Costume Conundrum: Is it Appreciation or Appropriation?

7089201In the weeks leading up to Halloween, the topic of offensive costumes has flooded our social media feeds, and for a good reason. On a recent trip to a very popular Halloween costume store, I was disappointed but not surprised to see a plethora of offensive costumes lining the shelves. They ranged from stupid to tasteless to appalling. But, they were selling. Even though the internet news media basks in the schadenfreude of clueless culprits costumed as “Chinaman” or “Mexican” or “Rapper in Blackface”, it seems not everyone gets the message. Which is why, apparently, these horrible costumes continue to sell.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: if your costume generalizes an entire people or ethnic group into a stereotypical representation of that group, it will likely be offensive to the people of that group. You shouldn’t wear an ethnic group as a costume to begin with because you probably will not know the history and significance of what a traditional outfit of that culture represents, and it is not yours to appropriate. Cultural appropriation, incidentally, is: the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group; usually a dominant cultural group does the adopting from a minority/marginalized culture, and it usually connotes that the elements of the appropriated culture are divorced from the meanings they originally signified.


A simple to understand example of cultural appropriation is Katy Perry’s use of geisha and Japanese imagery in her performance of “Unconditionally” at the 2013 American Music Awards. This is obviously wrong because, while she claims she did it because she appreciates the culture, all her performance does is take one aspect of the geisha lifestyle and elements of Japanese culture, namely the visually arresting clothing and makeup, to sexualize herself in a new way. Furthermore, it illustrates Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism quite well, as the performance uses the European perception of the East, Japan specifically, to perpetuate the idea of the exotic East as a vehicle for the pleasure and entertainment of the West. Then there is also the long and complicated history of the geisha and female Japanese entertainers; it was a role which often included both performance and, also, during WWII for example, sexual services. Overtime, this exoticized and eroticized version of the East has led to perceptions of Asian women as being servile, submissive, sexual creatures (and Asian men as weak and ineffectual) to be dominated by the stoic, strong and moral West. In this way, the essentialist portrayal of Japanese women by a clueless popstar carries with it centuries of colonial and racist baggage.

That is one of the keys to understanding why ethnic costumes are so offensive: the outfit, the makeup, the accessories, are all just ONE part of the identity. When you don’t honor or understand the significance holistically, you dismiss that identity as being nothing but a hollow prop – just a means for you to please and benefit yourself at the expense of that culture’s historical identity. Plus, Katy and others continue to benefit financially from these performances on the backs of women who continue to face ostracism and are stereotyped on the basis of these same portrayals.


Katy’s is a clear cut example, but sometimes it is not so easy to determine if your brilliant costume idea is toeing the line or not. While some may say that, “if you think it may be offensive, it probably is,” I disagree. Life is not black and white, culture is mired in ambiguity and shades of grey. So, while it would be nice and simple to say that a certain costume is always offensive and racist, this is just not true. Cultural appropriation can be more ambiguous in intention and outcome as well.

So, how does one avoid being appropriative? How do you appreciate something without offending? Due to personal experience and expertise, I will use the “Indian woman or princess” as the costume exemplar.

“Sexy Indian Princess”: A Case Study in Cultural Appropriation and Orientalism


 Just a few hours ago, I found the above image on Instagram of a model dressed as…I don’t know what. The jewelry is obviously Indian in
spired, as is this strange, sexy version of a sari. (Please note: this is not a sari whatsoever). It is also possiblePicture that she was trying to be an “Arabian princess” as the similar jewelry and garb is often labelled as belonging to Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures. I am going to give her the benefit of the doubt because I don’t know what she is supposed to be; perhaps she was trying to dress as a Pussycat Doll (left) from the “Jai Ho” promotional event? Probably not. So, is her costume offensive to me?

The costume does not offend me as much as I think it is stupid and poorly researched, which also tells me that she probably doesn’t care about who or what she is dressing up as, just that she is peripherally aware that Indian women, princesses, or goddesses look like this. What does offend me is what she is doing with her hands. The technical term for what she is doing is called a mudra. It is a hand gesture used in Hindu and Buddhist spiritual and religious practice. You can often see Hindu religious icons depicted with mudras. As well, it is a very significant aspect of Indian classical dance, and there are hundreds of mudras meant to tell a story through the dance (I had to learn many of them as a child in classical dance; it was hard, so I’m particularly bitter and biased). So, again, why is she doing that?

Because she thinks it is “Indian”. Her costume, then, is a confusing mishmash of Indian symbols used incoherently so that she can appear as sexy and exotic as possible. Consequently, there is also another layer of the sexualisation and exoticization of women of color, and a reduction of the “Indian woman”, into this romanticized exotic/erotic trope, by an affluent white woman. So, it becomes a clear example of orientalism lurking in the guise of an unfortunate costume choice. Thus, it is ignorant, inappropriate, orientalist and culturally appropriative. And there are others like it all over instagram! I found this in the “top photos” under the “Halloween” tag, and looking up “indianprincess” only led to more outrage and face-palming. That tag was populated with all sorts of parodies of Native American, Aboriginal, American Indian, Indigenous, and “tribal” outfits, along with Indian, Arabian and “Gypsy” costumes. It is a cesspool of racism, political incorrectness and stupidity. There were even a couple of images where individuals mixed references of “Native Indian” and “East Indian” traditions because, apparently, googling is hard.

Doing it right

So, how does someone dress as an Indian woman if they are not Indian? The easy answer is: don’t! However, a more nuanced response to the growing desire for young men and women to copy the look is warranted. Besides, we live in a globalized society and sharing in other cultures shouldn’t have to be an icky quagmire of tonedeaf political incorrectness.  If you have a burning desire to wear an Indian outfit, it is obviously best to wear it in context. Most Indian communities and people have like a thousand festivals, rituals, holidays, weddings, and parties a year. It is appropriate to dress in the cultural outfit with the help of someone from the community if you happen to be invited or are attending such a celebration or event. I have helped many non-Indian friends dress in saris or salwars for events. In fact, from anecdotal experience, most Indian people I know love to share their culture this way. Ask politely to participate, learn from those within the culture, and share in the culture as fully as is appropriate.

But, say, for example, that you wanted to do what the model (above) did? Dress up as an Indian woman or princess for Halloween? Well, unless you are dressing up as a historical character of note or popular cultural icon, who has been well-researched and recreated to the best of your ability, with as much knowledge about the person and their context, then you should probably avoid doing so. There are lots of fascinating Indian historical figures like Queen Jodha Bai and Rani Laxmibai (a warrior queen no less!) with fascinating stories and beautiful looks.

Queen Jodha


Rani Laxmibai

(But, chances are, if your intention is to be “sexy Indian princess”, these won’t float your boat, because not only were these women dressed conservatively, in many layers of heavy clothing and jewelry, they are also not well known to most outside the Indian diaspora. And, dressing up as an Indian woman is kind of stupid too, because, in a population of over 1 billion, the average Indian woman is a poor labourer and likely has little education. So, obviously she will not be bedecked in gold and lavishly embroidered clothing. Besides, most Indian women, working class or not, do not walk the streets like this because, y’know, it is likely that they will be sexually assaulted. But, carry on with your sexy Indian princess costume anyway because, yay, ignorance!)

Now, here are some examples of PARTICIPATING in Indian cultural dress done right:

Ashley Judd hosted the 2007 YouthAIDS Gala which was themed “Faces of India”. A number of Indian figures of note were in attendance and performed at the event. I think her choice to don a real sari (properly, might I add) is a nice way for her to honor the national dress of the country which was the focus of the gala. Furthermore, she is not sexualizing the outfit in any way that is apparent to me. In fact, it appears that she had an expert help her, because it is draped beautifully. Here, the intention is clear and honorable and the outcome is positive. As well, in 2012, Oprah Winfrey visited India’s most famous Bollywood family – the Bachchans – at their home in Mumbai in a designer sari. Similar intention, similar outcome.However, wearing a bindi and using stereotyped Hindu gestures for a sexy video and (admittedly catchy) song to look exotic and erotic is wrong, Selena! That Selena Gomez even defended herself saying she likes “Middle Eastern” influences (ugh), and then again in an instagram selfie in a sari captioned “Sari, not sari” (clever!), is just a projection of the dismissal of our voice by the cultural hegemony — because I promise you, Selena did not mastermind those petulant defenses of her appropriative actions. The money-making machine behind her hit song probably had something to do with it. For more on this, Anisha Ahuja writes a brilliant takedown of Selena Gomez’s actions.


Ashley Judd: Yes!


Oprah Winfrey: Yes!


Selena Gomez: Nooooooo!

This doesn’t mean that you only have to be invited to a million dollar celebrity event to be able to dress this way. The point is that Ashley and Oprah did it right, they did it well, and they did it with respect.Their intention was to honour the culture. So, even if you wanted to dress up, say, as an Indian bride for Halloween, consider your intentions and the roots of your desire to do so! Go all the way and understand the significance of the “dots” and the jewels and the henna and the colors. Everything is of some significance. I think if I saw a non-Indian person fully dressed in Indian bridal regalia that is well done, informed and well researched, I would be impressed more than anything else. Doing so would require the help of someone of the culture anyway. But, I would still wonder about the wearer’s intentions. And, perhaps, after all that, it may still offend the sensibilities of other Indian folk; I only speak for myself.

Also, while I’ve used the term liberally here, recognize that if you are dressing up as an “Indian Bride” you are only dressing up in one type of bridal or Indian-inspired outfit that is common to one region, culture or area in a country of hundreds of religions and cultures with their own style of dress, with small or large variations.

Kylie Jenner dressed up as an “Eskimo” this Halloween! Of course, cleverly and quickly, she changed the costume name to “snow princess” when the outrage began to simmer. But, the internet doesn’t forget! Congratulations, Kylie, for continuing the tradition of ignorant Halloween foolery.


Oh Kylie! (an intrepid user commented “Inuit” on the photo; if Kylie had said that instead it would still be inaccurate, still inappropriate.)

Published by Anu

Anthropologist, PhD student, writer.

One thought on “Costume Conundrum: Is it Appreciation or Appropriation?

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