Appropriating or Appreciating Indigenous Fashion: Playing Dress-Up?

It’s the end of #fashionrevolution week. It begs us to ask the question: #whomademyclothes What do we wear and how does what we wear make us feel … or do we even think about it? Some of us, me included, choose to wear clothing designed and made by indigenous women.

These are ancient designs, considered part of cultural heritage. These are styles that come with creativity, innovation, dedicated work, long hours bent over dye baths and back-strap looms, from regions of isolation and impoverishment. Most are not copyright protected. Some are lost art resuscitated by a new generation of sewists and designers.

Japan, farmer’s coat, indigo and sashiko stitching, over 100 years old

Some of us want to believe that we are part of a socially responsible fashion movement. Many of us want to meet the maker or at least know who made our clothes. We read labels to know fiber content and country of origin. We buy at consignment and thrift shops to reuse the perfectly discarded.

This New York Times story, Finding the Beauty in Other People’s Styles, sent to me by Jenny Brinitzer, takes me right to the core of the discussion I’m very interested in:

Why do I buy and wear clothes from other cultures? Am I playing dress-up, just like I did as a young girl, fantasizing about being different or noticed? Do I have the right (and privilege) as a first-world Anglo to don the clothing of an indigenous culture far from my own roots? Is this colonial behavior, admiration … or something else? Must I conform to wearing socially and politically correct cloth by adhering to Western style?

Huipil from Chenalho, Chiapas, with dog paw embroidered bodice on loomed cloth

In this era of fast and disposable fashion, where we have thousands of choices, I think these are questions worth examining. Perhaps the answers are justifications for how we dress. Perhaps the answers dig deeper into our own values and motivations. Perhaps its a simple answer: It is just beautiful.

I think it’s important to be aware of fashion that borrows or combines style elements from one or several indigenous cultures. We see designs digitally copied or cut from whole cloth, applied to machine woven material, then sewn into a tailored dress. They become the hem or the bodice or collar, far from their origins. Renown designers do this. So do mass marketers. The original versions would have been squares or rectangles woven on back-strap looms, joined with embroidery, complete garments loose and comfortable.

Which is why I like to wear indigenous cloth. The reasons are practical. They are made with natural fibers — cotton or silk. They are easy to wear and are usually washable by hand with mild soap and cool water, so taking care of them is easier (and cheaper). In hot North Carolina and Oaxaca summers, and warm Oaxaca winters, loose weaves keep me cool.

Cotton huipil from Xochistlahuaca, Guerrero, supplementary weft

There are emotional reasons, too. My grandfather was a tailor. He made all my mother’s clothes by hand. He knew the importance of fine detail. My mother taught me to make small, almost invisible stitches on hems and seams, the clothes I continue to make and repair. I think of the labor-intensity of a hand-made piece of cloth and I think of the generations of makers, women and men, who came before me, and I think of my family.

How I feel when I wear a huipil from Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca, for example, is more complex.

India Ajrakh block prints, indigo and madder

The cloth is made by women and men from a different culture from my own. This offers me a chance to honor what they do and to create connection between us. To see the similarities instead of paying attention to differences. In the buying of what they make, I contribute to their ability to sustain their culture, their craft, and their families. This is intimate and personal and gives me a great deal of satisfaction. This, I believe, is cultural appreciation. I have a chance in the act of wearing, I think, to narrow the divide.

In wearing these clothes, do I say I want to be different from who I am? That I want to take on the persona of another. I think not. What I want to communicate is that I am a woman beyond borders, where clothing tells a story of unlimited possibility. For me, it is a subtle statement that we share more in common than not and serves to tell the world a little about me — albeit unspoken.

By now, most of us know ourselves, our personalities, what we like, what looks good on us, what we are comfortable with. Identity is conveyed by clothing choices. Mine say: I am free, independent and strong. I like quirky style, I like color, I like cultural variation and respect diversity, conventions be damned.

Gretchen’s indigo, caracol purpura, coyuchi cotton huipil, Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca

So, I admit it. I am respectfully appropriating the culture of Mexico or Japan or India or Guatemala, where I have traveled and shopped in remote corners where talented people in humble circumstances create beauty. It is not offensive to me to wear these garments because I believe I understand their origins, the political and social struggles of marginalized makers. I do not live their lives, yet I sympathize by wearing their cloth.

Your thoughts and responses are welcome.

Recently, I was invited by Selvedge Magazine, London, United Kingdom, to contribute an article about Chiapas textiles. It will be published soon. They asked about what inspires me to work with artisans in Mexico and introduce people to the makers. I’ll be writing more about that here, too.

Meiji period, mid-1800’s, katazome stencil with indigo dye

Note: I can add one more person to the Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour in January 2020, and there are six openings in the Chiapas Textile Study Tour that starts in late February 2020.

We will be back in January 2021 with the Monarch Butterflies Sanctuary Tour and an add-on to Patzcuaro. Let me know your interest.

21 responses to “Appropriating or Appreciating Indigenous Fashion: Playing Dress-Up?

  1. Thank you for this invitation to Reflect on such an important question: your love and respect for the people who make each piece of textile honor them at the same time you wear them, and this is crucial when we think that during our life time hundreds of thousands of indigenous people have been massacred precisely for their identity and part of the genocide mission was burning and destroying their clothing . To the extent that I have met many indigenous youth who reject to wear their traditional clothing because wearing them will bring about hostility from society … ( to say the least , because still in many parts of the globe , indigenous people are considered second class citizens -so it’s so important to value the source and not just the item of clothing – and to honor this and you do this !

    • Dear Ana, what you say is very important and so true about honoring the people who create the clothes or art or folk art or food or whatever they make that we benefit from. It is a risk as a “minority” person to self-identify and be proud of one’s roots and culture in a dominant society that is often unjust and discriminatory and physically brutal. I am deeply touched by your comments and your appreciation for what I do and write. Thank you. Norma

  2. Fascinating and thoughtful responses to a great blog post. For my two cents worth I love Mayan textiles in particular. I really like to know where my pieces come from so that I can explain the origin to people who ask. I appreciate so much the fact that these beautiful pieces come from the land and the hand of such extraordinary makers. I am so grateful for their knowledge and craftsmanship. I do also love to help support the economic well being of our neighbors to the south.
    Now I’m not so crazy about the appropriation of Otomi design on pillows, cocktail napkins etc at Target this year without so much as a mention about origin. But of course this stuff is hurriedly slapped together for mass consumption in Asia.
    Also Boden has an Otomi print dress, bathing suit and skirt in their spring catalogue that doesn’t spell Otomi correctly. They have a huipil type vestido that boasts really expert embroidery. Hmmmmm.
    What do you think Norma?

    • Yes, I agree. People were generous with their responses and idea, about what motivates them to wear clothing made by indigenous people, with their designs. So thoughtful a discussion. I’m grateful to everyone who shared their opinions, including you, Jenny. I know how much you enjoy Guatemalan textiles and I know you deeply appreciate what it takes to make the. And all ethnic clothing. As for the commercial marketplace: the women we meet and know from villages have little or no access to markets. So it’s hard to believe that the companies that tout ‘fair trade’ and ‘empowement’ Are honestly delivering on those promises. So, I’m skeptical. But, if they are spelling Otomi wrong, then they don’t have a good editor or they don’t know what they are talking about. That’s about all for now!

  3. Thank you so much for this incredible, thoughtful, respectful and loving article. It is so much my sentiments that I would say you took the words right out of my mouth…but your eloquence on this far surpasses my ability to articulate my feelings.

    My grandfather Giuseppe was a tailor so I too had an early appreciation for fabric, style, design and the time it took to produce wearable clothing. My mom sewed for me and I too learned to do so.

    I have worn clothes from India, Afghanistan and Japan in my younger years, and since living in Mexico for 17 years I now appreciate, love and fondly wear indigenous clothing. You say it ALL. I am thankful to hear it expressed so perfectly and beautifully.

    I have 2 Frida Kahlo mannequins in my Casona Rosa B&B in Morelia, Michoacan and both are garbed with indigenous clothing; and I have items on display and for sale here too. I simply want everyone to enjoy the richness of this form of art, survival and creativity…all in one.

    Viva Mexico…Viva la vida…
    and muchas gracias,
    Rose (Rosa) Calderone

    • Dear Rosa, what a beautiful tribute to your own cultural heritage and the one you have adopted. Thank you for contributing this very lovely comment — it demonstrates your love of Mexico and her people. I think, by your writing, that you are fully capable of expressing all that I write about. Writing is a practice and it sounds like you have a lot to say. When I’m in Morelia next, I’ll come find you! All best wishes, Norma

  4. I’m very interested in your2021 tour to Michoacan and the butterfly reserve. I had emailed you recently regarding this and was so pleased to read today that you’ll have the tour in 2021!
    Excellent writing on wearing indigenous clothing. I believe that we can wear clothing from another culture if we wear it respectfully and with knowledge about what it may represent. If one knows the maker, so much the better. As always I enjoy your posts.
    Please keep my name and info. for the above mentioned trip and I’ll continue to read your news and posts. Thanks

  5. Norma….those colors are FABULOUS on you. You are a California gal and aware of the book Color Me Beautiful….my color guide. I wear indigenous clothing all the time and talk about the huipile to anyone who asks.

  6. Norma, I would like to take the last spot on your January Oaxaca tour if it is still available.
    What is the best way to move ahead with this?

  7. I love your reasons for wearing indigenous cloth, Norma! Touring with you in Chiapas and Oaxaca has introduced me to the women who make the cloth and that I already loved, and for which I now have new and deep appreciation. I used to wear indigenous clothing because of its beauty; since seeing first-hand the work that goes into the making of the cloth, those women who do that work are now my reason for wearing indigenous clothing. My best way to promote those women is to wear the results of their work.
    Repeating both tours – Chiapas and Costa Chica – with you is high on my list of things to do; after returning from each, I realized that I had just scratched the surface, so I am excited about returning to Costa Chica with you in January 2020.
    Thank you for your thought-provoking words!

    • Dear Gretchen, you are my poster woman! You wear these well … and with thoughtful consideration. Thank you for your confidence and trust in me to return to the places we both love, for all the same reasons! Abrazos, Norma

  8. Yes, yes and yes. Well said as always. Thank you.

  9. Well put Norma! I like you enjoy wearing pieces that are hand woven as an act of appreciation for the incredible talent of these weavers and to support a cultural art form so that it does not disappear, I have struggled with the concept of appropriating from a culture I do not belong to but I hope that my love and appreciation of the people who create these works of art and their work that shines through not any desire to pretend I belong to their culture. Without people from other cultures appreciating & wearing these fine textiles would the people who create them be able to continue doing so?

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Linda. Yes, we are not indigenous wannabes. We wear these clothes for many other reasons. And, there is a romanticism about indigenous culture that permeates — in the West we yearn for a simpler life and we think that indigenous people have found it. Theirs is a life of struggle on another, more basic level, and I think we need to appreciate that, too, as we wear what they create.

  10. Thank you very much for the mention and link. Your blog is provocative, entertaining and insightful.

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