Cultural Appropriation, Punk-Lite, and Plaid Skirts *UPDATED*

Readers, how do you feel about cultural appropriation? Do you think about it when you’re sewing? I feel pretty strongly about offensive appropriation. I mean the obvious kind, like Victoria’s Secret models in pseudo-tribal feathered headdresses. As a friend of mine and I agreed over text: “turquoise jewelry is a tribute/incorporation. Feathered headdresses are appropriation.” (Your milage and thoughts may vary on this point, of course.) If it involves parodying someone’s culture in a derisive or patronizing or upsetting manner, or taking something that is historically significant and personal and using it out of context, I try to stay far away from it.

But often things aren’t that cut and dried.

A few years back, my second ever boyfriend would always interrupt my feminist rants about unreasonable cultural expectations and limitations with a rant of his own. Namely, the fact that he was expected to always wear pants in public. While I couldn’t care less if my man wears a dress and heels if he feels like it (sorry traditionalists, when I’m in love with a guy, that’s not going to be shaken by what he wears), he maintained that most people expected him to wear pants. True enough, but in my snarky manner, I promptly researched and sewed him a kilt. A really bad kilt, it must be said, as my sewing skills were extremely rudimentary at the time. But a kilt nonetheless.

Why am I telling you this? Well, cultural appropriation rears its ugly head in the strangest of places. When you think of a kilt, what comes to mind? A pleated skirt, maybe a punk or a guy with a bagpipe, but mostly: Plaid. Kilts are usually plaid (tartan is the actual word) and that’s the end of it.

But in reality, tartans have a great deal of meaning. When you grab a plaid, you’re basically parodying someone’s family crest or organization symbol. Now, for all I know, I’m Scottish somewhere and somebody in my family once had a tartan. But that’s the thing: I don’t know that. That’s a little bit like saying that I’m 1/164th Cherokee, so I’m Native American. (I know that Scottish people are considered white in this day and age and don’t face nearly the challenges in America that others do. But I feel like the comparison holds that far.)

At the time I sewed the kilt, I decided to avoid that confusion entirely and just go with a solid forest green kilt, Utili-kilt style, but with narrower, more traditional pleats. It seemed like the most respectful take on what could be a touchy subject. And besides, it made the whole thing look less like a weird and ignorant attempt at a costume.

But it came to mind again recently while I was sewing a plaid skirt for myself. A pleated plaid skirt, no less! I was halfway through assembly when I realized that I hadn’t thought about the tartan pattern at all. Why is that? Is it because a kilt seems so culturally and historically relevant to Scotland, while a woman’s plaid pleated skirt takes its roots from punk, which is all about breaking rules? (It could also be considered a parody on religious Catholic school uniforms, but honestly my head hurts at this point and I just don’t want to think about that.)

I went ahead and made the skirt. And I’ll wear it, too. Ultimately, I decided that while the plaid could venture into the realm of ignorant parody, the shape of the skirt isn’t as integral to any specific culture. To draw the comparison to the headdress, I suspect it’s fine to use feathers, just as long as you don’t arrange them into a cheap hacked-up copy of something meaningful.

Thoughts? Where do you draw the line between incorporating beautiful aspects of a culture and ignorant appropriation?


UPDATE: I found a kilt at a thrift store recently (there will be/is a post about it up) and delved deeper into the world or tartan than I had before. There’s a great deal more information out there than there was even the five or six years ago when I was doing my initial research. Apparently there’s universal tartans that are just kind of generic and for anyone’s use, thus making it NOT appropriation to wear them. Also, there’s state-specific US and Canadian tartans. Annnnnnnnd military tartans. So, overall, turns out that in the case of kilts, I was being way overly politically correct, and that there’s a handy “in” for people who want to adopt the style to do so in their own manner without stealing or appropriating. I so approve. So if you want to wear a kilt, go for it — just check to make sure the pattern isn’t somebody’s family crest.


One comment

  1. Pingback: Costume refashion Friday: Umbrella to parasol | The Five Fs (Or the Four Fs and a Ph)

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