A Culture In Costume: How Playing Dress-Up Can Be an Ethnic Put-Down

INSPADES Magazine, “Issue Uno”


Carnival activity and playful disguise have existed as a form of human celebration and entertainment long before the commercialization of Halloween. While costuming can be associated with various types of performance, artistic expression or personal festivities, at what point does one’s choice of dress-up begin to put-down another’s cultural identity?

The boundary between cultural appropriation and cultural sharing is a fluid separation—impossible to concretely differentiate as it continually oscillates between intention and interpretation.

As a rising conversational trend, “cultural appropriation” is an endless storm of debate swirling in the universe of the Internet, with intraworlds like Twitter and Reddit spinning out of orbit from the onslaught of hateful accusations and righteous indignation. Most recently, a mixed group of models decorated with pastel dreadlocks in a Marc Jacobs show prompted a media shower of response, again demanding the question, “is this cultural appropriation or cultural sharing?”

“Cultural” what?

To appropriate something—be it a concept, practice, object or other—is to take something for one’s own purpose without permission from, or recognition of, the owning party. Think of the justifiable fit that author George R.R. Martin would be entitled to if HBO’s series Game of Thrones were to award alternate names for the characters and locations, and then eliminate acknowledgment for Martin’s creative influence, all the while maintaining an undeniable facsimile of the famous tales of warring Westeros. The show would be inarguably and severely appropriating Martin’s work.

Now let’s expand our understanding of appropriation to include culture—the trending term for which is referred to as “cultural appropriation”. Here, a party is taking explicit influences from another culture or ethnicity, meanwhile denying the group recognition, collaboration or voice.

Cultural sharing, on the other hand, is more inclusive in its approach. The world is filled with a fantastic fusion of cultures; borrowing elements of an array of cultures in a respectful, tasteful manner, constitutes a healthy cultural exchange. If bantu knots worn by Caucasian celebrities—think Björk or the models in Marc Jacobs’ spring collection in 2015—were to credit Zulu tribes in southern Africa with the inspiration, as opposed to renaming the style “twisted mini buns”, then that would be an example of cultural exchange; however, as long as the originator of a cultural element remains unacknowledged, then the “borrowed” element is appropriated, and not shared.

A Culture Is Not a Costume

When it comes to festivity, costuming is a favoured element that comes to mind. Whether celebrating Oktoberfest with folks in lederhosen, partying within the vibrant themes of Mardis Gras, or participating in the famously costumed Halloween spirit, playing “dress-up” is a signature activity.

While at times the purpose of costuming can be to achieve an off-putting effect—think zombie-themed attire for horror parties—the balance between visually repelling and offensive can be easily upset.  For example, dressing as a suicide bomber in traditional Arab attire is not considered edgy for its dark “humour”, but offensive for its gross misrepresentation and mockery of a serious issue.

In their ethnic awareness campaign “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume”, Ohio University’s group, Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS), addresses demeaning culture-based costumes that come out of the woodwork, especially around Halloween. Running poster campaigns with captions like, “When this is how the world sees you, it’s just not funny,” and “You wear the costume for one night, I wear the stigma for life,” STARS explains how costuming can be hurtful to cultural groups, regardless of the wearer’s intentions.

“Dressing up as Pocahontas (or Sexy Pocahontas, let’s get real), is offensive because it takes the whitewashed version of a whole group of people that have been victimized and abused in their own land [and presents it as] a thing one can just try for a night,” Laia Garcia, associate editor for Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s online newsletter “Lenny”, told The New York Times.

In this campaign’s example, they state that this particular use of “native” attire is not adopting fashion characteristics from a broader Indigenous culture; but rather, making misuse of a community’s traditional dress for a night of fun, partying, and implicit ridicule. Regardless of whether the wearer means to insult, there is a lack of respect for the culture they are mimicking because their dress is uninformed, un-credited and a bogus interpretation of an appearance that is taken seriously by the cultural group.

While the feathered headdresses of tribes and nations native to North America are actually sacred symbols, this is often seen as cheapened by costuming and pop culture. Dr. Adrienne Keene is a citizen of the Cherokee nation and voice to Native Appropriations, an educational blog that spotlights critical discourse around representations of Indigenous people in mainstream media. In her piece for The New York Times, “The Benefits of Cultural ‘Sharing’ are Usually One-Sided”, Dr. Keene explains that aspects of native culture, such as the headdress, have been “‘borrowed’ so many times and in so many ways that its original power and sacred meaning have been all but lost to the non-native public.”

Dr. Keene goes on to describe the significance of the headdress, a gift that leaders are entrusted with by their communities. When a meaningful item is incorporated into a costume for the purpose of frivolous reveling, Dr. Keene claims that the item’s significance is “erased and disrespected”, and the concerned culture is reminded that their customs are “unimportant in contemporary society, and unworthy of respect.”

In her argument, Dr. Keene does not disapprove of the incorporation of cultural influence within the worlds of art and fashion, but rather, insists on “partnership, collaboration, and equal power and control over how our communities are represented.”

InSpades Magazine caught up with Vienna-based hair and makeup artist Nadine Mayerhofer, who posted a makeup tutorial on Youtube for achieving that “warrior-inspired” look. Wearing tribal-themed makeup and a full-feathered headdress, the video received a slew of passionate comments from frustrated critics and defensive supporters.

“I was not going for specific ethnic or cultural makeup,” Mayerhofer told InSpades Magazine, “I wanted to create the look of a powerful, young female warrior using new modern colours and techniques.”

Growing up around horses, Mayerhofer used to play “wild west” imaginary games with her friends, wherein the “warrior” represented strength and independence—a quality she tried to emulate through makeup art.

“This is a very important topic for me as an independent woman, and I hope I fulfilled this statement with that look,” Mayerhofer explained.

Despite her noble intentions, associating Hollywood’s version of a “native warrior” with power and independence, Mayerhofer did not research the traditional symbols, such as headdresses, that she incorporated into her costume. Her depiction of a “wild west” warrior woman unwittingly perpetuates the image of a stereotype, where Hollywood versions of Indigenous traditional dress are clumped into one misrepresentative look.

Cultural Sharing vs. Appropriating

We live in a multicultural time where efficient transportation, Internet and the digital age have enabled exploration of the world’s diversity. It is not uncommon for cultures to borrow from each other. For example, sushi has permeated North American culture as a must-try food. What makes sushi a borrowed element of Japanese culture, as opposed to an appropriated traditional food, is that the Japanese origin of sushi is widely recognized. No one with zero connections to Japanese culture would open a sushi restaurant and claim to be the inventor of the delicious dish.

According to Deborah Root, contributing essayist for Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation, “There is a very fine line between appreciation and appropriation, respect and self-aggrandizement.” When a person borrows elements from another culture, is the result an accurate portrayal and homage to the culture it represents, or is it a low-grade glorification for the borrower?

For example, if a person not associated with Hinduism were to dab a bindi on their forehead, are they doing so to engage with the religious gesture, or is it merely an “exotic” decoration?

Another example to consider is the Inuit amauti. Amautis are parkas with built-in baby pouches worn by Inuit women. Functional and intimate, the design of amautis enables the mother to easily maneuver her child from back to front for convenient breastfeeding, all the while protecting the child from winter’s harsh conditions.

As the amauti design and patterns belong to the Inuit people, if a group began distributing something heavily influenced by amautis, it would be considered cultural appropriation; however, Inuits and non-Inuits alike are welcome to embrace the innovative amauti by purchasing them through Inuit designers like Amauti Baby. Cultural sharing would be acknowledging the community that originally conceptualized amautis, and supporting their traditional fashion and community by purchasing the product from them.

“It comes down to issues of respect and issues of power,” Dr. Keene wrote in her article, “Who is benefiting from the ‘borrowing’ of culture?” If the “borrower” is getting the better end of the deal, then the line between appreciating and appropriating has been crossed.

Regardless of Halloween and costuming, it’s important to be sensitive to how one might inadvertently borrow elements from another culture and cause offense. Is the element providing recognition to the cultural group and offering a respectful portrayal, or is it thoughtless appropriation?

Culture, Ethnicity and Media Literacy

It’s no secret that popular culture and the media easily influence societal views. Whether we like it or not, our perception of ethnic groups and their customs are highly susceptible and subconsciously formed, in part, by the media.

“Media have social and political implications, and audiences negotiate meaning,” Matthew Johnson told InSpades Magazine. Johnson is the Director of Education for MediaSmarts, a Canadian centre for digital and media literacy. “All media, no matter how trivial or disposable, have meaning; that meaning may not have been consciously intended by the creator(s) but it’s there, and it affects how audiences view themselves and the world.”

Essentially, it’s important for viewers to understand that the portrayal of an ethnic group may not be an accurate representation, and might be the creator(s)’ projection of their individual interpretation; what could be viewed as a neutral or positive portrayal of a group by some, might be interpreted as negative by a person of the portrayed group. According to Johnson, this disjointed interpretation among different audience members occurs because “members of the group being represented haven’t had the opportunity to tell their own stories.”

When Caucasian performers assume the role of a character that is a member of a visible minority, it is “contributing to the history of depriving these groups of their voice in media, making it more likely that the portrayal will be inaccurate and possibly offensive to members of that group,” Johnson explained.

Some examples of  “whitewashing” include Johnny Depp and Rooney Mara playing Indigenous people in The Lone Ranger and Pan, respectively, or Mickey Rooney playing a crude interpretation of a southeast Asian man, Mr. Yunioshi, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Such whitewashing in Hollywood is an extension of cultural appropriation; the production feels entitled to borrow elements of a culture that it wants to feature, often without consulting people from that group to ensure a respectful, accurate portrayal and balanced perspective in the production.

This issue is complicated by the fact that not everyone defines cultural appropriation the same way. Some see it as loosely adopting anything from a culture that isn’t your own.  Does arguing against cultural appropriation mean people should only feel welcome to act in accordance with the culture they are born into? The answer is “no” – this is not an argument of “the preservation of my culture is more important than your culture”.

The real concern is the trivialization of violent historical oppression, when people of privilege profit off the labour of the oppressed and when racist stereotypes are perpetuated en masse; to award one group of people for another’s accomplishments and have it be okay for one group to do something that another would be punished for.

Incorporating another culture’s traditional elements into your life is not necessarily a faux pas, but that while the sharing and learning of different groups is a beautiful privilege, it is important to see it as a privilege and allow respect to lead one’s judgment.