It’s that time of year again. Halloween is around the corner and everyone is excited to rock their hilarious, scary, or fabulous costumes whilst filling up on candy and good vibes. Personally, I’m planning a Halloween themed 90s movie marathon!
Anyway, Halloween is an especially awesome day because we get to dress up as our favourite celebrities, fictional characters, and spooky creatures. But unfortunately, Halloween also seems to be a time when cultural appropriation seems to be at its highest.
What is cultural appropriation? How is it harmful?
Simply put, cultural appropriation occurs when a person takes something that is culturally significant and uses it outside of that cultural context. This happens a lot, and even more so during Halloween. Material objects and cultural practices are taken from a culture and then exploited and commercialized for mass consumption.
Every year, costumes are sold that capitalize and reinforce negative stereotypes about various cultures. Sometimes costumes contain clothing or artifacts that are meant to be traditional and sacred to that culture. There are many articles circling the internet that point out racist Halloween costumes but I’d like to expand this into the fashion industry. Here are a couple examples of clothing, accessories, and hairstyles that have been taken away from a culture and then manufactured and marketed to the masses as a cool, new style or trend.
1. Native Headdresses (War Bonnets)
The headdress is probably one of the more obvious examples of cultural appropriation. Some of our most beloved celebrities have been called out for wearing them. Headdresses also seem to find their way into various outdoor music festivals during the summer. This year, Osheaga actually banned festival goers from wearing headdresses. The headdress is part of a ceremonial tradition and is supposed to be worn by the leaders within the native community. It is not an accessory.
The kimono “trend” hit us at full force about two summers ago and even I wasn’t immune to it. The long, flowy, colourful chiffon cardigans were a perfect layer over summer dresses and shorts. However, the name kimono, comes from Japan.
A kimono is a Japanese dress that is worn at very important ceremonies like weddings and funerals. More than one kimono showed up at the 2015 Met Gala’s Chinese themed event. And this isn’t the first time Japanese, Chinese, or other Asian cultures have been confused, mixed, and exploited. Katy Perry’s Geisha-inspired performance at the 2013 AMAs definitely came under critique for blending both traditional Japanese and Chinese dress.
This one is more for celebrities who have co-opted the bindi and taken out of its cultural context. The bindi is a religiously significant symbol in the Hindu religion but is also a music festival favourite. Vanessa Hudgens, Sarah Hyland, Kendall Jenner, and more were spotted at the 2014 Coachella music festival wearing bindis. Selena Gomez got a lot of criticism for repeatedly wearing the bindi both on and off stage in 2014.
We all know what braids are, but in late 2014, cornrows were dubbed the new hair trend. Oh and apparently afros as well. Except, they’ve existed as a part of black culture for literally centuries. Originally black women and men braid their hair into cornrows to protect it, but has grown to the become a unique part of black culture. The controversy over cornrows hit its peak when Kylie posted a pic on Instagram with cornrows. Amandla Stenberg called her out for it and later made a video explaining how black culture, and more specifically cornrows, have been taken and reproduced in mainstream culture as a “edgy trend.”
Obviously there are more examples and this article only skims the surface of what it means to appropriate and how it can be harmful. But where do we draw the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? It’s a question worth considering. I think we also need to think about why certain clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles need to be exploited by celebrities, fashion designers, and the masses in order for them to be appreciated? Why do they need to be edgy new trends? A culture shouldn’t be a trend or a costume. A culture should never be in or out of style.