Don’t Get Your Barong In a Bunch…

…Or Is It Okay if I Wear Your Ethnic Garb?

When I was three it was the cheetah outfit, at six the queen’s scepter at the Children’s Museum, as a teenager I liked to supplement my high school drama club’s “costume” department with my dredged up thrift store finds. I have long loved the fantasy dressing up brings.

Somewhere in my late teens early twenties, sifting through the Goodwill racks looking for a treasure that would make me look couture, or at least “artsy” for five dollars or under, I came across a dark blue cotton loose fitting blouse/jacket with elaborate white floral embroidery. I had never seen anything like it. 

I mainly remember wearing this out over some black tight flared legging things with Guess heels at the Continental (Fullerton). 

Somewhere along the line, someone told me this was a type of native Filipino ceremonial shirt mainly wore by men and that it might be offensive to someone. I kept it in my closet but wore it less as I didn’t want to offend any Filipinos. I also stopped wearing that yellow and purple sari.

I’m kind of missing that barong as I now know its called, it was pretty. Which leads me to ponder the question…is it wrong or disrespectful to wear traditional garments of someone else’s ethnicity or culture to which you do not belong? 

I tend to see myself as a child of the world (pause for eye roll). I appreciate different cultures and the beauty of their traditional garments and am curious about the practical and ceremonial aspects of the garments. 

So, how appropriate is it to wear an ethnic specific item of clothing?

There is no definitive answer, however I believe a lot depends on context. Keep in mind some people might be offended by you “having fun” with clothes that are culturally significant to them. 

If you have found something you like, research it. What is it primarily used for? Formal events? Religious ceremonies? See if you can find information on if that culture seems to have a collective opinion about people on the “outside” wearing the article of clothing. 

In general, stay away from wearing items that you know or find out are associated with religious practices or that are politically charged. As cute as they are, yarmulkes are not berets. Unless, of course you are doing an art project or trying to provoke…Benetton ads anyone?

Inmy previous life as a young twenty-something I thought…what the hell? I’m a child of the world, its just a piece of cloth anyhow…if I want to wear hari krishna robes to a cocktail party I should be able to! 

Well, its that fun thing called growing up which helps you to realize its important to  respect the value other people put on symbolic items and rituals. We all have rituals that are important to us, even those of us who don’t think we do…that its a part of being human- to attach meaning to the world around us. 

Another thing to think about is commercial repurposing of a certain clothing from a particular culture. I love my Minnetonka moccasins, but I also feel slightly conflicted and guilty. An American company, they are made in China and I am not sure if the beaded eagle on the front is even authentic. Native American clothing has been on the trend in the past few years and many major companies create their own “native” designs or don’t do or don’t care to do their research, i.e. calling something “Navajo” that is a design from another tribe or is just vaguely Native American.

It can be fabulous fun and a way to connect with others and even sometimes funny to wear clothing from someone else’s culture, but tread lightly…in those moccasins.


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