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.