The Politics of “Playing” Dress Up

Elena Bottos 

Pic 2

Flickr Commons

“So tell me again…why can’t I wear a sacred ceremonial headdress to a hipster music festival?”

Appropriate (verb)

Pronunciation: /əˈprəʊprɪeɪt/ [with object]

Take (something) for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission

It is difficult to deny that many of the material and visual commodities we consume are appropriated in some form or another.  Appropriation is so rampant and socially embedded that much of it can be hard to identify or critically analyze. Often, the original context and cultural significance has been detracted, diminished, and restructured into dominant narratives. These narratives—white, Eurocentric, and patriarchal—may not even care to comprehend why this is so problematic.  There continues to be a blatant appropriation of Aboriginal Peoples, whose historical and contemporary realities are those of ongoing cultural genocide and misrepresentation.  It is said that we live in a post-colonial era. However, I would argue that colonialism is thriving and is as rampant as ever. It just dresses itself differently. It shops at Urban Outfitters.

The extent to which individuals can be so quick to dismiss the relevance and severity of the appropriation of Aboriginal cultures and regalia continues to amaze me… especially when they are called out on it.  I wonder, is this an intentional act of disrespect and disregard? Or is it due to a legitimate lack of knowledge about its larger ramifications? I hope that, in more cases than not, it is the latter.  I realize that this subject matter is complex, and that the lines between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation can easily blur.  My intention is not to shame or call out anyone who owns a pair of moccasins, wears feather earrings, owns a dream catcher or enjoys a viewing of Disney’s Pocahontas for old time’s sake.  Rather, it is a call for awareness, critical thinking and understanding that appropriation does in fact hurt those who lack a dominant voice.

Appreciate (verb)

[with object]

1 Recognize the full worth of; be grateful for (something)

2 Understand (a situation) fully; grasp the full implications of

In recent months, there has been an implosion of the appropriation of Aboriginal regalia, with particular fixation on the feather headdress.  No Doubt’s banned video for their single “Looking Hot,” Lana Del Rey’s “Ride,” and Wiz Khalifa’s “It’s Nothin’” music videos are some of the more recent examples of artists donning the headdress, while engaging in problematic scenes of violence, sexuality and drug use.  This is not to mention the endless parade of Instagram and Tumblr snapshots with models, teenagers and even Snoop Doggy Dogg (i.e., Snoop’s Thanksgiving “homage” on Instagram) engaging with the appropriation of various Aboriginal cultures and their symbols.

Within the context of North America, the feather headdress was traditionally worn by a number of Plains Aboriginal Nations, some of which included: the Sioux, the Crow, the Cheyenne, the Blackfeet, and the Plains Cree First Nations.

The headdress is highly symbolic, sacred and most importantly, earned.  Only those who demonstrate great leadership, experience, and respect earn the right to wear it.

Traditionally, Chiefs and warriors wore the headdress during times of ceremony and battle.  Today, feather headdresses are worn for ceremony, formal events, and in times of negotiation. Headdresses containing eagle feathers are of particular significance because of the symbolism attached to the eagle, which is considered to be a powerful and majestic bird. The eagle’s feathers had to be earned through acts of bravery (American Indian Heritage Foundation, 2012).

It is important to note that, within a vast number of Aboriginal Nations, the feather headdress is not a part of their culture or dress. According to a 2006 census, there are approximately 566 First Nations communities that are federally recognized within the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007).  In Canada, there are approximately 614 First Nations, of which the largest (by population) is the League of Six Nations, according to a 2003 census (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 2011). Aboriginal Peoples are numerous and significantly diverse.  It is completely ignorant to homogenize such distinct communities into a boxed identity and representation.  Homogenization leads to not only misrepresentation, but also underrepresentation, which feeds the ongoing marginalization that so many communities must endure.

Pic 1

Flickr Commons

This fixation on the headdress and what is deemed to be “Native” clothing has permeated into other realms—particularly the fashion world.  Back in early November 2012, Victoria’s Secret suffered a severe backlash from offended Aboriginal groups, leaders and allies who were taken aback by model Karlie Kloss’ Native-inspired ensemble. Kloss sauntered down the runway at Victoria’s Secret’s annual fashion show donning a floor-length headdress, fringed bikini, and high-heeled moccasins.  Victoria’s Secret responded with the following apology on their Facebook page and Twitter:

“We are sorry that the Native American headdress replica used in our recent fashion show has upset individuals. We sincerely apologize, as we absolutely had no intention to offend anyone. Out of respect, we will not be including the outfit in any broadcast, marketing materials nor in any other way.” (Kindelan, 2012)

On review of a comment board from one blog report on ABC News online, I was astounded —albeit not surprised—to read some of the discriminatory comments in response to the incident.  I was left with the impression that there is a serious disconnect between this seemingly ‘isolated’ or ‘no-big-deal’ Victoria’s Secret outfit and the ongoing history of cultural genocide.

Dressing up and playing ‘Indian,’ especially when it is done in the public eye, encourages the propagation of racist stereotypes and static representation.  Indigenous identities become portrayed as nothing more than a romanticized, playtime activity.  To suggest that Aboriginal culture is ‘trendy’ is to imply that it is disposable.

One aspect that is vital to discuss is the extent to which the overt sexualization of Aboriginal women and dress is exacerbated in the media and fashion world.  Society has not only naturalized the popular and objectified image of the Aboriginal woman, but has also come to accept this as “authentic.”  Some of the earliest descriptions of this hyper-sexualized representation were produced in sermons, settler accounts and captivity narratives (Merskin, 2010).  There had been racist claims made by white colonizers that Aboriginal women were incapable of the same emotions as white women, and therefore, dehumanized and allocated them as sexual conveniences (Bird, 1999).

This historical colonial construct framed indigenous womanhood as either fulfilling the myth of the virtuous, noble Indian Princess, or the immoral sexual deviant. These early settler accounts misconstrued and severely overlooked the immense honourable role women had, and continue to have, in Aboriginal communities and family units.  It is because of such histories and misconceptions that a scantily clad white woman, dressed up in a Native-inspired outfit, is so offensive and regressive for indigenous women and their communities.  The effects of overt sexual fetishization of the female body within film and other public spaces do not have sole implication for indigenous women, but are far-reaching. Identity formation and self-esteem becomes immensely distorted when racist and sexist stereotypes are perpetuated through popular media forums (Merskin, 2010; Pewewardy, 1996-97).

It is unfortunate that most public knowledge, or skewed understanding, about Aboriginal women and cultures has been derived from ill-depicted narratives like Disney’s Pocahontas.  This narrow representation of Aboriginal women has manifested in terms of the lack of representation in contemporary education systems and in popular psyche.  There is an enormous absence of indigenous female characters in mainstream film and television.  On the rare occasion that a role is given, there is often a small and stereotypical script involved.

Within this rigid space, a culture and its women become debased—stripped of all diversity and complexity.

No sooner than Victoria’s Secret’s public apology, did No Doubt release this statement,  “Our intention with our new video was never to offend, hurt or trivialize Native American people, their culture or their history…We sincerely apologize to the Native American community and anyone else offended by this video. Being hurtful to anyone is simply not who we are.” (Anderson, 2012)

It is quite interesting how these two apology statements from Victoria’s Secret and No Doubt follow similar formation.  Both claim to be sincerely apologetic and then go on to state that it was “not their intention to offend.” Firstly, I would offer that any individual, brand, celebrity or company that claims that they are “honouring” or “appreciating” Aboriginal culture by wearing a headdress, dressing up like an “Indian,” or by acting out a stereotypical behaviour is simply misguided and WRONG.  Secondly, if said bodies appreciated (i.e., recognized the full worth of and/or grasped the full implications of wearing) the feather headdress and other regalia, they may have thought twice before donning it.  If one is to wear a culturally or religiously significant article of clothing, jewellery, etc., one must be aware of the context from which it originated, as well as, the implications of doing so.

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Flickr Commons

A quote from Ward Churchill’s book, Indians Are Us?, expresses why “playing” dress-up is problematic:

“Native American societies can and do suffer the socioculturally debilitating effects of spiritual trivialization and appropriation at the hands of the massive larger Euro-immigrant population which has come to dominate literally every other aspect of our existence.”

(Quote taken from “my culture is not a trend” blog)

In Canada, the legacies of the residential school system and discriminatory legislation has left a grave mark on generations of Aboriginal Peoples.  Residential schools were part of a larger colonial endeavor to divide Aboriginal Nations and their families in order to assimilate them into Canadian society. The Indian Act (1876) dictated who was “Status Indian” or “Legal Indian” in the eyes of the Canadian federal government.  Thomas King describes the effects of the act in his new book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America.

King (2012) states, “This act has been the main mechanism for controlling the lives and destinies of Legal Indians in Canada, and throughout the life of the act, amendments have been made to the original documents to fine-tune this control” (70).

The Indian Act contained a number of amendments that prohibited the sale of Status Indian produce (circa 1881), prohibited religious ceremonies and dances (circa 1885) and allowed for the removal of Aboriginal Peoples from reserves that were too close to non-indigenous towns (circa 1905). The act even allowed municipalities and companies to commandeer portions of reserves without the permission of the band, for the construction of railways, roads, etc. in 1911 (King, 2012: 70; 71). In similar fashion, residential schools outlawed cultural ceremonies, practices and regalia that were intrinsic to the culture of Aboriginal communities.

Therefore, when a non-indigenous individual wears sacred regalia within an inappropriate context (or without the guidance and/or permission of an Elder), it is an insult to those who suffered through discriminatory legislation that banned the use of those very cultural articles.

It is vital to acknowledge that these recent acts of cultural appropriation do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of a larger historical narrative of racism and intellectual-property theft, which has worked to marginalize and dispossess Aboriginal communities.

Sharing and appreciating one another’s culture, art and dress can be a beautiful thing.  However, appropriating and de-contextualizing what is not yours, is neither a beautiful nor neutral act.

Blogs, such as Racialicious (article: “Nothing Says Native American Heritage Month Like White Girls In  Headdresses”) and my culture is not a trend (Tumblr) articulate the need for greater transparency regarding the historical and present representation of Aboriginal Peoples.

by Leila Panjvani

by Leila Panjvani

This article is not meant to speak for, or on behalf of, Aboriginal individuals, nor is it meant to homogenize the indigenous perspective on this subject matter.  As a non-indigenous woman, I think that this perspective should be shared and be made open for further discussion and critique.  I encourage people to seek indigenous authors and perspectives with respect to Aboriginal histories and cultural commodification. Thomas King, Vine Deloria Jr., Leslie Marmon Silko, Leroy Little Bear, and Lee Maracle are just a number of inspirational indigenous thinkers and writers who address such subject matter.  For some, this topic may seem tiresome or overdone, but the ramifications are complex and far-reaching—particularly for Aboriginal women who remain overwhelmingly misrepresented and underrepresented in popular culture.  I reject silence on this matter because the alternative is complacency, future maintenance of the status quo and apathy—all conditions I want no part in.

Related Blog Links:

A Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation. Jezebel.

Feminist Intersection: On hipsters/hippies and Native culture.–-please-stop-annoying-the-fuck-out-of-me

My Culture is Not a Trend: A Dialogue about Cultural Appropriation.

My Culture is Not a Trend: The Pocahontas Myth—Dirty Redskin.

Native Appropriation: But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?

Newspaper Rock: Where Native America Meets Pop Culture.

White People Wearing Headdresses.

Works Cited

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. (2011). First Nations People of Canada. Accessed on December 2, 2012. Retrieved from website:

Anderson, K. (2012, November 5). No Doubt pull ‘Looking Hot’ video, apologize for offending Native Americans. Accessed on November 25, 2012. Retrieved from

American Indian Heritage Foundation. (2012). Native American Headdress. Accessed on November 25, 2012. Retrieved from

Bird, E. (1999). Gendered Construction of the American Indian in Popular Media. Journal of Communication, 49(3): 61-83.

Brown, S. (2012, November 12). Nothing Says Native American Heritage Month Like White Girls In Headdresses. Accessed on November 25, 2012. Retrieved from

Grainger, L. (2012, November 13). Victoria’s Secret apologizes for Karlie Kloss’ sexy Native outfit. Accessed on November 25, 2012. Retrieved from

Kindelan, K. (2012, November 13). Victoria’s Secret Apologizes to Native Americans. Retrieved from

King, T. (2012). The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Canada: Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited.

Merskin, D. (2010). The S-Word: Discourse, Stereotypes and American Indian Woman. Howard Journal of Communications, 21(4): 345-366.

My Culture is Not a Trend: A Dialogue about Cultural Appropriation (December 1, 2011). Accessed on November 16, 2012. Retrieved from

Pewewardy, C. R. (1996/97). The pocahontas paradox: A cautionary tale for educators. Journal of Navajo Education. Accessed on November 24, 2011. Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau. (2007). American Indians by the Numbers. Accessed on November 29, 2012. Retrieved from


2 responses to “The Politics of “Playing” Dress Up

  1. I’ve thought about this article for some time now. Like many readers, I’ve felt some reflexive squirming being confronted (though not for the first time) with not just the political implications of some of my fashion choices, but also just the fact that my clothing may categorize me as someone who is socially ignorant, and completely unconcerned with issues of social justice, etc. Which would not be the case.

    As an avid vintage shopper and also someone who runs an online vintage shop, moccasins, Navajo blanket coats, “Inuit” parkas, and southwest (native?)-patterned skirts fill my closet and inventory. I’ve loved and worn moccasins and beaded mukluks for years now: since well before they were trendy and sold at any store on Queen Street.

    For some people, a white woman wearing beaded moccasins is insulting. Elena has done a great job of sketching out why. But I’d like to add some anecdotal feedback here, in order to provide some layers to the issues.

    Over the summer, I volunteered with at-risk aboriginal men and women. I was always careful not to wear anything to work that was even the teensiest bit “native”-inspired. One day, I got into a conversation with a few men with whom I’d grown close, on the topic of dream catchers and medicine bags. I told them I’d love to learn how to make a dream catcher. The men were totally overjoyed with my interest in their craft. There wasn’t a HINT of irony, insult, or irritation in this white woman (me), suggesting she hang a piece of their culture in her bedroom. After that conversation, I lost some of my insecurity and stopped policing my dress code as much during my visits. And every time I wore something the slightest bit “native”-inspired (we’re talking the slightest bit, not a d*mn headdress!), I received warm compliments.

    My decision to respond to this post came after an exchange I had yesterday. I was walking down the street in Halifax (my new home), when an aboriginal man called out to me: “Nice coat!”

    I was wearing an “Inuit” parka with a forest-themed embroidery along the bottom hem. He was smiling warmly, “it reminds me of home!”

    We talked for the next 4 blocks as we walked in the same direction. Quickly, this man opened up about ‘home’: Baffin Island. I asked him if anyone there still wore coats like this one. No, not really, he said. I said I hadn’t thought so: the coat was at least 20 years old and times change. He told me all sorts of things: how he learned to carve soapstone and how his father had taught him the craft, his disdain for Toronto, the weather. It was a friendly and good-natured exchange that lingered, as many conversations between strangers do in this city. It was prompted by my coat.

    While my education in social anthropology has made me attuned to and aware of the political ramifications of a white woman wearing mukluks, it has not been my experience that this sensitivity is shared among the aboriginal people that *I* have encountered or spent time with. (Emphasis here that this is anecdotal and not a scientific evaluation by any means, but worth considering.) And I’d also reject any notion that those aboriginal men and women who have warmly engaged me in discussion after seeing my moccasins are suffering from any sort of false consciousness: who am I to decide their politics around clothing, history, and race relations?

    Of course, there are some nuances here. Wearing vintage is entirely different than buying the “Aztec flask” or the “Navajo thong” from Urban Outfitters or the like. There is an engagement with history and culture that is devoid from the latter, but present in the former. And to be clear, I completely understand the difference between Gwen Stefani in a headdress ‘feeling hot’ and some 30-year-old leather shoes. But I also see the overlaps, and the sliding scale.

    Okay. End ramble. There’s a point to my telling these stories. How do we determine what is appropriation and what is appreciation, and who is the “we” that gets to decide?

    • First off, thank you for leaving such an insightful comment. I apologize that it’s taken me so long to respond. I completely agree with you that there is definitely a fine line between what could be considered appropriation vs. appreciation. I tried to touch upon that complexity early on in the piece, but maybe I could have delved into that dichotomy a little deeper. It’s also very complicated to think about who this “we” is that gets to decide what gets placed on one side of the spectrum or the other. I don’t think it’s possible to have complete consensus on such a topic.

      The story you shared about your exchange with the Aboriginal man in Halifax really illustrates the diversity of response upon seeing an individual wearing certain pieces, or aspects of their culture (I am in no way comparing wearing a parka as the same thing as a headdress). In some situations, like yours, this may open up dialogue. In others, maybe not. My piece obviously focused on the more obvious boundaries that artists and various fashion outlets have crossed, in which they have not been so reflexive in nature. Or at least not initially, but then appeared to be after the fact with their apology statements.

      I too have dealt with reflexive squirming in some respects, but I don’t think that is bad thing to experience. It shows conscientious thought and a degree of awareness. Maybe appreciation could be interpreted as someone who has taken the time to think about, and/or understand the historical, political (etc. contexts) of that specific object or clothing they choose to have? Maybe it’s also understanding why in certain scenarios, it may or may not be appropriate? It’s definitely something I still think about, and want to continue to explore.

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