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Monday, August 27, 2012

Clothes v.s. Ethnic Clothes

I'm starting to wonder why me wearing salwar kameez and other Indian clothes is so unusual.

Somehow, and I'm not sure how but racism is probably involved, Western style clothes became the default. When you talk about "clothes," what you're picturing in your mind is probably jeans, t-shirts, blazers. Whereas Indian clothes are *Indian* clothes. Not just clothes.

Why should Western clothes be the default?

Jeans, t-shirts, pencil skirts, and trousers are not the definition of clothes. They are an option. Salwar suits, kurtas, saris and lenghas are other options.

We should all embrace all the choices that the fashion of the world has to offer! As Andrea M. pointed out in the comments on her blog, we have come to see things like Norwegian sweaters as regular clothes. Why not Indian clothes?

Not as cultural mis-appropriation. Not as culture at all. Just as clothes that make us feel beautiful.

Wear salwar kameez and sari because you love them, not because they are Indian! I believe we should start a trend. Americans wear salwar suits. Why? Because they are comfortable, beautiful, and easy to move in.

{As a side note, my boyfriend has a friend who is an acupuncturist and in tune with subtle energies. Apparently this man told him that I give off a much more authentic energy when I'm wearing Indian clothes!}

On a related note:

Andrea M posted a link in her blog to this article about a French woman who loves wearing saris and also wedding bangles.

With the clothes, I really can't see it being a problem. This woman loves the look and feel and experience of saris and that's awesome. It's making saris something that people like, admire, and respect.

The wearing of wedding bangles when she isn't married gives me pause. And it gave others pause too. That was the first time I started to see this issue of cultural mis-appropriation. But then I kept thinking about it.

My boyfriend said this is the same thing that people feel about dread locks. I've gotten into online arguments before about whether it's okay for white people to wear dreads. Personally I feel like you can do whatever you like to your hair. If it's possible to create a hairstyle, then I don't think it can be "copyrighted" for lack of a better word.

He said that dreads signify a spiritual achievement in the Rastafarian culture and that's why it is upsetting to them if others use them.

To me I still can't see it. It sounds like a culture saying: "We're going to take this hair style and make it ours alone and none of the rest of you are allowed to do it (even if you accidentally discover it completely on your own)"

So then I started thinking, why is the wedding bangles any different? Can a culture tell someone else that she can't wear jewelry of a particular type because it's been, essentially, trademarked?

Here's the thing:

I long to wear a manglasutra. Not just because they are beautiful, but because I know what they mean and I want to be married. Very much so. I want both the beauty and the cultural significance and so I would never, ever, ever wear one when I was not married.

But if I were someone who was not a Hindu and just saw a beautiful necklace...? I don't know if I could really call it wrong to wear something purely for its beauty when the cultural significance isn't, well, significant to the person. If I were to craft a necklace based on inspiration from a manglasutra, could someone really tell me that I couldn't wear my own creation?

Her wearing the bangles suggests to people who are Indian that she is married. But is it such a horrible thing to mislead that way? I can think of much worse things! And it makes me think of American girls who wear fake engagement rings to avoid being hit on at work.

What do you think?


  1. It is really important to listen to the views of people of color on issues of cultural appropriation. What seems harmless to us may seem harmful to another.

    The reason is power differentials and institutionalized racism; it is not that their cultures are so sacred we must not borrow from them at any cost.

    It's the issue that if you braid your hair into cornrows, people will see it as edgy and cute, but if an African-American man wears a polo shirt and khakis, white people will still distrust him.

    Also, it is good to remember that American culture in particular is fairly good at absorbing things and making them "our own" - look at how American girls wear bangles vs. how Indian girls wear bangles. There is certainly a risk of cultural elements getting brought into American culture in ways that are very different from their original purpose, and when this happens, the people of color who still choose the traditional ways of wearing things are looked down on by "mainstream society." We also have a tendency to exoticize and sexualize elements of other cultures (find me a picture of a white model in a Native American headdress where she does not look like a sex object.) So there is certainly a VALID fear on the part of people of color that we will misuse elements of their culture as they become absorbed into American culture.

    It's also the issue that some of the things we think of as fashionable may be seen as sacred or used for one sole purpose to other people (Native American headdresses come to mind, as well as mangalsutras.) If we are borrowing from other cultures, I think it's important to inform ourselves of the significance of those things before proceeding.

    The mangalsutra is a very good example of this. It has a very specific meaning and purpose. I don't think it's exactly the same thing as wearing a ring on the left hand "just because" or to avoid being hit on at work. We live in a culture where women, unmarried and married alike, are known as Ms. Many married people now are choosing to forgo wedding rings at all; the symbol has lost a lot of its meaning. But in India, there is still a status difference between unmarried and married women. Looking married when you are not can cause quite a few cultural misunderstandings and offend quite a few people.

    Why might it offend? Because, again, we are able to wear these things out of choice. We put them on when we want, and we take them off when they don't match our outfit. It is a privilege of being white, or of being non-Indian at the least. The woman security officer in the x-ray line at the airport may wear a mangalsutra as well, but it was put on her by her mother-in-law on her wedding day and she is not allowed to take it off or leave the house without it. Ever. If it doesn't match, if it's inconvenient, she has to wear it. If it's unsafe for her to do an activity because it might get caught on something, she doesn't do that activity. If there's an article of clothing that she would love to wear, but it would not be becoming of a proper Indian wife wearing a mangalsutra, she doesn't get to wear that dress. It's not just a pretty piece of jewelry to her; even if she is proud to be married and wear it, it can, on some days, seem like a shackle.

    Or the elderly lady who stops a white woman wearing mangalsutra and asks if she is married to an Indian, and she breezily tells her "No, it's just a pretty piece of jewelry." Perhaps the elderly lady lost her husband the previous year and her mangalsutra was taken from her by her sisters-in-law. She no longer has the privilege to wear one, or anything else that might resemble a symbol of marriage. Maybe it hurts just a little that the other woman is not married and still gets to wear it.

    (continued in next comment; I like to write dissertations)

  2. (continued from previous comment)

    There are, of course, many schools of thought on this subject. And if you are too careful about never appropriating anything from another culture, then you end up in the exact same place as white supremacists - "I could NEVER wear ANYTHING that came from a non-white culture!"

    I think there is definitely a middle ground, where we can wear salwar suits and other articles of Indian clothing with integrity, where it is not appropriation because we're doing it in the right time and space. Clothing doesn't pack the same punch generally as particular jewelry items or facial markings do, at least in Indian culture; women from North to South wear salwar suits and sarees on a daily basis, kurtis, skirts and t-shirts, and jeans and blouses. If it's something that's daily wear, why not? But again, a 40-year-old woman won't wear a pavada in India, and a married woman won't wear a white saree with grey border that indicates widowhood. Likewise, I think it would be wise to mirror those sorts of things if we chose to wear Indian dress, simply to avoid misunderstandings. If we are truly interested in opening up intercultural dialogue or even wearing South Asian clothing as a way of normalizing it and de-Otherizing it, then it's important that we clear the path of any potential misunderstandings.

    Regardless of whether we agree or not that women should wear marriage symbols, or that pavada-davani is an outfit that is restricted to teenage girls, it is the current situation in India and we should be sensitive to that and work with it accordingly.

    1. I'm so glad that you weighed in on this. It's a concept that I really struggle with. I have never been exposed to much about cultural sensitivity or issues of racism and privilege.

      I am a prime example of privilege, I'm sure! And I grew up in a very white neighborhood.

      So I'm trying to learn and understand now, but sometimes it's so difficult to see. Or I start to understand and then I don't quite grasp it.

      I feel like personally it's important to me to understand the significance of the symbols that I wear and I definitely wear Indian things with a Hindu purpose.

      I'm not sure about judging how other people use those things, though. I guess I feel like: sure, people should be sensitive to these issues, but if one takes offense at the behavior of someone else who is just being ignorant, you're going to be miserable a lot of the time! One of my mantras in life is that you can't control anyone but yourself.

    2. And now we're back around to the topic of my first post - should I judge people who are not being sensitive to cultural issues/blatantly appropriating?

      Or should we leave that judgment to the people of color who feel awkward by it?

      If we feel awkward, do we have a responsibility to say anything? If we do see ourselves as having an understanding in and foot in both cultures (visible and invisible; not just the outward aspects such as dress, food, jewelry, public religious practice) then are we, in effect, cultural ambassadors who *need* to judge and to educate people who treat things that should be treated with respect, disrespectfully?

      If I saw an American girl going around wearing armfuls of Punjabi churas, I would probably ask her when she got married. If I found out it was just a pretty fashion statement for her, I would ask her if she knew those were a symbol of a newly married bride from the northern part of India, and that she will probably get asked this a lot. If she then acted like she didn't care, however, I don't think that's my place to step in; it would be more educating, I think, for a Punjabi girl to tell her that it was offensive.

    3. Hmmm. That is a very good point.

  3. Each culture has its own idea of "clothes" if you went to africa or china and said "clothes" each of those places and peoples would have something come to mind that is completely distinctly theirs. So sure...if you say clothes to someone in the U.S. many may think "jeans" right away. But, depends on your own individual culture wether that would happen. As America is a lil tiny clump of the entire world...we take anything and make it ours. Just look at foods here. The busiest restaurant in our town is a Chinese one. Second is the Hispanic. Both ran by immigrants to this country and their families. We just love to meld everything good!:P

    For me "clothes" is a pair of beautiful gold braided vegan sandals, a gorgeous white kurti and a nice pair of tactical/khaki pants that you can roll up to make them capri. Or roll them down to the ground to make a modest pair of pants to visit the temple. So i can use them to pray and then roll them up and then go shopping all with the same outfit.

    Sari too dressy for me...and way to much going on. They are pretty, and i do have some. But, I never wore skirts or dresses as a child, i do not wear them unless i have

    With such a busy life i never have time to be pretty. Even recently, when i was on vacation and brought many sarongs (my dressy bottom of choice) to wear with my kurtis. I found it was very hard to get around and carry things...put up our pavillion on the beach with such fancy clothes on. Sand destroyed several of my sarongs. ugh!

    The khakis, even there, got used more than my wonderful things. *Sigh*

    I say, if you love it..if it's "your" clothes...whatever culture...whatever gender....wear it. Life is too short to worry over what people will think of your style choices.<3

    1. I see what you mean. To me it seems like the western aesthetic is taking over as anywhere in the world you go, you find people wearing western style clothes, at least in part!

      I've always loved being dressy and am almost always over dressed to anything I go to. Makes me happy :)

  4. Hmm..i was going to attempt to blog about wearing sari and other clothes,totally agree with you that its "just" clothing. As for your question,if you havent read it ,you might be interested in sharanya manivannans column about it.
    Id say she puts it quite beautifully.

    1. Thank you! I'll go over and take a look at the article. It might inspire another post from me! lol.

  5. I think the tricky bit is this: You don't get ridiculed or seen as "other" when wearing Western clothes, and as a Westerner, if you're wearing Indian clothing, you're seen as interesting/creative/etc, whereas an Indian person in this country has historically been seen as "other" for wearing those items. That isn't to say that there can't be a shift in perception as the world becomes more open and that clothing becomes more culturally acceptable in a broader context, but at the moment people who are perceived as Western (i.e. white) enjoy a certain amount of automatic social and cultural privilege.

    I've struggled with this quite a lot over the years, since I do like to wear saris and I do like Indian clothing and design. I want to wear these things and show the world that I feel elegant and beautiful in them! But at the same time I have to acknowledge that people see me differently when I'm wearing those things than they'd see an Indian person. Not everybody is like that, but the general American (Western) cultural perception is that those things are "other." So I tend to wear them only at temple, or at weddings (even Western ones), and other places where I feel somebody from that culture would feel appropriate wearing them.

    I'm pretty shy about what I wear, though, especially if I feel somebody is going to be upset by it or get their feelings hurt, even if that wasn't my intent. For example, I probably wouldn't wear a sari at DragonCon (or similar event), because I don't want somebody to see that garment as a costume, rather than clothing.

    But I've also learned that you can't please everybody, all the time. So no matter how careful you are, somebody will be upset or offended. I think that as long as you take the time to be respectful and understanding of the majority of people, you're good. You'll get people who are upset, but you'll also get people who are excited to see you wearing something familiar to them. And you can't predict which will happen.

    From the little I know of you, I think you're pretty understanding and conscientious. I don't think that most of the naysayers are talking about you (and folks like you)!

    1. "But I've also learned that you can't please everybody, all the time. So no matter how careful you are, somebody will be upset or offended."

      So, so true!

      I definitely think as I come to understand this idea of cultural appropriation/mis-appropriation more that it does not apply to me. I'm definitely dressing and wearing jewelry that is appropriate to me and my life and I'm doing it with full awareness of what it means and what it is for.

      I know that saris have been used to oppress women who are not allowed to wear anything else. I think I have a strong awareness of the clothes and jewelry that I'm choosing.

      But then I think again about the dreads. That look has never appealed to me, but I could definitely see doing my hair like that (if it were something that I wanted for my hair) and being completely unaware that it has a cultural significance. And I've seen people get attacked (verbally, online) for that. Which somehow doesn't seem quite fair.

      Before doing anything at all to my body, do I need to research it in depth and make sure that it isn't religiously significant to someone...?

    2. "I definitely think as I come to understand this idea of cultural appropriation/mis-appropriation more that it does not apply to me"

      To be honest, this line is probably something we should probably not make part of our daily thought process :) There are still going to be people who will see white people wearing anything other than typical western fashion as appropriative and wrong. We can't be defensive in cases like this - people are absolutely entitled to their emotions and opinions - but to hear them out, and maybe, if invited, to share our reasoning for wearing what we are wearing. Of course, we can't please everyone, and there *are* a small minority of people who are just simply angry at whitey (again, not without reason) and will lash out; there is not very much we can do in those situations.

      If I wanted to appease Angry Girl by removing my loha, I would at the same time be offending my mother in law. We can't please everyone. There are multiple things going on here, matters of privilege, matters of family, matters of environment, matters of style. What's important is for them to be in as much harmony as possible.

      If we live between cultures, if we do not 100% conform to the norms of the culture we belong to, people think we belong to, and the surrounding culture, there will be cognitive dissonance on our part and on the part of others. There is never going to be cultural exchange without someone being uncomfortable. But being uncomfortable is not a reason to not do something, either.

      And I wouldn't worry about researching everything. I think we have a sort of feeling that tells us if something might be inappropriate. And if someone calls you out for it, that's when you know that it is :)

      Definitely before inking something on your body you should research it for sure! There are enough people out there with embarrassing kanji tattoos, misspelled Sanskrit, and verses from Jewish scriptures (which prohibit tattoos) to show that you really need to do your homework before attempting something that drastic!

    3. I don't know. I guess it feels like my feelings should also count for something in this discussion.

      It seems strange to me to say that there are things I should refrain from doing because of my skin color. Aren't we trying to build a world where one's skin color is not what allows or disallows people to do things?

      I can understand people being upset about what the British did to India in the past, or upset about particular people who have been prejudiced. But I've never understood why I'm supposed to stand in and be punished for those transgressions.

      Does the color of my skin mean that I have to answer for their crimes? Crimes of people that I have no connection to besides the color of my skin.

      A very thorny issue indeed. :-/

    4. I generally think that doing research before any body alteration is a pretty good idea! I really like doing research, though. Really really like it.

      The key to not being a jerk is to listen to someone when they point out that what you're doing might be offensive, and take that into consideration when making decisions in the future. And in the reverse, somebody should listen when it's pointed out to them that they're being a jerk in the way they choose to point out things. I know a wonderful Norwegian lady with really excellent dreads, and I don't think she gets much flack for them, because it's clear that she takes very good care of them and is pretty dang respectful about how she chooses to go about it.

      I think that research is good, so that when somebody asks a question you can give a reasonably informed answer. Talking to people from that culture is even better. Not always possible, but good when you can.

      (Disclaimer: I am in no way an expert about this, so take my advice as such.)

    5. I wonder if people take me to be some kind of cultural ambassador. Would other white people look to me to explain the bindi I wear and take that as authority? Would they see a girl wearing a sari in a sexually suggestive way and then assume she's doing it properly? A little scary to think.

    6. I think a lot of people would, and that's the main reason to be careful.

      On the other hand, you could drive yourself crazy with the "what ifs". So really I think it's best to learn a lot, and give credit where credit is due.

    7. Foolish, foolish people. *evil grin*

  6. I think the framing of it is important. From one perspective, it seems as if people are saying "white people aren't good enough to wear these clothes" or "we must punish them for colonialism so they can't wear my pretty things."

    But to a person of color, this is not the case. This is not the reason. The issue is not "we behaved badly in the past and now we can't have nice things." It is the tendency White culture has had to take things from other cultures and remove them from their context, for the enjoyment of other white people. It's fear we will continue doing so. It's a snap judgment based on true things that have happened in the past. It doesn't mean we should not appreciate other cultures; it doesn't even mean we are not allowed to wear a sari. It just means that we need to be careful not to exoticize and sexualize and display Things Of Other Cultures without forgetting People Of Other Cultures.

    It means we can't wear a bindi and then complain that the Gujarati grocery owner has been in this country long enough; shouldn't he speak better English by now?

    We can't wear saris and mock other people's accents.

    We can't wear dreadlocks and then blame crime on African-American single moms.

    And yet people do this every day and see no cognitive dissonance in it.

    1. Hmmmmm. We are creatures of infinite contradiction, aren't we? Goodness.

      I'm really glad that I put up this post because it's helping me to learn and understand this concept that I just have so much trouble with!

      I asked my boyfriend about it and he came up with an example to help me see the other side of it. There's a song in the Matrix movie that uses the lyrics to a vedic prayer. It is sung in a very western, operatic style which irritates me. I wouldn't say offends, but it just feels all wrong. I'm so used to those words being chanted in a soothing manner, and to hear them forcefully shouted seems to contradict their meaning to me. He said that might be the feeling that people get.

    2. I think that is a good parallel, honestly.

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