That is one of the keys to understanding why ethnic costumes are so offensive: the outfit, the makeup, the accessories, are all just ONE part of the identity. When you don’t honor or understand the significance holistically, you dismiss that identity as being nothing but a hollow prop – just a means for you to please and benefit yourself at the expense of that culture’s historical identity. Plus, Katy and others continue to benefit financially from these performances on the backs of women who continue to face ostracism and and are stereotyped on the basis of these same portrayals.
So, how does one avoid being appropriative? How do you appreciate something without offending? Due to personal experience and expertise, I will use the “Indian woman or princess” as the costume exemplar.
"Sexy Indian Princess": A Case Study in Cultural Appropriation and Orientalism
Because she thinks it is “Indian”. Her costume, then, is a confusing mishmash of Indian symbols used incoherently so that she can appear as sexy and exotic as possible. Consequently, there is also another layer of the sexualisation and exoticization of women of color, and a reduction of the “Indian woman”, into this romanticized exotic/erotic trope, by an affluent white woman. So, it becomes a clear example of orientalism lurking in the guise of an unfortunate costume choice. Thus, it is ignorant, inappropriate, orientalist and culturally appropriative. And there are others like it all over instagram! I found this in the "top photos" under the "Halloween" tag, and looking up "indianprincess" only led to more outrage and face-palming. That tag was populated with all sorts of parodies of Native American, Aboriginal, American Indian, Indigenous, and "tribal" outfits, along with Indian, Arabian and "Gypsy" costumes. It is a cesspool of racism, political incorrectness and stupidity. There were even a couple of images where individuals mixed references of "Native Indian" and "East Indian" traditions because, apparently, googling is hard.
Doing it right
But, say, for example, that you wanted to do what the model (above) did? Dress up as an Indian woman or princess for Halloween? Well, unless you are dressing up as a historical character of note or popular cultural icon, who has been well-researched and recreated to the best of your ability, with as much knowledge about the person and their context, then you should probably avoid doing so. There are lots of fascinating Indian historical figures like Queen Jodha Bai and Rani Laxmibai (a warrior queen no less!) with fascinating stories and beautiful looks.
But, chances are, if your intention is to be “sexy Indian princess”, these won’t float your boat, because not only were these women dressed conservatively, in many layers of heavy clothing and jewelry, they are also not well known to most outside the Indian diaspora. And, dressing up as an Indian woman is kind of stupid too, because, in a population of over 1 billion, the average Indian woman is a poor labourer and likely has little education. So, obviously she will not be bedecked in gold and lavishly embroidered clothing. Besides, most Indian women, working class or not, do not walk the streets like this because, y’know, it is likely that they will be sexually assaulted. But, carry on with your sexy Indian princess costume anyway because, yay, ignorance!
Ashley Judd hosted the 2007 YouthAIDS Gala which was themed “Faces of India” . A number of Indian figures of note were in attendance and performed as well. I think her choice to don a real sari (properly, might I add) is a nice way for her to honor the national dress of the country which the gala sought to shed light on. Furthermore, she is not sexualizing the outfit in any way that is apparent to me. In fact, it appears that she had an expert help her, because it is draped beautifully. Here, the intention is clear and honorable and the outcome is positive. As well, in 2012, Oprah Winfrey visited India’s most famous Bollywood family – the Bachchans – at their home in Mumbai in a designer sari. Similar intention, similar outcome.
However, wearing a bindi and using stereotyped Hindu gestures for a sexy video and (admittedly catchy) song to look exotic and erotic is wrong, Selena! That Selena Gomez even defended herself saying she likes "Middle Eastern" influences (ugh), and then again in an instagram selfie in a sari captioned "Sari, not sari" (clever!), is just a projection of the dismissal of our voice by the cultural hegemony -- because I promise you, Selena did not mastermind her petulant defense of her appropriative actions. The money-making machine behind her hit song probably had something to do with it. For more on this, Anisha Ahuja writes a brilliant takedown of Selena Gomez's actions.
Also, while I’ve used the term liberally here, recognize that if you are dressing up as an “Indian Bride” you are only dressing up in one type of bridal or Indian-inspired outfit that is common to one region, culture or area in a country of hundreds of religions and cultures with their own style of dress, with small or large variations.
Bottomline: I can’t speak for everyone but, generally, I think the reaction that most have when their culture is appropriated in this way is: why? Why, out of all the millions of possibilities did you have to go and dress up as an ignoramus?
Kylie Jenner dressed up as an "Eskimo" this Halloween! Of course, cleverly and quickly, she changed the costume name to "snow princess" when the outrage began to simmer. But, the internet doesn't forget! Congratulations, Kylie, for continuing the tradition of ignorant Halloween foolery.