This Halloween, are Social Fashion Laws in Vogue?
Recently in the US, there’s been what seems like a lot of talk about cultural appropriation, but what is it? Where did it come from? Why is there such a big divide around it?
by Mitch Blatt
In 1961, anthropologist William Rowe was in India where he observed members of the lower castes being punished for wearing clothing which contained threads reserved for the higher castes. Similarly, Emperors were the only people in Ancient Rome allowed to wear Tyrian purple. Such “sumptuary laws” fell out of favor in America during the Enlightenment, but there is a similar phenomenon in the form of “cultural appropriation,” which is typically understood to mean a member of a majority culture making use of elements from an
oppressed culture without consent. Susan Scafidi, professor of Fashion Law at Fordham University, literally wrote the book on the subject: Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law.
The idea of cultural appropriation first entered the public consciousness around 2015 (although it had been discussed in academic circles beforehand), after students
at Yale protested then-professor Nicholas Christakis’s, and Associate Master of Silliman College Erika Christakis’s, response to an email about culturally-respectful
Halloween costumes. Nicholas and Erika felt that the email impinged on free expression and infantilized students; the students thought that Yale was supposed to feel safe and inoffensive, like a home. Since then, it seems that cultural appropriation has been an annual debate had around Halloween. For example, many people, particularly on college campuses, say that white people shouldn’t wear certain costumes, clothes, or hairstyles from minority cultures. There are costumes which are clearly offensive, such as blackface, but most people already know those are a bad idea. The more controversial thing is costumes that have been recently deemed offensive, like geishas, ninjas and fictional characters of color.
I contacted Scafidi to ask her thoughts on the intersection of cultural appropriation and Halloween costumes. She explained that there’s a line between appreciating another culture and, not appropriating it, but misappropriating it; “All cultural appropriation comes out of a place of love and desire, sometimes too much love and too much desire. ‘I love it so much that I want it for myself.’ But there is a dividing line between what I like to refer to as cultural misappropriation, or harmful cultural appropriation, and appreciation.” This line, she said, can be determined by doing research and asking three questions about Source, Sacredness, and Similarity:
“Is the source community a community that has been historically discriminated against or oppressed and may still be feeling the effects of that discrimination?”
To use the Plains Indians feathered headdress as an example, Native American tribes including the Plains have been historically discriminated against, forced into boarding schools that tried to eliminate their culture. It wasn’t until 2013 that reservations had jurisdiction over non-Natives who committed crimes on the reservation, to name just a few examples of historical and modern oppression and discrimination.
Is the item being appropriated “perhaps highly significant, maybe sacred or even secret?” The headdress is comparable to a medal-bedecked military uniform—the feathers, which are taken from sacred birds, still have meaning today, it’s just that they’re more likely to be given in recognition for feats of PhD-earning rather than feats of battle. This item, where every feather is given in recognition of an accomplishment, isn’t really fit for the runway or Coachella.
“How similar is your proposed creation or your borrowing to the original [item]?”
A Halloween store’s headdresses probably don’t use actual feathers from the sacred birds, but the costume headdress still bears a heavy physical resemblance to the real thing.
But when it comes to dressing up as ninjas or Indian princesses, Scafidi says, context matters. On one hand, an aspect of a real culture is being placed next to obviously-fictional things like ghosts and vampires. On the other hand, the original purpose of Halloween costumes was to scare away demons. It’s a complicated topic.
If someone thinks they see a culturally misappropriation costume, Susan advises caution, “The nuance of the intent can very much be lost on the person whose culture is being appropriated [...] it’s absolutely complicated, and so often, when someone does engage in cultural misappropriation, it’s not through ill intent, it’s through lack of understanding. [...] The first thing to do is assess the situation and then, at some point where a thoughtful conversation is possible, have that conversation. In other words, don’t get in a bar fight over it.”
For those being accused of cultural misappropriation, Susan says that “the first thing to do is to listen and find out why and not immediately become defensive, and allow whoever’s challenging you to explain what they believe to be the concern, especially if they are a member of the culture involved. If it is a third party, then there’s a question about how much they know, what kind of information and insight they’re able to share.” Cultural misappropriation in general can cause economic hurt (the same as making money off of someone else’s artwork), but Halloween costumes can cause offense. When it comes to the offense-taking party being characterized as “oversensitive,” Susan notes “most of those people [who call offense-takers oversensitive] have a culture of their own that is precious to them” and “understand that something like the American flag or a military uniform with insignia or medals affixed to it is special and not just meant to be taken to a bar for a few drinks on Halloween.”
“On social media, in particular, when we only have 280 characters or one image, we don’t necessarily have in-depth conversation. But I think if we can step away from that trolling and attacking, very often we can come to understand one another.”
Things like Blackface and appropriated headdresses are clearly offensive, but interpreting ambiguous stimuli as harmful—a ninja or fictional character costume as offensive—isn’t good for one’s mental health. Or physical health, since stress affects the immune system. It’s commendable to call out offensive behavior, but people shouldn’t assume malice when ignorance is a sufficient explanation. Conversely, people who accuse others of oversensitivity may wish to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. This Halloween, whether your first instinct is to yell at a person for being culturally appropriative or to call a person oversensitive, please do your best to take a deep breath and see things from their perspective. This act of empathy can help bridge cultural divides. Sure, considering why someone’s wearing a certain costume or why someone cares about what costumes others wear won’t solve every cultural divide instantaneously, but it’s good practice for the sort of empathy that will.