Here’s a barrier I have a hard time getting past when wearing some of my favorite clothing items: the “hippie” label. While I don’t overall object to the hippie culture and often love the clothing from self-proclaimed hippie stores, I like to stay unlabeled and wear a variety of pieces. The general problem of labeling clothing is that it usually has a more complex history and role than one person or culture can assume: no clothing, traditional to a culture or not is as simple as an assembled piece of fabric. Simplifying a look or clothing piece down to one label ignores a multitude of history, identity, and cultural context.
What do you call a person wearing traditional clothing from a certain culture, nation, ethnic group, or people? Probably nothing in general. There are innumerable accounts traditional costumes around the world and we couldn’t really pin them all down if we tried. Coming from the U.S., I often feel a void in the realm of traditional clothing, but there are valid arguments for different possible contenders for that such as Western/cowboy wear, Native American dress (a more limited population can actually call that their own), and modern creations that classify American dress like the t-shirt, baseball cap, or tennis shoes.
Now, for example, what do you call an Indian wearing traditional Indian dress? Probably just someone embracing their cultural and traditional dress. Today in India this is more often worn to special, formal occasions than on an everyday basis.
Fine. Then what do you call a non-Indian, usually white, person wearing traditional Indian dress? Society and the culture I come from and live in would say hippie. This drives me crazy. A friend brought me back a shalwar kameez suit from India. I have to say that I don’t always wear them as traditionally intended in suit form and instead mix and match the shalwar (pants) and kurta (shirt) with my own clothing pieces for variety. The problem with this is that I can never escape the labels. This comes from American ideas of the hippie movement most popularly in the American mind dating back to the 1960′s and 70′s where the political peace movement adopted many Indian ideas and ideals as well as dress and aesthetics.
The American mind now associates all traditional Indian dress not on an Indian as automatically hippie-gear. A bit limiting and restrictive, especially as fashion draws from different specific regional influences around the world – what will happen when people wear Chanel’s homage to India line? Will it be accepted as its own artistic genius separate from the hippie movement or continue to be dragged down by the weight of political history? I hope that this can move on and redefine the American ideas of aesthetic and art, creating a new context for traditional dress in fashion in the coming years.