Last week I was looking back over some photos from my time at college when I noticed a picture that made me stop in my tracks. The picture was taken at a costume party in my second year at university. For this particular occasion I was dressed as a geisha. I’d swept my hair up into a smooth top-knot, I was wearing a satiny kimono-style robe and I’d applied white powder and overdrawn red lipstick. The picture made me want to hang my head with shame. Because in that moment I realised that I’d taken part in cultural appropriation when I chose to dress that way.
Cultural appropriation is an important topic, and something that I think about on a regular basis. In case you’re unsure what I mean when I use the phrase “cultural appropriation”, here is a great article that explains it pretty well. But essentially cultural appropriation is “when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that is not their own”. It is particularly prudent when the cultural aspects have religious or deep cultural significance, and/or when the person taking the cultural aspect is from a racial group which has a history of oppressing the group the culture is being taken from.
I mentioned that I think about cultural appropriation on a regular basis, and this is most often in context of the things I wear. I love to express myself through fashion and there are a number of items in my closet which have been inspired by other cultures. I even have items which have been given as gifts from friends overseas which have come from other countries, and which I now wear. Whether or not me wearing these items counts as cultural appropriation is a muddy debate (and one which I’ve grappled with many times in my own mind). But I am certain that my geisha costume was a definite example of cultural appropriation.
Now, when I first saw the photo, I tried to rationalize my behaviour. I thought about my interest in geisha culture and how much reading and research I’ve done about the history of geisha and their practices. I thought “well, perhaps the fact that I’m interested in geisha and that I know a lot about them makes it OK to dress as a geisha. Maybe my costume was more of an homage to a culture I respect rather than an appropriation”.
But I still consider it to be an appropriation. The clothing, hairstyle and makeup worn by a geisha is special. It’s not something that just anyone gets to wear. A woman has to go through years of difficult training before she is worthy to wear the geisha makeup or hairstyles. Different geisha hairstyles have different meanings, and in some cases a geisha has to satisfy certain criteria before she is permitted to wear her hair a particular way. I have undergone no such training, and although I am interested in this culture it is not MY culture. I have not earned the right to dress like a geisha, and it was wrong of me to do so.
In contrast, I think about a time when I wore a kimono that I do not consider to be an appropriation. Many years ago I visited the Immigration Museum in Melbourne and was treated to an exhibit led by two women from Japan. At the end of the tour they showed us a number of traditional Japanese garments including kimono, and I was invited to come and try one on. I don’t think of this experience as an appropriation for a number of reasons. Firstly, I was invited by a member of the culture to wear the item. Secondly, kimono are not generally an item that carries a certain status in that you don’t have to be of a particular class or hold a certain job or title to wear one. In this instance, I was not taking an item of special cultural significance, I was experiencing an aspect of a culture by invitation of two members of that culture.
I believe that cultural appropriation is something that’s important to think about, particularly in the context of fashion. There are a number of items that I have stopped wearing altogether because I am aware that they have particular cultural significance. For example, I used to wear bindis on a regular basis and now I will not wear them at all. While I don’t think that there is a need to completely cut out the wearing of anything that has come from another culture, I think it’s extremely important to consider the significance and history of those items and truly consider whether it’s appropriate to wear them.
So although I still wear items that have been inspired by other cultures, or even some clothes which have come directly from other cultures, I am much savvier about what I choose to wear. I will not make the mistake of using another culture as a costume, and although I’m ashamed that i have done so in the past, I think it’s important to talk about it. Because I believe that you have to own up to your mistakes in order to learn and move forward. And I think I’ve come a long way since that night I donned a geisha costume, and I’d like to move even further towards being a person who is more compassionate and open, particularly when it comes to culture.
Have you participated in cultural appropriation? Is it something that you think about when choosing what you wear?