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.
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.
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.
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.