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27 June 2011

Lost in translation and in wearing When I came across this delightful AskMe earlier today, about how to dress "like a femme Indiana Jones", it got me thinking about the wearing of clothing from different cultures.[More:]

As I came up with some advice for the asker, I realized something about my own style, how my cold weather "around home" look is something that could be described as "Irish/English/Scottish country". I wear jeans or corduroys with a basic ivory cotton top and a handknit Irish cable or fair isle sweater, a brown leather belt, sturdy brown leather ankle boots or brogues, and if I put any jewelry with that, it's my silver rose on a chain or my beloved Celtic swan ring.

The only "ethnic" wearable items I have are U.K.-inspired: a tartan scarf my parents bought me in Scotland, wool tams I knitted myself, a pair of Celtic knot silver earrings, and the aforementioned fair isle and Irish cable sweaters.

And I suppose this is because I am of English, Irish and Scottish ancestry and I look it, so I feel I have some right to items from those culture and can wear them properly. I find items from other cultures beautiful but never feel like I could successfully and appropriately wear them. A lot of them just don't suit me, of course. The embroidered silk dresses I see in Chinatown are designed for very small, slight Asian women and wouldn't fit me at all. A lot of other items that I've looked at wouldn't go with my figure or colouring or anything else in my closet. Oh, I do have a Shanghai-made embroidered teal velvet silk-lined jacket that I bought at a thrift shop for $2 a dozen years ago. It's simple enough to go with my other clothes and a beautiful item I enjoy wearing and feel comfortable in, but that's it.

Years ago, in the mid-nineties, I read about a Hong Kong trend of wearing jackets with English text on them. The text was actually nonsense (i.e., "happy good taste fun"), but the people who wore them didn't know that and thought the jackets were cool. I worry I will, in my ignorance of other language and cultures, wear something equivalent to that silly jacket, or that I'd look like the North American equivalent of, say, an Indian woman in a sari and a baseball cap, or a Mexican man in a serape and a porkpie hat. One time I bought a thrift shop t-shirt with Chinese characters on it. It was such a cute shirt, and I really liked it, but every time I wore it I'd think wryly that the characters probably read something along the lines of, "This stupid white girl doesn't know what her shirt says."

Well, dressing appropriately in the aesthetic of another culture is difficult. A friend of mine who is a Mennonite says she can tell an ex-Amish from a mile off, because if they grew up entirely immersed in Amish culture they never, ever figure out how to dress in mainstream-style clothing. And look at all the AskMes posted by people who were born into North American culture but still want advice on what would be appropriate for this or that event. There are a lot of nuances in clothing.

What about all of you? What kind of international styles do you like and feel comfortable in and wear? Do you fearlessly mix things up or do you sometimes worry you're doing it wrong?
I would honestly like to be able to wear robes or monk habits or even a stylish cape from time to time. Thought abhors pants.
posted by The Whelk 27 June | 21:16
I like to wear RenFaire costume-type outfits (for fun, at random), stuff that's a mix of eras or even fantasy inspired rather than historical. I figure I probably give SCAdians fits.

I have a gorgeous full hooded wool cloak, Whelk, but it's just not warm. And heavy! I can see why jackets came to dominate cold-weather outerwear.
posted by galadriel 27 June | 22:50
Since I pretty much wear a Charlie Brown wardrobe at home, the only time this comes up for me is when I'm traveling. I have a particular thing for visiting Islamic countries and cultures, and although I've only visited Westernized locales like the UAE so far, I'm about to start on a ten-year exploration of the African continent, so I expect I'll have some real decisions to make on how "authentic" I can/should look in different circumstances.
posted by mykescipark 27 June | 23:39
I would honestly like to be able to wear robes or monk habits or even a stylish cape from time to time.

Oh, yeah. Ever since I was a kid, I have thought "Nuns have got it going on." I mean, c'mon: that crisp black & white, the flowing sleeves and skirt, and a wimple? Great in rain or snow, keeps you covered from the sun. I am not kidding: for years and years --- long before I had any inkling of the origin of the garb --- I have occasionally wished that I could get away with dressing in an iconic, old-fashioned nun's habit.

Capes are rarely as warm as coats, but they're great in the rain! And a nice cape doesn't have to be heavy. It floats over your body and you keep warm with layers, not bulk.

So, yeah, most of my sartorial culture-jumping isn't geographic but temporal: I have a weakness for anachronistic clothing. I don't indulge it much these days, though.
posted by Elsa 28 June | 07:19
I like to think I'm stylish at some point, but I intentionally like to wear clothes that go against what anyone would think is appropriate - I take most of my cues from the Appalachian mountain region. Hence, overalls with ties, or pajama tops.

I don't fixate on any culture or region or anything like that. If anything, I gravitate towards textures and bright colors more than geography. It's too much effort to name a style.
posted by Lipstick Thespian 28 June | 07:32
I'm a big fan of mixing and remixing, the jubilant diversity of street fashion, the conscious anachronism of vintage, the unaccountable algorithms of democratic fashion trends a la Bill Cunningham. Though the outfits I admire are much more imaginative than anything I actually wear - partly because I have to dress in fairly non-wild ways for work, and partly because I don't like to fuss.

But put me down as a fan of generally listening to your muse, making your own rules and breaking them freely and dressing in ways that flatter and please you and you alone, no matter what they are. Heaven knows we have plenty 'nuff catalog conventionality in this world.
posted by Miko 28 June | 09:48
I will wear individual pieces from other cultures (especially jewelry) but would feel awkward wearing an entire outfit. Oh, I did have one of those long Chinese dresses, but always made sure to tone everything else down when wearing it.

Since it's been so hot and muggy here, I've been enviously eyeing women wearing salwar kameez (sp?) but I'd be afraid it would look "costumey" on me. But they are so practical and lovely!
posted by JoanArkham 28 June | 13:48
Oh, I'd also rather actually study and learn about other cultures than wear clothing that's reminiscent of them, but that's just me.
posted by Lipstick Thespian 28 June | 18:58
Yeah, I own several salwaar kameez (both fancy and everyday), and they're...well, they're not that much more practical than like yoga pants and a tshirt, really. Also, I feel terrible for post-pubescent girls in India who have to wear them all the time, even in the winter, when it's freezing out and they'd be so much warmer in jeans and proper sneakers. (Actually, I feel even worse for the married women, who have to wear saris even when the weather is freezing. Talk about impractical.)

My personal favorite is the patiala salwaar (1, 2), because they're cute and loose and comfy, especially as pajamas.
posted by unsurprising 29 June | 01:03
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