Darren Garnick is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire and curator of Tacky Tourist Photos.
Is trying out a hairstyle or clothing from another culture mocking that culture?
This summer, accusations of "cultural appropriation" have become as common as sex scandals in the pop culture world. Reality TV star Kylie Jenner is under attack for braiding her hair in cornrows, a style favored by African-Americans. Supermodel Gisele Bundchen took some heat for hiding from the paparazzi under a Muslim burka. And a provocative art exhibit in Portland, Ore., In//Appropriate, features a kimono-clad Katy Perry singing in front of a mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, Japan.
The artist's not-so-subtle charge: While flirtatious Perry thinks she's cute and exotic in Japanese dress, she's callously ignoring the lessons of the Second World War. How dare she find glamour in a culture and time period outside her own?
Politically-charged wardrobe critiques like this are not exclusively reserved for celebrities, however. Last month, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts stopped letting its non-famous visitors try on an ornate, floor-length kimono that was immortalized in a Claude Monet painting. "Kimono Wednesdays," which encouraged silk-clad patrons to pose in front of the art and share their pics on social media, were branded as "yellowface" by handful of protestors.
Signs like "Try On The Kimono: Learn What It's Like to Be a Racist Imperialist Today!!!" shut down the photo-op, even though the dress-up idea was hugely popular at two art museums in Japan. (Never mind that the Japanese government used to be a huge fan of imperialism.)
As a lover of international tourist kitsch, I'm resentful that I didn't get to participate in Kimono Wednesdays. For the last six years, I've curated a crowd-sourced travel photography website called "Tacky Tourist Photos," in which I celebrate costume booths and those silly cutout boards where you morph into local cultural icons.
Through my scholarly photo-op "research," I've met tourists who have pretended to be sumo wrestlers in Japan, Pharaohs in Egypt, Vikings in Scandinavia and biblical heroes in Israel. In Kyoto, Japan, there is a cottage industry of photo studios which transform travelers into samurai warriors and geisha girls for a day. As a general rule, these lighthearted dress-up opportunities are pursued out of cultural curiosity, respect or harmless fun – they bring people from diverse backgrounds together.
Is there a potential for cultural insensitivity or reinforcing ethnic stereotypes when donning the clothes and fashions from other lands? Absolutely. Social media is the largest archive of insensitivity in history, with new chapters being added by the minute. I refuse to publish offensive tourist photos on my website, but I must confess it is extremely rarely that I come across them.
Although I suspect that Tacky Tourist Photos carries no clout in academic circles, where cultural-appropriation conversations most often flourish, allow me to share my criteria for what makes a costumed photo-op offensive or not offensive:
1. Through words, gestures or actions, is the photo subject flippantly pretending to be another race, nationality or religion?
2. Is the photo subject intentionally making fun of another culture?
3. Does the costume, clothing or prop have any religious significance?
4. Is the photo location a place where a culture was persecuted or killed?
5. Is there a current imbalance of power between the cultures being "exchanged"?
Answer "yes" to any of these questions and it's a safe bet that your photo will offend. Last month at Montreal's Osheaga Music and Arts Festival, organizers formally banned Native American headdresses, along with fireworks, drones and selfie sticks. Oddly, there has been a hipster tradition of wearing Native American garb and face paint at similar festivals, such as the annual Coachella concert in California.
My childhood photo albums contain snapshots of me and my siblings wearing similar costumes, although my parents had no hateful agenda. I cringe when I see those pictures now. At bare minimum, donning a feathered war bonnet violates rules #3-5 above. The headgear has spiritual tribal meaning and there isn't a square inch of U.S. soil where Native Americans weren't displaced from their land or slaughtered.
At the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., I recently saw another hat with deep cultural meaning: a floppy sombrero embroidered with the Los Angeles Angels logo. I've seen sombreros used disparagingly as photo props near the Alamo, but in this case it was an obvious symbol of Mexican pride. In 2003, new Angels owner Arte Moreno presented it as a gift to manager Mike Scioscia at press conference, noting he was the first Mexican-American to buy a Major League Baseball team.
Mr. Scioscia looked ridiculous in the grossly oversized hat, but it was the good kind of ridiculous, causing fans from different backgrounds to smile together. Last May, on Cinco de Mayo, the Angels also gave out free sombreros to 25,111 fans, setting the Guinness World Record for "the largest gathering of people wearing sombreros." Similar cross-cultural bonding happens when non-Japanese people slip into kimonos. And the appeal of these tourist dress-up experiences flows both ways.
Canada's Prince Edward Island annually attracts busloads of Japanese tourists drawn by the iconic book, Anne of Green Gables. At a costume booth at the border, countless visitors of all ages put on red braids and a green prairie dress to channel Anne. When I was at the booth – many guys participate in the photo-op, too – I met Japanese college students who said they dreamed of seeing Anne's homeland since they were little girls.
Only a few generations after the Second World War, when Japan and the West viewed each other through the lens of brutal racial stereotypes, our first impressions are no longer Pearl Harbor and P.O.W. camps. My immediate associations with Japan are anime, baseball, comic books and video games. Go to any comic book convention and you'll find that Japanese culture is worshipped.
I'd like to think that part of that cultural transformation is due to trying on each other's clothes.