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.
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?