Culture should be incorporated into fashion tastefully, not for crude costume adaptations

As innocuous as fashion may seem, the power that clothing has to offend is not to be underestimated. There are garments that push the envelope in a good way — like a colorful shirt in a sea of black and white suits, or a dress with cutouts in just the right places. But some recent events draw attention to clothes that stand out in a bad way.

When Syracuse University spent two weekends celebrating Halloween, I found myself shaking my head at an offensive variety of costume. Though the popularity of slutifying all Halloween getups is a bit ridiculous, it doesn’t bother me by itself. What I object to is when people decide to take traditional garb from a culture that is not their own and make it into a skimpy costume. The fact that wearing a feathered headband and a tiny skirt is considered a Native American costume is just plain disrespectful.

Though I was already annoyed by these questionable costumes, I was shocked that one of my favorite bands, No Doubt, had pulled its new video off YouTube because it was offensive to the Native American community. The video for the song “Looking Hot” featured singer Gwen Stefani and her band mates playing as Native Americans and cowboys, reported MTV News on Nov. 5.

The band removed the video from YouTube and issued an apology. But in my opinion, the damage had already been done. I find it hard to believe nobody realized the video’s concept would be controversial. It seems obvious that dressing in Native American garb while singing lyrics like “Do you think I’m looking hot?” and “Go ahead and stare and take a picture please” would trivialize a culture and upset people.

Another example of offensively borrowing elements of Native American costume appeared in the Victoria’s Secret fashion show on Nov. 7. As if an evening of nearly naked models parading around in bedazzled lingerie of every kind wasn’t tasteless enough, the event added a touch of cultural insensitivity.

Karlie Kloss appeared in an enormous Native American headdress accompanied by a leopard print bra and turquoise jewelry, according to a Nov. 8 New York Magazine blog post. Her costume depicted November in a section of the show titled “Calendar Girls,” according to the article.

When it comes to incorporating ethnic and culture costume into fashion, there’s a difference between mockery and reference. I would consider the Victoria’s Secret fashion show a mockery whereas something like Dries Van Noten’s fall 2012 collection tastefully referenced cultural dress. The Belgian designer was influenced by Asian artwork and incorporated gold embroidery of dragons and birds in flight into his collection.

Fashion can contribute to and elevate conversation about ethnicity and identity when designers use their cultural heritage to make a statement. For example, the renowned British designer Alexander McQueen expressed his relationship with his Scottish roots in his fall 1995 and fall 2006 collections, titled “Highland Rape” and “Widows of Culloden,” respectively. The collections used tartan, exaggerated silhouettes and a dramatic runway presentation in which blood-spattered models stumbled down a runway strewn with foliage to explore violent aspects of Scotland’s history, according to a Metropolitan Museum of Art blog post.

Issues of race and ethnicity are complex and delicate, and they should be treated accordingly. Costumed college students, No Doubt, Victoria’s Secret and the fashion industry as a whole should be more considerate of treating ethnic costume in a respectful manner. I think drawing inspiration from cultural dress is great and often results in beautiful collections of clothes, but the way in which that inspiration is shown must be carefully considered.

I beg you to at least opt for the slutty cat costume next year. The kitties won’t be offended.

Ian Simon-Curry is a junior public relations major. His column appears every other Monday. Follow him on Twitter at @incrediblyian. He can be reached at


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