Culture is a complicated, slippery thing. It’s malleable, and it changes with values and through time. The richness of a culture cannot be quantified, but those who connect with their traditions, their clothing, their art, and their music can feel it. In an increasingly global world, more cultures are blending together and new rituals are created.
Why is it then—if you wear “sugar skull” mask from Dia De Los Muertes celebrations while not having Mexican ancestry, or a First Nations headdress while not being First Nations—some people get offended? Are you not simply participating in the great experiment of culture “bricolage?” And why isn’t it taken as a compliment, rather than perceived as an offense?
Some of these answers can be found by asking people with different cultural perspectives, and by reading up on some previous articles.
First, we can look at the appropriation of the clothing from lower social classes in recent trends. Al Sandine wrote an essay called “Cultural Impersonations and Appropriations: A Fashion Report.” In this article, Sandine writes about why trends such as expensive “designer” tattered jeans become popular. Sandine argues that this tendency could have started in the 1950s, when movies such as The Wild One, and Rebel Without a Cause taught a generation that being a non-conformist was “cool.” Since then, Rock ’n’ Roll music, and later, grunge fashion and music, flourished. It became trendy to look poor, without the struggles of actually being poor.
Sandine quotes Barbara Ehrenreic who says capitalism “had taken the anger and the yearning of the poor and sold them to the restless youth of the middle class.” The evidence of this was seen with “Coolhunters” in the 1990s, who hunted down trends for Nike, Adidas, and Tommy Hilfiger. Key words like “revolutionary,” and “break the rules” were widespread in advertising.
This has been called “tourism” for the wealthier consumer. The trend is, in a matter of speaking, eaten up by consumers who wear it for the duration of time for which it is considered “trendy,” and then it is forgotten when something new comes along. While this has obvious environmental repercussions, the life cycle of a trend may otherwise seem harmless—a fluorescent military-style jacket being forgotten cannot be considered a massive loss. However, when the trend in question has cultural significance to a group other than the mainstream consumer, the cannibalizing and abandoning of a “trend” can become problematic.
Here we return to the crux of the matter: cultural appropriation. Recently, some first nations headdresses were turning up all over popular blogs—fashion and personal. It was considered a “hipster” trend, and most people who were partaking were unaware of the cultural consequences of their actions.
It isn’t only the comings-and-goings of a whimsical industry that may strip an item of cultural value—there are historical and political implications here as well.
For instance, let’s take the “sugar skull”, or calavera masks from Dia De Los Muertos. Blogger Nuestra Hermana says the appropriation of this tradition is disrespectful in part because it ignores the history of Spanish colonization in Mexico, when there were “many attempts to eradicate the rituals and festivals” in order to convert Mexican people to Catholicism. By making this a mainstream trend, some feel the spiritual aspect of this tradition is being erased by consumer whims. It can create a commodity from a culture, and instead of educating people on a history, deepens stereotypes and perpetuates misunderstandings.
Cultures are fluid. They are ever-changing, and hopefully, the interactions between them are enriching. However, consumerism is not a culture that promotes the deep bonds that lead people to understand each other. Instead, it capriciously cannibalizes everything from tattered jeans to Geisha Halloween costumes without sensibility. It is up to us—the consumers—to make decisions on what we want to see go in and out of style, and because a lot of these trends are scooped up from people on the margins, we should all start having more meaningful interactions.