Why Your Festival Style Might Be Offensive

The Truth About Cultural Appropriation at Music Festivals

Music festivals are one of the staples of youth culture in America. Weekends filled with all types of music, friends, various drugs, lots of alcohol and perfect Instagram pictures are a very common activity of American youth today. Festivals are also a breeding ground for new fashion trends. But unfortunately, the pressure to look as fashionable and chic as possible is often overshadowed by the appropriation of items from various cultures. Cultural appropriation stems from a lack of understanding for different cultures around the world and is something that needs to be controlled at America’s music festivals.

What is cultural appropriation?

“Cultural appropriation” is a concept that is hard to define. Some simply define cultural appropriation as the borrowing of ideas, symbols and practices from other cultures. Others find it to be a little more complex. Chantelle DMello, author of Everything You Need to Know About Cultural Appropriation, In 1 Minute, discusses her definition of the word as such: “cultural appropriation is not merely the act of wearing or partaking in cultural symbols & practices that do not belong to you, it’s a system of exploitation & capitalization on cultural symbols & practices that do not a) originate from b) benefit c) circle back to the culture in question” (read the full article here). My views fall a little more in line with the second, more comprehensive, definition. I define cultural appropriation as the exploitation and inappropriate usage of cultural symbols and practices that disrespects the culture from which it originates. In other words, the reinforcement of common stereotypes cultures face. This does not indicate that a white person can never wear a silk kimono as a bathrobe or a bindi, but rather that the wearer must understand, appreciate and wear the item for the purposes that culture intends it for.

Pictured above: Celebrities Selena Gomez, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, Sarah Hyland and Vanessa and Stella Hudgens sporting bindis (photo via Designer Swap)

Pictured above: Celebrities Selena Gomez, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, Sarah Hyland and Vanessa and Stella Hudgens sporting bindis (photo via Designer Swap)

Music Festivals and Common Offenders

Every April brings about festival season. In the United States, Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival launches the five month season filled with music, drugs and festival clothing. Coachella is a fashion spectacle. The festival is filled with celebrities wearing the latest trends, many of whom are models and actresses. It is almost like a contest to see who can out-dress everyone else, or who can spark the newest trend. For example, at Coachella 2015, Kendall Jenner wore an “off the shoulder” top. This trend was something few had been wearing up until this point, but today it can be found in almost every single women’s clothing store out there. It shows how influential celebrities and their clothing choices can be at such a highly publicized event. As a two-year attender myself, I can say that the clothing you wear to Coachella is almost as important as the music you will see. But in an attempt to be the most fashionable girl or guy at the festival, many wear outfits that appropriate other cultures. Bindis, head dresses and dashikis are some of the most common offenders I have seen at Coachella.

Bindis are a forehead decoration that stems from Hinduism. In Hindu culture, the forehead is “a spot considered a major nerve point in human body since ancient times” (proudhindu). The bindi is a sign of marriage in their culture and it guarantees the “social status and sanctity” of marriage (proudhindu). In being placed between the eyebrows, the bindi is said to “retain energy in the human body and control the various levels of concentration. It is also the central point of the base of the creation itself — symbolizing auspiciousness and good fortune” (proudhindu). When the bindi is sported as a fashion accessory at musical festivals by someone who is not Hindu or does not understand its relevance, it is disrespecting the sacred Hindu practice of marriage.

Head dresses are another common piece of apparel seen at these festivals. Head dresses in many Native American cultures are reserved for revered male elder members of the tribe who have earned the right to wear one through their courage, leadership and sacrifice for their community (Person). This item is very sacred to this culture and it is extremely offensive to sport one fashionably. Dennis Zotigh, a Cultural Specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian stated, “this [wearing a headdress] is analogous to casually wearing a purple heart or medal of honor that was not earned” (Person). The headdress is a sacred and very important part of Native American culture and it is extremely offensive to sport it as a fashion item.

According to my observations at Coachella this year, the third most commonly abused cultural item as music festivals is the Dashiki. The dashiki is a brightly colored, loose shirt traditionally worn by African men. During the Black cultural movements in the 1960s, the dashiki made its way to America and served as a symbol of rebellion against traditional standards for African American men’s fashion, “the dashiki was worn as a way to protest society’s disrespect for African Americans. It was a symbol of affirmation, it stood for “black is beautiful,” and signaled a return to African roots, and insistence on full rights in American society” (African Imports Business Blog). Even today the dashiki still serves as a symbol of the steps made for African Americans in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and their appreciation for their roots.


Pictured above: festival goers sporting a head dress and dashikis at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (photos via VICE)

Pictured above: festival goers sporting a head dress and dashikis at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (photos via VICE)

Why do people continue to culturally appropriate?

VICE.com went to Coachella 2016 and conducted interviews with people wearing culturally appropriative outfits. Kwele Serrell, a writer for the site, interviewed random festival goers wearing culturally appropriative clothing and asked them to explain their fashion choices. During the interviews a common trend seemed to emerge, nobody understood the cultural significance of their fashion choices. A young man wearing a dashiki was asked why he made the fashion choices he did, “just because it’s hot, and it’s comfortable. It’s artistic, too” (Serrell). Another young woman, wearing a bindi, was asked if she felt uncomfortable with her fashion choices, “honestly, I was a little skeptical at first because, you know, this is somebody else’s culture. Projecting that and them not being comfortable with it is kind of strange” (Serrell). People who made these insensitive fashion choices did not understand either what their pieces symbolized or why they were offensive. It seems that cultural appropriation isn’t intentional, but it stems from a lack of understanding for culture and its significance. People culturally appropriate not to offend others, but to be seen as fashionable and cool. They often do not put the effort into thinking about how they are presenting themselves, they simply just play follow the leader and dress how they think they should in order to appear “fashionable.” Wearing something from a foreign place makes the wearer feel exotic, and therefore more sought after.

In Orientalism, Edward Said presents the term “the other” and notes how this idea has been distorted by society to mean different as being strange or lesser than others (Said). Although Said argues that being the other is often identified as the other can often be a bad label in this specific work, he also believes that it can carry good connotations. Being the other is often thought of as being exotic. Belen Fernandez, author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, and a writer for Jacobin Magazine, discusses Said’s views on being exotic in an interview she had with him, “Said described regularly “being called ‘mysterious’, ‘elusive’, ‘dark’, ‘intense’, ‘unpredictable’ and ‘striking'” – to which lexicon is added the exoticisation” (Belen). Using these culturally appropriative items often brings about the adjectives of unpredictable and striking, just as Said says he describes the word exotic. Being exotic is being striking and mysterious, which is what many cultural appropriation offenders are aiming for. Being “the other” at these music festivals makes you stand out. People want to be cool and different, and separating themselves from the crowd by any means possible becomes a goal. Wearing things like bindis and head dresses that are not often understood by the young, festival attending teens who just want to seem cool and appear to society as the “other.” Cultural appropriation often stems from a simple lack of understanding for culture and a desire to be “the other” and appear as exotic and desirable. Other times, people understand that what they are wearing is culturally appropriative and they simply wear it to look cool. Don’t be that kind of person.

What has already been done and what can we do about it in the future.

Some festivals have already taken steps to stop cultural appropriation. For examples, Montreal’s music festival, Osheaga, banned First Nation head dresses in July of 2015. The banning of head dresses at all festivals would be a good step, as head dresses serve have a very sacred purpose in native American culture and have absolutely no place at a music festival. But the banning of other items, such as bindis and dashikis, is a little less feasible, as the wearer may be a Hindu and simply be practicing common culture, or someone in a dashiki may be celebrating their black heritage. The banning of common culturally appropriate items is not the answer, as it could lead to further backlash from members of those cultural communities.

In order to attempt to stop the misuse of these items, festivals could launch an awareness campaign in order to educate festival goers about the harm of cultural appropriation. This campaign could come in the form of a video that is sent when the patron purchases their ticket, or it could come as a small pamphlet in the same package as the wrist bands. The campaign could include a history and meaning of commonly appropriated items, and ways in which festival goers should approach others if they feel offended by their fashion choices. It is important to emphasize the creation of a dialogue here, instead of one side simply assuming things about the other. In creating this dialogue, we can allow for empathy and understanding to come about both parties, eliminating the feelings of offense and creating a deeper understanding for one another.

Cultural appropriation is impossible to avoid in the United States today, as our culture is a melting pot of tons of others. It is very difficult to know what is culturally appropriative and what is not. Due to this, people often aren’t intentionally being disrespectful and will most likely choose other options if they understand what they are doing. Instead of banning these items, education on their true meanings and emphasis on appreciation over appropriation needs to become common practice. If people are educated on the meaning of their clothing and why it is disrespectful to the members of the culture from which it originates, people will choose not to wear them. Education may also lead to appreciation of these items, instead of appropriation. The celebration of culture is something that is very important, as we live in a world where there is a ton of cultural cross over and avoiding culture altogether is impossible. Instead of reinforcing stereotypes about cultures and appropriating their sacred symbols and clothing, we should emphasize that appreciating these items is okay, as long as the wearer has a strong understanding of their clothing choices. Cultural appropriation is something that can be obliterated, but it doesn’t mean we need to obliterate the wearing of these items. If we educate and preach appreciation, cultural appropriation will no longer be an issue.

Works Cited

  • “Why Do Some Hindu Women Paint a Red Dot on Their Forehead?” About.com Religion & Spirituality. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2016.
  • “The Dashiki – A Symbol of Africa for Black History Month.” Africa Imports African Business Blog. N.p., 2009. Web. 01 May 2016.
  • Avins, Jenni. “The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.
  • Chandrachud, Neha. “No Headdresses Is a Start, But Music Festivals Need to Ban Bindis.” NOISEY. N.p., 2015. Web. 01 May 2016.
  • Person, Brooke Shunatona, Http://www.cosmopolitan.com/author/1279/brooke-shunatona/, and Http://d3cdsjlahqfkbd.cloudfront.net/1279/photo_1413578930.jpg. “I Made the Mistake of Wearing a Native American Headdress; Please Don’t Wear One to Your Music Festival.” Cosmopolitan. N.p., 2015. Web. 01 May 2016.
  • DMello, Chantelle. “Everything You Need To Know About Cultural Appropriation, In 1 Minute.” Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 26 Apr. 2016. Web.
    “Coachella Fashion – Cultural Appropriation 101 | Designer Swap.” Designer Swap. N.p., 2014. Web. 01 May 2016.
  • Ehrlich, Brenna. “Here Is Why You Shouldn’t Wear A Native American Headdress.” News. N.p., 2014. Web. 01 May 2016.
    “Here Are 5 Cultural Appropriating Outfits It’s Time to Retire for Good.” Everyday Feminism. N.p., 2015. Web. 01 May 2016.
  • Fernandez, Belen. “Those Exotic Arabs, and Other Orientalist Fetishes.” – Al Jazeera English. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 May 2016.
  • “Appropriation vs. Appreciation.” Interrupt Mag. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2016.
  • “PHUCK YO CULTURAL APPROPRIATION.” Omit Limitation. N.p., 2015. Web. 01 May 2016.
  • “Why Do Many Hindus Wear a Dot near the Middle of Their Forehead?” Proudhindu. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 May 2016.
  • Sabnani, Sanjay. “What Is Cultural Appropriation?” Quora. Quora, 19 Sept. 2013. Web.
  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.
  • Serrell, Kwele. “We Spoke to People with Culturally Offensive Outfits at Coachella | VICE | United States.” VICE. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2016.
  • Yourfaveisproblematic. “Vanessa Hudgens.” Your Fave Is Problematic. TUMBLR, n.d. Web. 01 May 2016.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.