Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Screencap article: Ethnic Dress Explanasian

  Michelle asked what I thought about white Americans wearing traditionally Asian looks such as frog clasps and brocade patterns in the comments the other day. I asked if I could write out a post in response, and she agreed. :D

  I think there is a difference between traditional ethnic costume and fashions or patterns inspired by different cultures' dress.

  Traditional examples

In the US:

  San Francisco Chinatown has a lot of this mass-produced traditional-ish stuff. I think it's cheap, but inoffensive. If I were to see a person decked out in this ensemble, I would probably think 'tourist' and maybe hang about helpfully for several extra seconds in case she or he needed directions.


  Chinese martial arts demo, Chinese martial arts uniform, not a Chinese person. Have not encountered any problems with this. Neither have my non-Asian friends.

  I also wore an ao dai to a friend's wedding, and her family thought it was awesome. (I did check first if anyone thought it would not be ok for a Japanese-descended person to wear one.)


  The folks pictured here (I don't know them, they just seemed nice and turned up in a Google image search) do not appear to be of Japanese descent, but this isn't at all offensive to me. I think it's cool when people wear traditional clothing and learn about it.

  My general outlook on persons of one culture wearing traditional costume of another culture: the contexts I have seen it in have been respectful (and look like fun) and I've never been offended.

  Be aware, however, that some traditional cuts/styles are made to suit certain body types. I remain convinced the current super short leggy trends in the US are not designed for daikon ashi, while Victorian/Edwardian cuts flatter a high bust and long waist that are more common among Japanese, which may play a role in the Gothic/Lolita/Steampunk subculture fashions there.

'Inspired by' designs

  Items like these look "inspired by"to me- the patterns or elements have ethnic origin, but they do not look like traditional ethnic dress. I personally wouldn't think anything was out of the ordinary if I saw these items worn on the street. A lot of my own clothes are in this category- I call them 'AZN' or 'JPN.'

  We're a shrinking world. We have the Internet and all sorts of global trade going on, but even centuries ago, there is a recorded history of fascination with other cultural dress.

  However, context matters. Urban Outfitters got in trouble not long ago for 'Navajo' labeled items in their stores. While copyright of actual patterns is a dicey matter, there is such a thing as sensitivity to a historically marginalized group with a rich cultural history, and this issue seriously looked like insensitivity or outright stupidity. The sense I got is the objection was to the lack of respect and the items bearing the Navajo name (a pattern-wrapped flask, for example) being tacky, which brings us to the third category.


  There's any number of tacky things out there that fetishize other cultures. There is, I think, a difference between inspiration/artistic license and a stereotype/fetish, and these items look like the latter to me.

   See, Asian people are wearing these and they still look terrible.

I got a kick out of these labels

  I put stuff like this into the "offensive because it's ugly/tasteless" category. I don't think my objection stems from Asian patterns or cuts being worn by non-Asian people, I think it comes from the item's purpose being to sexualize or objectify a culture, often in an ignorant way.

  My overall take is that I have no truck with fashion or style that draws inspiration from Japanese culture being worn by persons of all ethnic origins. Doing research about the origin of a particular pattern or clothing technology is interesting and fun. I think there is also such a thing as tasteless fetishism. In an ideal world, wearing something for its beauty and for the happiness it brings you should not be a problem, but social issues can be complicated.

  As one of the less disenfranchised minority groups in the US, I have a privileged position. I cannot claim to speak at all for what another person might feel, and I imagine opinions vary within and between ethnicities on traditionally-inspired dress.

  I have wondered about what people think of the recent tribal print trend, among other things.

  What about your own experiences with your style inspirations? Have you noticed trends or people wearing culturally-inspired dress?


  First, I am speaking for myself (American of Japanese and Taiwanese descent) in this post. There are many issues both in and out of my ethnicity of which I am ignorant. I welcome clarification and sharing, and apologize if any mistakes I make cause offense.

  Second, in the United States, the majority is currently white Americans (and 'white' is such a hodgepodge of different cultural backgrounds). There's a power/privilege dynamic there. However, human beings the world over have quite the history of power dynamics. Take the history of Korea and Japan. Or Ireland and England. This is not a X-group-is-awful post.

  Confession: first time I saw a chain clothing store that sells tropics themed hot weather wear (I will call it Andy Caicos) I thought "colonialism."



  1. Thank you for addressing this issue and shedding light on it. I faced it about a year ago when I was surveying women's fashion around the world and wondered how appropriate it was to try on the clothes of different cultures.

    My conclusion mirrored yours: intent matters. If one is respectful and doing it for the right reasons (e.g., scholarly exploration), you seldom get complaints. I have heard, however, objections raised to other bloggers who appropriated ethnic items with little awareness or concern for what they were doing. They were guilty of a lack of respect, so I see the point of the objections.

  2. Interesting! I'm glad you wrote this post. I read the comment and wondered the same myself. I've always had a love of kimono - especially the silk ones. I finally bought one, but never wore it. I felt too "white" to wear it.

    I've also experimented with wearing kurta (Indian) on my blog, and have received positive comments from both Indian and non-Indian readers.

    For me, I use clothing as a way of learning about another culture and appreciating the beauty of the designs and uniqueness. I'm still cautious about what I do wear, but I do love learning.

    Also tacky is tacky no matter what the fetishized costume is of! Even those "sexy thanksgiving" costumes are awful!!

  3. Thank you for delving into this topic for me!