I’m a bit nervous about this one, so excuse me while a get a little political: Je suis Charlie. Everyone at the moment is defending freedom of speech – we are allowed to say what we want whether or not it offends people. The point is, we have the right to do so. So what about freedom of expression in other ways? The freedom to wear what we want for example? Glastonbury Festival has decided this year to ban the selling of native American style headdresses and costume while 2 days ago Pixie Lott received negative media attention and a flurry of criticism on Twitter for dressing up as TigerLily from Peter Pan and a similar thing happened to Ellie Goulding at Halloween. Surely the context in these situations is relevant? Festivals, fancy dress birthday parties and Halloween are occasions where it is quite commonplace to dress up. (I personally tend to find more excuses than that.) ….
This post is going to be long enough without me going into the reasons why we like to dress up (eg. escapism; the chance to feel like someone else for a while; the excuse to dress how we’d like to normally, but are too afraid not to conform etc.), but we do and I defend the right to do so. An argument to ban Native American dress is because it represents the years of earning the right to wear it and commands respect. Should we also ban Army, Doctor and Police costumes because of their years of training and respect? Or Nuns and Vicars on religious reasons? The costume of Aboriginal Australians and Maori New Zealanders haven’t really taken off (probably due to the weather), and is that really the problem? That it became fashionable to dress up in Native American headdresses? People do so like to get on their superior high horse when it comes to opinions on fashion. I’ll give another example: I went to a 1940s themed party a couple of years ago where half the people there were dressed as soldiers. Military fashion comes in and out all the time, but when people wear those styles no-one is dreaming of belittling or mocking those in service or have died or been wounded whilst a member of the armed forces. In my humble opinion, fashion is fun and flippant and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
The problem is I just don’t get it. Usually I am incredibly empathetic, but I honestly don’t see how a bunch of people wearing synthetic or chicken feather headdresses bought at a festival stall undermines the sacred significance of a genuine one worn for genuine reasons by a genuine tribal chief at a ceremonial special occasion. (Perhaps if a random person bought a genuine headdress, put it on and declared themselves a tribal chief and began performing ceremonies they had no right to do, I would see their point.) I also don’t see how seeing a photo of someone in a headdress and wading through a muddy field to dance to music can possibly remind anyone of the awful historical crimes against the ancestors of the indigenous peoples. I obviously googled the issue and it was a lot easier to find lists of all the celebrities and models and fashion labels that have been disrespectful, but very little explanation as to why exactly. Despite the research I’m not clear whether it’s a religious or status symbol. (Wasn’t there a time in history when only the royalty were allowed to wear the colour purple? If I was going to be even more controversial, dare I say there is possibly an element of self-importance going on? Everyone likes to feel they are special. Remember that feeling as a child when you put a plastic crown on your head? No-one else in the playground that day was allowed to feel as important as you did. In real life no-one is allowed to put on a crown and declare themselves a monarch, but is there harm in a fancy-dress situation in feeling a bit special for a while?) I sort-of grew up in the 90s when it was fashionable to wear Christian crosses, Pagan pentacles and have a statue of Buddha on your window sill. Perhaps if I held strong religious beliefs I’d get it.
I’d like to know how many people Pixie and Ellie came into contact with on those evenings who were genuinely personally offended? And even how many of those people on Twitter were genuinely personally offended or otherwise had they seen in the media how it is now popular to consider it offensive and took the opportunity get on their soapbox? As I mentioned earlier, I do think the situation is important – I doubt Pixie and Ellie set out to offend people and would have the wit not to wear those costumes to a tribal meeting. I wouldn’t see a problem with dressing up as a soldier to a 1940s themed party, but I wouldn’t stand by the war memorial on Remembrance Sunday wearing army surplus and plastic medals. And before you ask, no I don’t think it is acceptable to ‘black up.’ I don’t think the two things are comparable at all.
Now you only have to watch an episode of Ashes to Ashes to remember how unintentionally racist people were when my generation were children. Times move on and people’s awarenesses improve. Maybe in the future I’ll understand it and will be embarrassed of this post – my daughter disagrees with me, for example; but it was only 5 or 6 years ago when hundreds of people wandered around Glastonbury Festival with feather headdresses on and nobody batted an eyelid or thought anything of it. It takes time for new opinions to take hold and you can’t get cross with people for not knowing or even agreeing with them yet. For all we know, in ten years time it might be unacceptable to dress up as a witch at Halloween because it offends the ancestors of all the women who were burned at the stake or drowned. I really think people should lighten up and let people wear what they want to wear!
Ooooh – controversial I know; and not like me – I’m one of the most unconfrontational people you might meet. If you leave a comment, please remember that just as much as you have the right to disagree with me; I have the right to my opinion as well.
(As a slight side-issue: I’m not a political activist, but do consider myself a feminist. If we are expected to get with the times and ban the native American headdress; then perhaps the Native American tribal people should get with the times and allow women the same respect as men and allow them to wear it. If I did choose to wear the headdress in public it would be a protest about equal rights!)