September 24, 2020

Culture Not Costume: A Practical Guide to Avoiding Cultural Appropriation

The online costuming conference last weekend, Costume On 2: Tailored, was a great success, and to all of those who attended my lectures - thank you!  I learned just as much about presenting as I hope participants did from the talks, and I look forward to future opportunities to share that research again!  

Before I file my notes away, I did want to share what ended up being part of the conclusion of my second session, which discussed Orientalism in all of its complexities - including both historical and modern applications to fashion, textiles, and accessories.  The last few slides focused on defining appreciation and appropriation, and I offered some guidelines or advice for applying culturally sensitive practices to our modern, historical costuming.  However, I don't feel that one slide at the end really gave enough attention to this important topic, so I thought I'd follow up today with a blog post.  This is intended as a practical guide for avoiding cultural appropriation in costuming, and while it's by no means all-inclusive, it offers a start.  So, without further ado, let's dive in:

First, let's discuss: what is appropriation?  The online Oxford English dictionary provides the following definition, stating that appropriation is the "action of taking something for one's own use, typically without the owner's permission."  So when applied to culture, it is the intentional (or sometimes unintentional) copying of another culture's intellectual or material property.  This includes, but is not limited to a culture's specific customs, traditions, or forms of expression, be it through music and dance, language, food, and, of course, clothing.  Appropriation differs from "cultural borrowing" in that it is done without the permission of that culture, and often without respect or understanding for the significance of what is being taken.  This is especially harmful when the community that is the source is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited by the more dominant society, who profits either politically, economically, or socially from the taking.  

So when avoiding appropriation in own costuming, as a community, we must be more aware when we culturally-cross dress.  Cultural awareness goes beyond simply avoiding using sacred or highly specific, traditional motifs, as we must consider the interests of the culture whose clothing or materials or being used.  These actions fall under what is described as cultural appreciation.  Cultural appreciation is characterized by having a genuine and authentic interest in another culture - by listening to the native perspective, learning about their history, and then understanding the significance of the object within its original context.  Unlike appropriation, appreciation is an active exchange that is mutually beneficial, whether that includes a monetary exchange or just a better understanding on both sides.  

I LOVE this illustration - culture is NOT a costume! 
(Image source: The Odyssey)

Cultural borrowing in itself is not problematic, in fact, it's a wonderful, beautiful thing!  We just need to keep the impact of our actions in mind as we make these transactions.  This requires taking a moment to reflect on the intention - why we are borrowing and for what purpose - and making sure that the end result honors the culture, its people, and their objects in the context they were intended to be used and appreciated.  So, how do we do this - or what are some immediate, practical tips for avoiding cultural appropriation?  These, of course, are going to differ person to person, and situation to situation, but here is my advice and where I would start:

Step number one: show genuine interest in the culture as a whole.  

Intention is everything.  Consider your motivations before borrowing - is this for attention or superficial reasons (ex: "likes" on an Instagram photo or just because it looks "cool" or "exotic")?  Or is there a deeper, authentic interest in participating in another culture's traditions?

Simply being friends with someone from another culture or just enjoying the look of something different from your norm, doesn't give you permission to tokenize or appropriate.  If you truly want to partake in another culture's dress, don't cherry-pick elements or modify tradition to suit an arbitrary aesthetic, but rather be interested in and celebrate the culture as a whole.  

Step number two: do your research! 

When planning a costume, there's a lot of effort that goes into developing the character, designing the outfit, and sourcing all of the materials - and that's all before the actual making process!  So when designing a costume with cross-cultural elements, it's equally, if not more important to do your research!  This is not just a superficial google search, but really do a deep dive so you have a full understanding of the cultural and historical significance of an object or material you wish to use - as well as the appropriate context for its use.  

Make sure to give the appropriate credit too.  This includes disclosing and discussing your sources for inspiration, both the historical and the cultural.  Costumers often provide a character reference when cosplaying, or the fashion plate or extant garment that inspired their historical dress - make sure to do the same when there's cultural background required. 

Step number three: be an empathetic listener.  

Consider the sources of your research - did you directly consult with people from the culture to learn about their feelings and perspectives on the object you wish to use?  Cultural exchange is a two way street, and borrowing quickly becomes appropriation, exploitation, and oppression when the wishes of the source culture are excluded from conversation, and worse ignored or directly violated.  Have an open and honest conversation with willing participants.  And if you are the borrower, be an active listener and engaged learner, not a dismissive informer.  

Also, support native artisans and makers whenever possible.  The expression money talks applies here - for instance, instead of buying "tribal-inspired" earrings from just anyone, amplify the voices of Native American and indigenous peoples by recognizing their unique, cultural identities and purchasing directly from a Navajo artist.  The result is two-fold - you're supporting a rich, crafting tradition that's been exploited by the "fashion" industry, and you're connecting with a culture, rather than a faceless corporation making a profit off of mass-produced rip-offs.  

Step number four: make conscious and intentional decisions. 

You've done your research, you've consulted with people from the culture, and now it's time to apply your findings.  Be deliberate in your choices, think about the message your costume is sending - are you honoring a culture or simply imitating it?  

Obviously, avoid perpetuating the stereotypes of a culture.  Make sure, again, you are borrowing for the right reasons.  None of which should be to make money or just for a "cool" photo to post online - but as an opportunity to learn about, interact with, and ultimately experience another culture.  

Step number five: err on the side of caution.  

There is a thin line between appreciation and appropriation, but sometimes there's grey area or matters that will differ within personal or cultural interpretations.  We have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and realize that there may not be a definitive answer.  Above all, use your common sense.  If you're question whether something is more appropriative than appreciative, it's best to err on the side of caution.  And if your gut feeling is ever "no," just don't do it! 

Step number six: be willing to acknowledge & learn from mistakes.

All actions have consequences, for better or for worse.  The boundaries of culture are neither definite, nor static, rather they are fluid, dynamic, and constantly being redefined.  Even when acting with the best of intentions, appropriation still happens - and the harm is real.  We will all make mistakes, and it's important to give yourself permission to be human and a little grace. 

The best response is a sincere apology.  Acknowledge what went wrong, and don't continue to insist that you were appreciating if you've been told you're actually appropriating.  Perhaps review steps one through three of this guide - and, most importantly, learn from the mistake so it doesn't happen again.  

And with that, I think I’ll open it up to any questions and further discussion!  How do you practice cultural appreciation, and what steps do you take to avoid appropriation in your own costuming?  Which of the steps in this guide stood out to you most, and what advice would you add?  

Let me know in the comments below - thanks for reading, and special thanks to our patrons who make content like this possible! 


  1. so what is it if an american woman wears a bavarian/austrian/swiss dirndl (=tracht) in horrible colours and impossible combinations? appreciation? borrowing? appropriation? (i have to state that dirndl/tracht is a vey complex set of clothes with a lot of meaning in choice of colour, way to wear...)

    1. I'm not the OP, but I was wondering specifically about drindl/trachtenmode because I am not German (I do speak German, but it's not my culture). I want to make a Krampus themed drindl but I'm not sure if that's offensive or not.

      From every German/Austrian I have talked to the idea is that they hope it leads to a deeper understanding of the culture and the fashion. If it doesn't, it is annoying and cringey but it's not the same as a white American wearing an offensive (for example) Native American costume because of the historical context. White Americans have subjugated Native Americans. So the difference is cringe (bad drindl) vs insensitive (Native Americans).


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