In class, we discussed the concept of hegemony. Hegemony conceptualizes the process of taking culturally constructed ideals and presenting them as self-evident and natural. This process is constantly occurring in our society as a means of defining normalcy. In one of this week’s reading by Nancy Perezo, Indian Fashion Show’s are discussed. These shows were created by museologists in the 1930’s in order to bridge gaps between perceptions of modern fashion and “primitive” dress. This was done by enumerating the similarities and differences between authentic Native American clothing and the high fashion clothing coming from Europe. This led to a fashion trend of appropriating the cultural dress of a certain ethnic group and commodifying it to sell back to white upper class women. Unfortunately, this is a trend that still continues today. In an article entitled, “Pocahontas Pretty” on the fashion website Trendhunter, mostly white women are shown wearing high fashion depictions of Native American clothing.
Pictures like this, place images of Native American culture in a context where they can be appropriated by upper class white women so that they may play “dress up”. This can become especially harmful when the images buy into essentialist categories of Native American identity that are not necessarily based on truth but instead stem from harmful stereotyping. Appropriating the culture of a group of people dehumanizes them, and turns them into a commodity that can be bought and sold. In a climate where violence against these groups is still occurring, the question must be asked, what is the impact of commodifying a culture based on prevailing conceptions of these people? Does it trivialize a culture or even justify hate and violence? Dr. Douglas, creator of the Indian Fashion Shows, believed that by showing white women that they could understand and enjoy Native American dress, he would be promoting genuine understanding between racial groups. Is this thought process still present today when “hipster” designers create a feather headdress to sell at Urban Outfitters?
Whether you view them as an homage or as insulting, the reality is that these items of clothing allow people to play with pieces of cultural significance in ways that would be unacceptable if the group was not already marginalized in American society. For example, some of the clothing is inspired from the headdresses worn by Chiefs or Shamans. These figures are extremely important in Native American culture. What if other cultures began to appropriate white Christian culture in the same way? What if clothing inspired by the Pope’s robes became the height of fashion?
In addition, we also discussed the role of Miss America pageants in defining conceptions about a national standard of beauty. Much like any other socially constructed idea, nations are presented as natural boundaries between people when in reality they are human created. For many years, the Miss America pageant only admitted white contestants and portrayed a very skewed picture of what the American woman looks like. How does this connect to the idea of hegemony? Also, in the article “Contested Beauty”, the process of creating separate beauty pageants for Asian American and African American women is discussed. These pageants held political power and were used as a way to show that the face of American womanhood can take many different forms. Much like in the Parezo article, female beauty and fashion are used as a way to try and bridge gaps between different ethnic and racial groups. Do you think that there is a specific reason that women and fashion are continually utilized as a political tool?