Do we want to appreciate or appropriate?
-Halloween this year is going to be bigger than ever. With us missing out last year, everyone seems very excited about the idea of going out and wearing costumes.
With all the excitement about wearing fancy dress and heading out, it’s important to remember where our costumes originally came from. Something seemingly innocent to some, can be really devastating to others, and it’s important to choose our fancy dress carefully, and know where it’s come from.
Costume or Culture?
The classic “scary” costumes seem to be becoming a thing of the past; current topics, favorite characters, and pop culture are now the main focus.
While we dress up and have a great night, we also need to take a step back and think of the origin of these costumes. We need to work out if what we are dressing up as is enjoyable for everyone, or if maybe we should rethink our choices.
For example, instead of accidentally appropriating, why not show our respect by reading up and learning about its background.
Something seemingly innocent to some, can be really devastating to others.
Putting ourselves in other peoples shoes
I spoke to a few people local to my area recently, about how they would feel if people dressed up in our traditional dress. We had a discussion and all agreed that we would not feel comfortable with it in certain instances. When people don’t understand your culture and use it for entertainment, with no intent to learn, it can be really damaging. As Welsh individuals we tend to get a lot of jokes thrown our way regarding sheep, accents, being “behind the times” and our heritage. So the idea of those people who are joking but have no respect or intent to learn, using our traditional dress for their entertainment can be quite hurtful.
It doesn't seem harmful until it's happening to you.
Imagine this scaled up to a culture a lot older and a lot more oppressed than ours. For example, the Native American headdress, or warbonnet. At a first glance, yes it’s beautiful, it’s magnificent, it’s captivating. Who wouldn’t want to wear one and feel the power of them? But do we actually know where it originates? Do we actually understand the respect needed to be able to wear such a magnificent headdress? When something so important and respected is replicated with bits of plastic, sold on the internet for pennies and used as fancy dress for a messy night out, are we not belittling such an ancient and historic culture?
First of all, there are 564 federally recognised tribes in the US alone, and only a dozen or so wear warbonnets, or headdresses; the most recognisable Native American dress. By us donning a headdress, we are generalizing all these different cultures and squishing them all into one box, and not recognising them as individuals.
But do we actually know where it originates?
Headdresses are also something that has to be earned. They represent strength, and are made predominantly from young golden eagle feathers. You can notice this by the beautiful brown tips and soft white tops. So by us wearing them as fancy dress that we’ve bought for a fiver from the internet, is an insult in itself to the cultures that use them. They used to be worn for war, now mainly for ceremonies, and we’re there wearing them to a party and posting photos of us onto social media, which doesn’t give them the respect they deserve. This is just one example of inadvertent cultural appropriation that happens annually at this time of year.
How about we adapt?
So instead of generalizing and using someone else’s traditional dress as a costume idea, why not choose a beloved character instead? Dressing as the Moana character from Disney, with the signature Heart of Te Fiti pendant and cute red bandeau, is a nice nod to the French Polynesians, without disrespecting their culture. By including the details associated with the character, you automatically make your costume more enjoyable for everyone including yourself, and reduce the chance of upsetting someone by being ignorant about their culture. It also gives us an exciting learning curve, where we can have a look into beloved character’s backgrounds and origins. This way we can understand more about the way certain characters dress without ignorantly wearing them and accidentally undermining a whole culture.
Instead of shutting people down when they make these mistakes, it's important to open up a dialogue as to why they should maybe reconsider, by talking about the cultural background of their costume choice. This is not only non confrontational, but chances are, they hadn't realised that they could upset anyone by wearing this.
It was fine then, why not now?
The simple answer is, it's never been fine. We just didn't know it. Some people may argue that it wasn’t a problem to wear these costumes as fancy dress X amount of years ago. Unfortunately, it’s always been a problem. The difference now is that we have the means to express these feelings. With the power of globalisation and social change, peoples voices are finally being heard. This is exactly why we should be listening, and changing our ways to be more inclusive, even if the first step is only by adapting a Halloween costume.
These decisions need to be dealt with conscientiousness and sensitivity, as we learn that changes need to be made so everyone can enjoy this time of year.
How to decide
It's easy to say "it’s hard to avoid it" because as soon as you type in Native American Headdress, Polynesian dress, Sombrero or anything similar into google, plenty of options come up on the likes of Amazon, and it’s hard to resist when the entirety of the costume is there for less than £20. The difference here is making the conscious decision before going “That would make a cool outfit!”, to look up how people feel about it. It's being able to put ourselves in the shoes of the people who’s culture is being appropriated for the enjoyment of the western world. And to ask ourselves, yes it is available, but is it right? Because by making these changes, not only can you come up with some really great costumes, but you can do it in a way where you’re not accidentally disrespecting a whole culture.
It comes down to, do you care about it not being right or not?
A few questions to ask ourselves if we're unsure
Why am I choosing this costume?
Am I disrespecting anyone by wearing this?
Am I stereotyping by wearing this?
Do the cultural origins of this costume have a history of oppression?
Is there a way I can express my appreciation for the cultural elements, by redirecting my costume into one of a character I like from a film or a book instead?