Post Blog Week Five: Hegemony and Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

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?

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9 thoughts on “Post Blog Week Five: Hegemony and Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

  1. This topic has been extremely prevalent in my life lately as we have discussed it in this class and in another course I’m taking on Native American culture. One of your statements, “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” really stuck out to me. This is a fantastic point and I do not think enough people realize it. This is the same reason so many people have a problem with using Native Americans as mascots. Not only is this dehumanizing, but these acts take important components of Native American culture and use them disrespectfully. Your post held the example of a headdress worn by a chief being specific and sacred. When imitations of these items are sold in shops, it appears as if we are saying their beliefs are not important. I agree with your assessment that if this was any other culture, there would be an outrage. Unfortunately, many people view Native Americans not only as marginalized, but as nonexistent. When we imitate their culture disrespectfully, it makes them seem unreal to us.
    I am not fully sure if having white women wear Native American clothing is promoting understanding between racial groups. To me, I do not think most people who wear this type of clothing is actually thinking about the group it “represents.” You mentioned how women and fashion are often used as political tools, in this case as a tool to lessen the space between racial groups. I believe that fashion is so often used because it is common in every person’s life. However, I do not find it to be the most successful tool to encourage racial understanding. I think more often it just reinforces stereotypical thinking and offends cultural groups. If done carefully, perhaps it could be successful and could be used as a tool in bridging the gap between ethnic groups.
    As was depicted in the film we watched about Miss America, beauty pageants can be used in context with hegemony. In the film, the woman made a rule about “white participants only” because she believed it was what was natural. This is a culturally constructed idea that is being taken as a truth. As you explained, it provides a skewed idea of what an American woman looks like.

    • I really enjoyed this week’s readings and discussion on a topic that is very important and pertinent in today’s society. I strongly agree with Leslie’s position about the quote: “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” and how it is often not realized. As Leslie mentioned later in her response, when women are consuming these so-called fashion trends that imitate certain cultural aspects, they are not consciously thinking about what the article of fashion represents, what culture it is from, and the importance behind it. This is why I believe that we often overlook how these imitation articles allows us to play with pieces of cultural significance. We see it in the store, we think it’s cute, and we purchase it.

      This is also due to an ignorance for other cultures. For example, we learn about Native Americans in history and thus there is a wall that separates us. We think of those horrid events as in the past, yet we forget that there are still Native Americans and other marginalized racial group that care about this and are up in arms about it.

      Dr. Douglas believed that by showing white women that they could understand and enjoy Native American dress, he would be promoting genuine understanding between racial groups but this just isn’t the case. As Leslie said, fashion seems a logical choice to help bridge the gap since it is such a part of our everyday lives however, it falls short. By making one culture’s dress available to another culture, we allow for the appreciation of different cultures but not to the extent that we can possibly understand the other culture. We might respect and enjoy one group’s inspiration behind a certain piece of clothing but the story behind its significance is lost. Why is this particular garment worn in this culture? What does it represent? We are simply clueless.

  2. I am quite familiar with the concept of white people dressing up as Native Americans as mascots and the controversy over this. After being in many discussions about the loss of our Chief Illiniwek, I feel it all boils down to one thing, respect. Is the person dressing up doing so in a respectful manner that is meant to bridge the ethic gap and show homage to a people lost to time? Or getting drunk and running around in a cheaply made buckskin costume and making war whoops and brandishing a tomahawk? I feel this is also true of the cartoons made to represent the mascot in question. Does it portray a Native American as a strong proud individual such as the Florida Seminole or as a poorly drawn stereotyped caricature such as the Cleveland Indians? Obviously there is a right and wrong way to bridge ethic gaps. I felt the Indian Fashion Show was advanced for its time. During the 1950s, there was still a great amount of racism around the country against all types of people of color. To try to show them in a positive light as proud fashionable people, despite doing it through a Caucasian body, was quite forward thinking and a step in the right direction.

    The commercialization of Native American fashions, such as by Urban Outfitters, is definitely not something I endorse. It places these fashions and subsequently these people into a realm of costume. Also, so many people today are ignorant of the current plight of the Native American populations in the United States as well as the full history after the introduction of Europeans and formation of the United States, that it seems even more disrespectful to parade about in your mass made headdress.

  3. I really liked this weeks pre and post blogs because this is something I have seen very much over the last few months on some of the fashion blogs I follow, on tumblr and some of my friends from home’s facebook pages. As you said, “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.” and you ask if this thought process still exists in clothing stores such as urban outfitters that sell these headdresses and I say yes they do, but of course not right. I know that there have been many DJs who have hosted parties in Chicago that revolve around this theme where chicago hipsters come dressed up in face paint, head dresses, whether bought from urban outfitters or hand made. Where is the respect for Native American culture? Is it the way we were taught about Native American culture? Is it because Native Americans isn’t a culture that people see as even being present anymore? This definitely goes along with our very own illini chief. Okay, I understand people being upset because of their attachment to the mascot, but mascots are typically animals and to use a cultural symbol as a mascot is something I don’t really agree with. I think that anyone who does wear these headdresses and who makes and sells them, such as urban outfitters, who say they are raising cultural awareness is just a way to make people feel like this fashion practice is “OK.”

  4. I find this topic of Hegemony and culture in fashion interesting because I think it’s something we all can relate to. I see Native American clothing all the time and I never would have thought twice about it being a problem, or down right disrespectful. I feel like society has taught us not to think deeply about context but simply what’s on the outside. When girls go into Urban outfitters and they buy a headress headband they’re not considering the fact that this accessory means something to a culture, other than their own. I feel like stores that do this are just as guilty as the Indian Fashion show, Even though Dr. Douglas started out with a sincere purpose, the delivery was all wrong. This is the exact same thing. These stores try different styles and think they are showing how this style is good and giving props when, they are actually ignoring that specific culture and saying you as people don’t matter, but this outfit might make me a profit. And just like the Indian fashion shows, I don’t see many Native American models on posters, you see the traditional Caucasian, all American woman, “making it way more appealing”.

    • A part of me feels like the idea of Native American fashions being disrespectful may be a bit overboard. Although I agree with what Mimi said in class about wanting to be more sensitive towards cultures and races that have experienced alienation, colonization, and oppression, I don’t see a huge issue with wearing native American inspired fashions if its done tastefully. Yes, a full headdress is a bit too much, but most individuals won’t go that far. Many aspects of our lives have been influenced by cultures that have a history of oppression. For example, many styles of music and dance. Should we not incorporate African inspired movements into modern dance, because it may be derived from a sacred or religious ceremony? As long as someone isn’t mocking or disrespecting Indian culture, I don’t see a problem with wearing fashions that have been inspired by their culture. I think incorporating fashions from many cultures, and then taking the time to be informed about those particular fashions, can be a sign of respect and a way to become more culturally diverse. I saw this photograph of my Dad from the 70’s wearing a full native headdress in eagle scouts. When I asked him about it, he said he remembers marching in the parade dressed this way as a way to honor Native American tradition. I think its true that many people will buy these types of fashions without giving a second thought to Native American history. However, I don’t think the problem is the fashions themselves, but the fact that people are ill informed or just don’t care about the culture.

      • I get what you’re getting at. And in the perspective that this was just about fashion and appreciating another culture there would be no problem. But I feel a need to complicate these initially innocent ideas. Why would taking another part of someone’s culture and putting it in a fashion magazine signify it as being stylish? What are the elements that develop this idea of fashion? What right do you have to think that you have any entitlement? The way I see it. There isn’t anything besides it being something that’s not “ours”. It’s this idea of hegemony and commercialization of another culture that I find troubling. In response to your statement that, “I don’t think the problem is the fashions themselves, but the fact that people are ill informed or just don’t care about the culture,” I just wanted to say that I think that fashion only exists through the hands of those who create it. Do the creators of this fashion statement know the meaning behind the clothing they’re advertising? Fashion isn’t just fashion. There is always some sub-element that gives rise to its birth.

  5. I believe that the reason for women and fashion are continually utilized as a political tool is hugely down to the fact that woman are continually evolving on the political scene and the nature of fashion as both an instigator and follower of change and movement. I raise my first point about women in light of the historic tradition of women as a lower class to men, constantly suffering under their power and the restraints they put against the development of women in political and professional arenas. Whenever a breakthrough is made in gender equality, society feel the need to give woman a group ‘pat on the back’, applauding a sinister and overdue well done for scrambling a little further towards unbiased equality. Women, whether they agree with it or not, are constantly linked to fashion as being the only world in which they could possibly hold a significant amount of power over men. Women can control, seduce and threaten men through the way they dress, and more and more we can see powerful women dressing to reflect this power. When Margaret Thatcher came to power as the first and only female Prime Minister of the UK she was subject to intense scrutiny over her appearance. She was the first celebrity politician groomed for the TV age and at the behest of her style guru, Gordon Reece, her hair was restyled, her voice lowered to a husky baritone and her wardrobe revamped into a line of crisp, tailored power suits. Progression for women in the political arena once required a likening to the clothes of men, however as we can see in Michelle Obama, a highly respected woman of great integrity, respect and reverence now comes with designer names and bold colour choices. One thing that is very clear from all this is that fashion can be a woman’s best friend of worst enemy in her yearning towards gender equality and acceptance in a society dominated by male superiority.

  6. The impact of commodifying a culture based on prevailing conceptions does trivialize and generalize the culture and its people as a whole. I researched Native American tribes at the Spurlock Museum for two semesters and only portraying head-dresses and feathers generalizes the complex and various cultures of the Native Americans. While I do not pretend to be an expert on Native American culture, I can say that head-dresses are not a staple in this culture. Head-dresses usually pertain to Great Plains tribes and are not a part of the Southwest, or Pacific Northwest tribes. There is a large difference between wearing native dress in an effort to learn and understand the culture and wearing “fashionable” native dress that simplifies the culture. Simplifying the culture misleads the population into believing that particular item of clothing is a part of the entire cultural population. Your question “What if clothing inspired by the Pope’s robes became the height of fashion?” places the situation at hand into context for many Americans. Most Americans would argue that the Pope’s robes are a sacred symbol of Christianity and should not be worn as a fashion piece. They would claim making the robes fashionable *trivializes* and *demeans* the religious symbolism the robes present. This is an
    The idea of the beauty pageant connects to the concept of hegemony because only 50 women represented in the pageant. By naming one woman out of 50 “Miss America”, the idea of beauty is based off her appearance and demeanor.

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