When Is It Okay To Wear Cultural Costumes?

A few months ago, I was wandering through Bourke Street Mall on a summer’s Saturday afternoon and spied some buskers wearing traditional cultural attire (photo).

I wondered if anyone saw this scene as racist.

I stopped to watch. It stuck me as odd that they were wearing sunglasses with their outfits.

Three buskers, three instruments and three Sri Lankan outfits. | Weekly Photo Challenge: Threes.

Three buskers, three instruments and three Sri Lankan outfits. | Weekly Photo Challenge: Threes.

There are two scenarios when it comes to wearing cultural clothing: us wearing our own culture’s traditional clothes and us wearing another culture’s traditional clothes.

Lots of negativity surrounds the second one. Westerners dressing up as geishas and Native Americans during Halloween and on entertainment shows have been labeled as racist. The “We’re a culture. Not a costume” campaign believes this reinforces stereotypes.

There’s much discussion arguing that native fashion has been commodified and a number of us wear traditional garb thinking it’s cool to do so. There’s also discussion suggesting we’re supposedly cherishing foreign cultures when we don another culture’s garments; after all, culture permeates our daily lives and is always borrowed (think fusion food, checkered clothing). “Cultural appropriation” – the adoption of elements of one culture by another cultural group – is seen as cultural thievery to some and cultural appreciation to others.

Wearing traditional attire is different from dressing up as another race with face paint and all. People of colour have been discriminated against throughout time. Painting our face brown or white for kicks signifies we’re being insensitive to another culture’s history. But in a multicultural world, surely there are times when we can wear other ethnicities’ traditional attire and respectfully engage with their cultures.

For starters, wearing cultural attire as part of formal ceremonies allows us to immerse ourselves in unfamiliar customs. Interracial weddings often require the bride and groom to put on symbolic traditional dress. For instance, in Cantonese weddings, jewelry exchange is an important part of the ceremony, so wearing Chinese wedding attire is a respectful necessity.

Within an educational setting, donning traditional garments for cultural performances can help us understand the history of other ethnicities. As an eight year old in Malaysia, my teacher taught my class how to perform the Indian dance for our school’s annual theatre show. As we got fitted for our saris, the teacher explained to us why they were so colourful. Until this day, I remember her explaining that in Indian culture, bright colours are auspicious.

Wearing cultural attire at festivals potentially makes us more approachable to different races, serving as conversation starters. It’s common to see people on these occasions admiring and going up to those (usually the hosts) wearing traditional dress and asking them for photos. So if we wear something relevant to cultural festivals, there’s every chance we’ll get approached and make a new friend.

There’s no law stating we can’t wear other races’ traditional clothes. We can wear these clothes out on the street any time though most likely someone will frown at this. If we take the time to learn about a certain culture and avoid wearing its cultural clothes in a provocative and violent fashion, maybe we’ll feel good in what we’re wearing no matter what others think. Consequently, stereotypes have a positive side in that they assist in sustaining cultural traditions. If we ignore stereotypes, we may lose sight of the significance and beauty of individual cultures.

Some of us appear to be wearing our own culture’s traditional clothes less and less in Australia. I was in Chinatown on the first day of the Lunar New Year recently and hardly anyone in the crowds around me was wearing a cheongsam or áo dài. These are still very popular garments today in Malaysia and Vietnam respectively on this occasion.

I’ve also noticed some of us are keen on wearing only specific items of a cultural outfit. For instance, I’ve seen Chinese ladies pairing a samfoo top with jeans as opposed to customarily pairing it with loose fitting trousers, and Malay women doing likewise with baju kurung blouses. No one has expressed outrage at these fashion choices.

So I guess it’s okay to wear sunglasses with a traditional outfit.

Have you worn traditional cultural clothing? When should we wear another culture’s traditional clothes?

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156 thoughts on “When Is It Okay To Wear Cultural Costumes?

  1. i was wondering if, as a white woman it is insensitive of me to wear a blue mandarin style dress with beautifully embroidered cranes in to a prom. could you give me some incite?

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    • Honestly, I think it is, and as will many other POC. Those who wear suits of another culture, especially to Prom are usually ridiculed because in no way are you appreciating it, but simply want to look nice.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It really is up to you. From what you described, it sounds like a beautiful dress you put there. So long as you respect the history of the cultural attire, then I don’t see why not 🙂

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  2. An interesting topic with no clear answer to the question. I have a friend who is a McDonald and despite the fact that he is 4th generation Australian, he chose to get married in a kilt (and looked sensational). I lived in Indonesia some years ago and the wearing of batik at formal functions, for Indonesians and foreigners is pretty much expected.
    But I also remember my mother telling me about a diplomatic function she attended in Canberra many years ago. It was the Indian National day and one of the guests, an Australian women, decided to wear a sari she had brought back from a trip to India. Arrival at the function, she found herself getting rather shocked looks from many of the Indians at the function, and the Indian women especially were clearly avoiding her. It was only later that she was informed that the sari she was wearing was the one favoured by prostitutes in Bombay (now Mumbai)!
    Its good to get a heads up before you don a costume from another country.

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  3. Halloween is coming up and I have an authentic Japanese Kimono and I was thinking of wearing it, however, I was worried that it may come off as offensive. The thing is, I really want to get an opportunity to wear it out, but Halloween seems like the only chance for me to wear this. Would this be offensive if I wear it (I’m not intending to dress up as a Japanese person, but I just want to wear the kimono and see what it’s like)? I really love Japanese culture and everything, so that’s one reason why I have this kimono in the first place. Would it be okay?

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    • It sounds like a lovely Japanese kimono you got there. I don’t see why you can’t wear it for Halloween if you wear it in good faith – that is wear it because you like the attire as a work of art and its importance to Japanese culture. Wearing a kimono could also be an opportunity for you to share the word about Japanese culture 🙂

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    • That sounds interesting, a research forum at your school. Maybe it is a forum about cultural diversity, or about a celebration of different cultures. Maybe you’ve been encouraged to dress up in a cultural outfit as part of this atmosphere, and if so why not – it’s all about sharing and appreciating diverse cultures. So long as what you wear and how you wear it doesn’t poke fun at another culture, why not.

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  4. I thought this article was very insightful, but I do have a question somwhat related to but not necessarily on the same tangent as to one of the last points made:

    “I’ve seen Chinese ladies pairing a samfoo top with jeans as opposed to customarily pairing it with loose fitting trousers, and Malay women doing likewise with baju kurung blouses. No one has expressed outrage at these fashion choices.”

    (Just forewarning; as an autistic woman, I sometimes tend to misjudge my tone when wording a question–I do mean this out of genuine curiosity, though perhaps my wording might make it seem abrupt? Either way I apologise.)

    I suppose I’m wondering as to what your thoughts are as to when ‘Cultural wear and fashion’ finds its way to ‘Modern fashion?’

    To elaborate:

    When I was younger in the 2000’s, I recall that there was a trend with Chinese inspired clothing being worn as a very casual thing? I think it was an episode of Charmed where one of the characters spent the ep wearing a Quipao or Samfoo styled shirt (I’m sorry I’m still very unsure as to the proper distinction between the two and keep getting mixed definitions for either on the net) that didn’t seem intended as ‘Cultural wear’? I suppose it seemed closer to http://www.linganddong.com/collections/all ‘s intent to just have it as a…modern piece of clothing? Even today I own quite a few dresses that, for all intents and purposes -are- modern, but they appear to have taken aesthetic inspiration from traditional celtic tunics in how they’re shaped and worn? Or even ‘Tartan skirts’ described as ‘Kilts’ when they’re not?

    I suppose in all that rambling I’m trying to ask: Is it still inconsiderate to wear things that take influence from traditional cultural wear but -aren’t- cultural wear? Though I suppose that is a tricky distinction to make in itself…?

    (Keep in mind when I ask, I don’t mean it as when say, the kid who played Hermione wore what was -definitely- a traditional Qui-pao on the runway for little reason other than ‘it was pretty’–I do understand that was extremely problematic, but more when referring to items like:

    http://www.linganddong.com/products/a015-samfu-top-in-purple

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tartanista-Royal-Stewart-Tartan-Plaid/dp/B003VRK1X0/ref=sr_1_1?s=clothing&ie=UTF8&qid=1481042320&sr=1-1&keywords=Tartan+skirt

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/BAISHENGGT-Womens-Ethnic-Floral-Drawstring/dp/B01L3WAKFS/ref=sr_1_3?s=clothing&ie=UTF8&qid=1481042342&sr=1-3&keywords=Tunic+dress )

    Again, I apologise if this comes off as abrupt, but I am truly curious as to your insight!

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    • It is such an interesting question you phrased there, and thank you so much for the links to what you are referring to. Fashion is always evolving, and all of us dress for various occasions and for how we feel – and each of us have a different opinion on what is acceptable fashion and not.

      I think it depends on how modern clothing with traditional styles is worn. Some of us don clothing this way because we want to blend in with our peers, but at the same time have an affinity with our heritage and want to wear it proudly on our sleeves, to loosely put it.

      Also, what is new and modern comes out from somewhere and often that is born from the past – so in a way it is inevitable traces of cultural attire do slip into modern attire these days. In a sense, we are wearing a part of history with us wherever we go. I suppose if we wear this in good faith – with no intention of mockery or discrimination or sending out a discriminatory message – then why not.

      Your question didn’t come across as abrupt. It was very much insightful, and thank you so much for sharing.

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      • Thankyou so much for that insight, I actually never considered how much we do take from the past in clothing styles!

        But to add on and clarify; as tartan skirts took some inspiration from kilts for everyday wear for, say if I were to want to sew a contemporary shirt that incorporated the mandarin style collar (and perhaps asymmetrical zip?) of the cheongsam, would that be shameless appropriation or crafting something inspired by the look of something? I ask because I truly do adore how the high collar and asymmetrical fastenings lend its shape to the garment, but I definitely do not want to step over the line by ‘taking’ something and trivialising it or its’ meanings just because I like it? I suppose I’m wondering where the line between ‘inspiration’ and ‘overt theft and trivialisation’ is?

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        • It is a tricky thing, and I think whether or not we cross the line between creative inspiration and careless appropriation when ti comes to modern/traditional fashion depends on context. That is, how we wear it and the purpose we’re wearing what we wear – even if you chose to sew a Mandarin style collar as a top part of a shirt. If we chose to wear such a hybrid piece of garment among friends who share culturally diverse views on a casual day out together, it is hard to see an issue with that.

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  5. I hope you see this because it’s so late to the game. I live in the USA and recently attended a Japanese festival where I wore a kimono and purchased an obi at a stall where the owner helped me put it on. I felt like it was a great, respectful exchange but I’m worried that I may have crossed some lines unintentionally. I learned a lot (like left always goes over right unless you want to be a dead person) and the parts of the kimono. I’m worried that I’ve done something offensive though and I wanted to hear some other’s thoughts.

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    • Never to late to the game, Lily. It really did sound like a respectful exchange, and the owner wanted you to wear the costume the right way. Very appreciative of you. I suppose if you are appreciative of its worn and the history behind it, then it’s alright 🙂

      Like

  6. I want to wear a traditional Indian Saree I’m in high school and have no other time to wear one so I thought the only time to do it is during Halloween and not look weird. Should I wear it during school maybe???

    Like

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