature of wearing the jewelery and other items he brought back for my family. It’s likely at least partially because I’ve never had a negative reaction to anything I’ve worn (even 20 years later, I still wear jewelery he picked up for us.)

    When it comes down to it, just because you are wearing a piece that is distinctly from a culture besides your own, it doesn’t mean you can’t wear it. When someone looks at you wearing it, there’s also no way for them to know how you acquired it – whether it be as a gift, a trip you took or something as simple as finding it in a thrift store.

  • I think that wearing ‘ethnic’ clothes is ABSOLUTELY harmless. It’s not offensive in ANY way, because it’s not a religious dress (and even if it were, I wouldn’t see why it would offend anyone). Would you find it offensive that I, of South Asian descent, wear skirts, dresses, trousers, shirts, etc.? All of these things are Western (I think). As an Asian, I think it’s lovely when I see others wearing salwar kameezes or saris!

    However, when it comes it aesthetics, I prefer that salwar kameezes are worn “properly.” Asians and non-Asians alike often wear a kameez (top) with jeans, or decide not to wear the dupatta (scarf), and personally those are not choices that I think are aesthetically pleasing.

  • But, like another commenter said, “wear, enjoy.” It’s just clothing! 🙂

  • Anahita

    I have to wear salwar kameezes to college everyday, they’re a part of the dress code 🙂 I’ve never thought of it this way though, interesting perspective!