International cross dressing – is it politically correct?

According to a recent Guardian article it is not acceptable to the indigenous people of North America for young ravers to wear feather head-dresses. I can see their point. The beautiful, ancient, treasured and rare garments are regarded as sacred and powerful. It is a bit rich to see a semi-naked youth cavorting on drugs with one atop his skinny frame, or a pretty girl wearing one with a jeans jacket. I am grateful to Tim Morton (@TimMorton2) for bringing this to my attention.

Festival goer in Native American headdress
Festival goer in Native American headdress

However I think there are four things to bear in mind when considering such questions

  • fashion and art have always taken inspiration from anywhere and everywhere. You can’t ban this if you believe in freedom of expression
  • sampling, being inspired by and ripping off ideas can be done badly or well, and you and I can be the judge of that
  • crude or childish “fancy dress” is obviously based on stereotypes but banning them is probably going a bit far
  • there is something positive about taking from the past, or from other cultures, in that you learn about and experience something which may challenge your preconceptions

And it is this final point that I feel quite strongly about. I did dress up as a “squaw” when I was a kid, just as my brother wore a “cowboy outfit”, and we ran around the garden attempting to kill each other. The Glasto-type youth are just overgrown kids that haven’t really thought it through. But even as a small child I wondered how the “squaw” managed to attach her baby to her back, and what her dress was made of, and how she accrued the feathers. I wanted to make and wear the moccasins on her feet and I wanted to have long, glossy, black plaits.

There is something about the challenge to “walk a mile in my shoes” – it implies you get to understand the world as I experience it. But I always took it literally. As a kid I was always putting on high heels and staggering around in mules. I even customised my sun glasses with a flower. And dressing up in your parents’ and grandparents’ clothes is just such an important part of growing up and really does give you insights into how others walk, live and feel. Oh the feeling of that Malibu collared bed jacket on my check – the swishy long blue nylon night dress – being Bridgette Bardot in a Rochdale rockery.

Kate Davies dressing up as an 8 year old
At home in Rochdale in about 1964

Over the years I have found a good way to get to know other people is to seek to understand them through the food that they eat and the clothes that they wear. To people who say “I could never eat snails, frogs’ legs, pie and mash, dog, horse, raw fish…” I would only say, try it! And the same with clothes. I have had a lot of fun in being dressed in a sari, a kimono, a Tibetan gown with outlandishly long sleeves. Here I am in Mumbai in a Kurta (tunic) and churidas (leggings) with a matching scarf. I actually felt less conspicuous dressed like this for a meeting with a women’s housing organisation. I would have felt uncomfortable in an obviously western outfit. But going to a shop, Fabindia, and spending an hour or so looking at the amazing choice of fabrics and styles, learning a bit about where and how they were made, carefully matching a couple of outfits helped by knowledge (and thankfully English-speaking) staff. The history associated with proudly wearing locally made textiles rather than imports was a key part of the Ghandian freedom movement which I discovered more about at the Ghandi museum in Mumbai.

Wearing a Kurta and leggings, and bare feet, in India
Wearing a Kurta and leggings, and bare feet, in India

When I thought about what to make for our international evening at Notting Hill I decided I would make an African garment. I used authentic textiles and I dressed in a way that I felt was respectful and honourable to the traditions. Certainly wrapping the head-dress was something I just went with rather than asking for advice. but my friends assured me it looked the part. Of course I got more than one double take on the bus – white woman/African dress – but I felt proud, and statuesque, and I really enjoyed wearing the outfit, partly for the insight into how it feels to walk along in a loud print, a cotton ensemble, with a head wrap. The sort of steps you can take. The need for a straight back. To be stared at. Good lessons.

At the party there were lots of people in their own national dress, but quite a few, like me, culturally cross-dressing. I thought they all looked wonderful and I know they enjoyed themselves.

 

9 Responses

  1. Leslie McArthur

    I like what you have to say about the idea of walking in another’s shoes, and it seems to me that the world might be a little better off if we were a little less proprietary about clothing. The older I get the more I wish all we middle aged women could wear saris–so beautiful even if you gain a few pounds. I’d be perfectly happy to see a kilt on any man brave enough to wear it. However, as a white woman who has lived all my life in western Canada I have to comment that in my neck of the woods the “s” word is considered strongly perjorative and I would caution against its use even in quotation marks. It’s kind of shock, actually, to see it in black and white.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response which I really appreciate. I realise the expression I used is not PC but that was what we said in 1963, or whenever. Also words like “eskimo” and “red indian” are still fairly common parlance in the UK as we are hardly exposed to your debates. I am not going to change what I wrote as I think it will be interesting to see what other people say – I think people will see the thrust of the post is clearly anti-racist. Thank you again for taking the time to comment.

  2. Oh, I never imagined it to be racist–nor did I ever imagine you would change your entry. Not my idea at all. What I thought was, living in London, you couldn’t possibly know what a hurtful word that is. It’s not like Eskimo or even red-Indian. It’s more like what the Americans call the “N” word, although, of course, specifically aimed at women, so it doesn’t get nearly the press. At least it is in this corner of the world, and I just thought you’d want to know that. Thanks for listening, and I really appreciate your taking the time to respond.

  3. Interesting! It might do us all good to rethink our ‘I would never…’

  4. So very interesting post and reactions. I had read the discussion on the head dress and respect that it is sacred and should be worn by the appropriate people. I hover over respect. If there is respect and dignity than it feels fine, much like the images of party goers. But, I do appreciate the reminder to walk in their shoes. Words to live by.

  5. Kate, I have to come back to this entry when I have more time. I am not First Nations or Inuit, so I try to have sensitivity to things that might offend them, but at the same time I think we should be able to have an open conversation without recrimination. There is an Inuit guy who himself has set up a neat Tumblr site about what “eskimo” wear (as you know, eskimo is now considered to be an offensive word: http://folksdresseduplikeeskimos.tumblr.com/ When I was a little girl I dressed up both as a First Nations girl and as an Indian girl in a beautiful sari (the latter for a Christmas pageant in which all of the children of the world came to visit the manger). I would love to hear more about your trip to Mumbai. S

    • PS I understand the context of the lady from Western Canada, as First Nations are in a very bad social position in the west in general. Not only have there been a large number of murdered aboriginal women whose cases have been ignored but in all western cities aboriginals have very high crime rates essentially because of extreme poverty. We see less of this here in Ontario, as the issues, although similar, are not as visible. When I lived in the west I noticed how sensitive any dialogue was around issues for these groups.

      • Sorry for the third comment… which isn’t actually her point, as she doesn’t like the “s” word, which wouldn’t be accepted here either. That said, as I noted in a frank discussion it may be reasonable to use the word.

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