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Authenticity

stdavidshead

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In connection with my annual spring cleaning, I have been thinking a lot about authenticity – what is “authentic” on whom? Since this place has been so level-headed recently, I figured I’d share some thoughts.

I think there are three types of inauthenticity:

Type 1: Stolen valor. The wearing of insignia of some association (regimental, masonic, philanthropic, etc.) which one does not have the “right” to wear, as determined by that association. Alternatively, consciously purchasing "fakes".

Type 2
: “Appropriation”, either across cultures or classes. Some examples: creative class members dressing like lumberjacks (I appreciate this reference is dated by roughly a decade), wearing an Astrakhan despite not being Central Asian.

Type 3:
Clothing or accessories that suggest a hobby/activity in which one does not actually participate. Some examples might be wearing a double rider when one does not ride a motorcycle, or a dive watch when one does not dive.

I doubt anyone would seriously defend Type 1 as authentic behavior. Conversely, I doubt Type 3 is actually inauthentic. My examples are not purposely anodyne. Reasonable people don’t see a Rolex Submariner on the bloated wrist of a pear-shaped banker and assume that he is (or is trying to pass as) a Jacques Cousteau type. That leaves Type 2 as the only controversial category.

I’d argue that Type 2 is actually a subspecies of Type 3. At worst it is boring (like the aforementioned Sub), but sometimes it produces something interesting – dare I say beautiful. Further it’s been going on forever, and it is essentially impossible to delineate what belongs to whom.

It is no exaggeration to say that Type 2 has been going on since the beginning of History. Thucydides noted that the Spartan elite were the first to copy the “modest” style of the commoner’s clothing, which the Athenian elite subsequently copied. (It is amusing to think of Spartan peasant duds as a sort of 5th century Engineered Garments).

Unlike a masonic ring or a Purple Heart, it is also essentially impossible to assign many design elements/materials to a single provenance. For example, who owns Madras sack jackets– yachting-while-drunk WASPs or the inhabitants of Chennai? If these things don’t belong to a single group (again, contrast with Masons, U.S. military personnel killed or wounded while serving), don’t they belong to everyone?

What am I missing?
 

Phileas Fogg

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Are you really Saint David or just appropriating?

I’ll play along:
1) it depends on the intent. If one is wearing medals and/or insignia in order to pass himself off as having lived that life, then it’s wrong. If it’s decorative and/or playful, then I’m ok with it. How many guys wear an NYPD cap who aren’t really cops? Who amongst us hasn’t worn a Repp tie and been worried that some retired sergeant major will call us out.

2) this is too broad and can apply to almost anything anyone wears. Hipsters dress as lumberjacks but it’s doubtful anyone confuses them with lumberjacks.

3) we’re all guilty of this (at least the watch part). I take a shower with mine and will typically Don it when watching reruns of Sea Hunt.
I do, however, harbor a particular dislike and do judge harshly middle aged men who wear golf attire as casual wear. Particularly if the shirt has the logo of some country club course they’ve never visited. Nothing says I’m middle aged and have cashed it in quite like that.
 

TheShetlandSweater

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I don't think most people get appropriation. At least in my view, appropriation is not simply sincerely taking something from another culture and using it much as they would. Rather, it is taking something from another culture and using it in a way that is disrespectful. That is, appropriation is appropriating something for your own purposes.

For example, I am a Jew. If a non-Jew wants to wear a yarmulke because they think they are stylish for some reason, I don't think this is okay because this is taking something that has religious significance and using it merely as an aesthetic object. Likewise with eating challah. That is a religious food item that has a specific meaning. On the other side of the coin, I don't care if a non-Jew eats a bagel or matzah ball soup. Those are just food items. The latter may have been created for particular religious reasons, but it is ultimately just food.

I think this "just" question is the important one. Is a dress from another culture just a dress? If so, I don't think wearing it is appropriating, assuming you are wearing it sincerely and with good intentions. If you are wearing it because you like it and think it looks good, and not because you are trying to make fun of another culture, I don't see the problem.

I am open to changing my mind, though, if anyone provides good arguments or counterexamples.
 
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A brevity rewrite:

1) To purchase something that must be otherwise formally earned, for the purposes of representing that you earned it.
2) To pretend you know or are a part of something that you know nothing about, whether it is race, or class, or culture.
3) To purchase a look of experience that you don't rate.

One to me is the most distasteful. Two can be more or less distasteful depending on the specifics.

Three cuts both ways, we all want to look a certain way to make people think a certain thing about us, like that we can be trusted to act professionally etc. We hope that this will generate opportunity or garner favor or build kinship with like minded people. But it is certainly disappointing when the person dressed head to toe in Patagonia doesn't like going outside, or the guy with the garage full of pristine tools doesn't change his own oil. You can't judge a book by its cover but advertisement works, so we do our best.
 
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dieworkwear

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I enjoyed Susan Scafidi's article on cultural appropriation. She also wrote a book called Who Owns Culture, which is a fleshed out version of this article.



An excerpt:

"Fashion is notorious for ransacking the world’s closets in search of inspiration, but designers are no more culturally acquisitive than chefs who prepare fusion cuisine, musicians in search of a world beat, or any of us who pepper our conversations with foreign phrases in search of a certain conversational je ne sais quoi. The globe is a rich buffet, and those of us blessed with choice naturally go in search of cultural capital and varied experience.

The link between clothing and personal identity, however, means that putting on another culture’s clothes is a greater claim to ownership and belonging than sampling sushi or buying a burrito for lunch. As long as nudity isn’t a socially acceptable option, we are what we wear – and our desire to define ourselves through borrowed finery can either enrich or impoverish the source community.

Staying on the right side of the inspiration/appropriation divide requires individual awareness and attention to three S’s: significance (or sacredness), source and similarity. What’s the significance of the necklace you’re about to put on: is it just jewelry or a set of prayer beads? Did the source community invite you to wear that traditional robe, perhaps via voluntary sale, and does the community still suffer from a history of exploitation, discrimination or oppression? And how similar is that designer adaptation to the original: a head-to-toe copy, or just a nod in the direction of silhouette or pattern?"

I encourage people to read it, if they want to respond to the article. The three paragraphs above are just a snippet and not her entire argument.
 

Keith Taylor

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Likewise with eating challah. That is a religious food item that has a specific meaning.
This raises a question that isn’t really covered in DWW’s (excellent) linked article: intent.

I didn’t grow up in close contact with any kind of Jewish culture beyond the most obvious touchstones, and I live in a country with maybe a few dozen Jewish people, and as a result I had to Google challah. If I saw a loaf of braided bread in a local bakery I’d assume it was just a simple loaf of bread, completely unaware of its cultural significance, and I’d eat it without a second thought. I’ve probably eaten all sorts of things that have deep cultural significance to someone without realising it.

When I first came to Mongolia I was mildly horrified to learn that the N word was used here freely and often by young folk, almost always as a term of affection - i.e. “What’s up, my N word?”. It turns out that hip hop and rap are hugely popular here, and while in the west most people understand the history and significance of that word, get why black people reappropriated it and understand that it’s not OK for anyone else to use it, those nuances didn’t quite make it to this part of the world. They were just parroting a word they thought was cool.

Thankfully the trend seems to have died away in recent years, but while it was obviously a stupid word to use that hit me like fingernails down a blackboard it was used without any ill intent. Young Mongolians just appropriated it because they’d heard it uttered by artists they liked and respected, and were broadly ignorant of the extensive context behind it (an ignorance I’m more willing to forgive because non-English speakers don’t have easy access to sources of information that might enlighten them).

There’s a fine line between wilful ignorance and an understandable lack of cultural awareness, but I think it should be taken into account whenever someone’s about to get whacked by the appropriation hammer :)
 
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stdavidshead

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A brevity rewrite:

1) To purchase something that must be otherwise formally earned, for the purposes of representing that you earned it.
2) To pretend you know or are a part of something that you know nothing about, whether it is race, or class, or culture.
3) To purchase a look of experience that you don't rate.

One to me is the most distasteful. Two can be more or less distasteful depending on the specifics.

Three cuts both ways, we all want to look a certain way to make people think a certain thing about us, like that we can be trusted to act professionally etc. We hope that this will generate opportunity or garner favor or build kinship with like minded people. But it is certainly disappointing when the person dressed head to toe in Patagonia doesn't like going outside, or the guy with the garage full of pristine tools doesn't change his own oil. You can't judge a book by its cover but advertisement works, so we do our best.
This is much clearer than what I wrote. Thank you. Curious to know what specifics make (2) more or less distasteful.
 

stdavidshead

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I enjoyed Susan Scafidi's article on cultural appropriation. She also wrote a book called Who Owns Culture, which is a fleshed out version of this article.



An excerpt:

"Fashion is notorious for ransacking the world’s closets in search of inspiration, but designers are no more culturally acquisitive than chefs who prepare fusion cuisine, musicians in search of a world beat, or any of us who pepper our conversations with foreign phrases in search of a certain conversational je ne sais quoi. The globe is a rich buffet, and those of us blessed with choice naturally go in search of cultural capital and varied experience.

The link between clothing and personal identity, however, means that putting on another culture’s clothes is a greater claim to ownership and belonging than sampling sushi or buying a burrito for lunch. As long as nudity isn’t a socially acceptable option, we are what we wear – and our desire to define ourselves through borrowed finery can either enrich or impoverish the source community.

Staying on the right side of the inspiration/appropriation divide requires individual awareness and attention to three S’s: significance (or sacredness), source and similarity. What’s the significance of the necklace you’re about to put on: is it just jewelry or a set of prayer beads? Did the source community invite you to wear that traditional robe, perhaps via voluntary sale, and does the community still suffer from a history of exploitation, discrimination or oppression? And how similar is that designer adaptation to the original: a head-to-toe copy, or just a nod in the direction of silhouette or pattern?"

I encourage people to read it, if they want to respond to the article. The three paragraphs above are just a snippet and not her entire argument.
I have essentially no knowledge of Native American headdresses but infer that they’re objects of profound cultural and/or spiritual importance. I think this is “Type 1” from my original post. If I were to dress up as a Cardinal, except in blue instead of red and call it a “homage”, I’d expect Catholics to be (quite reasonably) offended, not only because I’m not a Cardinal, or even Catholic, but also given the significance of that color to that religion.

Per Scafidi, Geisha garb and saris are fair game for (respectful) variation/homage, assuming it the variation doesn't too closely resemble the original.These items are seem more like the Madras jacket in my original post, in that it’s not clear to me that it is disrespectful or exploitative for people who are not Geishas/South Asian to wear them. Would it really have been inappropriate for Lopez to wear a sari?

My first impression was that Scafidi really likes alliteration. But seriously, it is an interesting article. Thank you for sharing it.
 
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Curious to know what specifics make (2) more or less distasteful.
I once had a non-Indian friend who said to me in conversation, "London has the best Indian food in the world." She had also never been to India. Putting aside that it could be true that restaurants in London have poached the best Indian chefs in the world, I think it is best to let experts decide these things, preferably those with familiarity of both locations... at a minimum. I have no problem that she is passionate about Indian food, but to think, "No reason to go there, I have mastered their culture from the comfort of the West End," is just distasteful.

I am sure I could think of more examples but for me this is where it starts.
 

Keith Taylor

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She had also never been to India.
Ha :)

As you mention she didn’t have enough experience to make that incredibly bold call, but I’d say she accidentally stumbled on some semblance of a worthwhile conclusion. Having spent a lot of time in India and the first half of my life in the UK I’d say the hit rate in an Indian restaurant in the UK is significantly higher than eating at a random restaurant in India, not so much because we poached the best chefs but because the menus in London restaurants (or Rusholme in my case) are tailored to the English palate.

I rarely ate a bad meal in the UK because the chefs in my favourite Indian restaurants knew their audience, but I could eat disappointingly for days in India before chancing on a dish so good I’d like to take it home and introduce to my parents. That’s half the fun of authentic Indian food, though. On balance I’d prefer to roll the dice on one of a million unfamiliar dishes that might end up life changing than stick with the dull but reliably good curated menu available in most UK eateries :)
 

comrade

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Which calls to mind the pizza that I ate in Naples in a part of the city
not very touristy, was excellent, but not superior to the pizza I've
eaten over the years in NYC, Chicago, or the Bay Area.
 

adrianvo

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In connection with my annual spring cleaning, I have been thinking a lot about authenticity – what is “authentic” on whom? Since this place has been so level-headed recently, I figured I’d share some thoughts.

I think there are three types of inauthenticity:

Type 1: Stolen valor. The wearing of insignia of some association (regimental, masonic, philanthropic, etc.) which one does not have the “right” to wear, as determined by that association. Alternatively, consciously purchasing "fakes".

Type 2: “Appropriation”, either across cultures or classes. Some examples: creative class members dressing like lumberjacks (I appreciate this reference is dated by roughly a decade), wearing an Astrakhan despite not being Central Asian.

Type 3: Clothing or accessories that suggest a hobby/activity in which one does not actually participate. Some examples might be wearing a double rider when one does not ride a motorcycle, or a dive watch when one does not dive.

I doubt anyone would seriously defend Type 1 as authentic behavior. Conversely, I doubt Type 3 is actually inauthentic. My examples are not purposely anodyne. Reasonable people don’t see a Rolex Submariner on the bloated wrist of a pear-shaped banker and assume that he is (or is trying to pass as) a Jacques Cousteau type. That leaves Type 2 as the only controversial category.

I’d argue that Type 2 is actually a subspecies of Type 3. At worst it is boring (like the aforementioned Sub), but sometimes it produces something interesting – dare I say beautiful. Further it’s been going on forever, and it is essentially impossible to delineate what belongs to whom.

It is no exaggeration to say that Type 2 has been going on since the beginning of History. Thucydides noted that the Spartan elite were the first to copy the “modest” style of the commoner’s clothing, which the Athenian elite subsequently copied. (It is amusing to think of Spartan peasant duds as a sort of 5th century Engineered Garments).

Unlike a masonic ring or a Purple Heart, it is also essentially impossible to assign many design elements/materials to a single provenance. For example, who owns Madras sack jackets– yachting-while-drunk WASPs or the inhabitants of Chennai? If these things don’t belong to a single group (again, contrast with Masons, U.S. military personnel killed or wounded while serving), don’t they belong to everyone?

What am I missing?
By your logic, non-western people should stop wearing western clothes.

...but then I remembered how brainlets like you only apply this to white people.
 

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