So another Halloween has come and gone with the Usual Suspects decrying anyone who dares to wear a sombrero, kimono, grass skirt, or beaded headband. Such benighted individuals (the wearers of insensitive outfits [and there’s a glaring assault on English grammar, at least the version I learned]) are guilty of disrespect, cultural appropriation, racism, and other vile thought crimes for daring to disrespect proud ethnic and cultural traditions. Sombreros, embroidered peasant dresses, leather jackets with beading and fringe, eating jerky while wearing a flannel shirt (no I am not kidding), harem costumes (think I Dream of Genie), and turbans and keffiyehs are out (unless you are showing that you stand with Palestinians against the eeevil Zionist oppressors). And once again I looked in my closet and wondered which dirndl or Trachtenanzug to wear to work.
You see, I collect a specific type of traditional clothing of a kind my direct ancestors never wore (because they immigrated/escaped to the US before the styles became semi-codified in the 1800s). I wear dirndls. And Tyrolian/ German-style women’s suits, many in the green-grey called loden. I have much boiled wool in my sweater drawer as well. I’ve been wearing dirndls for [none-of-your-business] years, mostly for special occasions but sometimes for “every day.” I have a formal dirndl with heavy embroidery on the bodice and skirt hems and ornate lace on the sleeves that is based on the Black Forest style. (No, I don’t have the hat. There’s a reason I’ll get to later.) I have one based on the traditional style and colors worn in the Wachau region of Austria, and one in the mountain style from near Salzburg. Some are very, very traditional, some less so. All have long skirts, as do the suits and dirndl dresses. And I wear them on a regular basis.
Is this cultural appropriation? My ancestors came from the west side of the Alps, and from what is now northwestern Germany (the flat, wet bit). Most of my lineage is Irish, Scottish, English, with some Cherokee as well as Jewish Alsatian and low German just for variety. So in theory I have no “right” to wear Austro-Bavarian-Helvetian (Swiss) traditional dress. Not that it has ever stopped the nice ladies at dress stores or on Flea-bay from accepting my pelf and reminding me of the finer details of how to wear a dirndl.
In her classic, if a bit dense, book The Dirndl, Gexi Tostmann outlines the history of the dirndl and how it is worn. Her take, which I find reassuring, is that anyone can wear traditional styles. You just don’t go overboard trying to be 1000% authentic. So I don’t wear the ball hat from the Black Forest, or buckled shoes and crocheted white stockings. Guys can wear a favorite necktie, or none at all, with their Lederhozen or Trachtenanzug (traditional-style men’s suit). And if Gexi Tostmann says I can, believe me, I will.
Now, I am aware that today there are political connotations with the dirndl among certain sets in Austria, and I would not wear one to observe a political rally or protest. But I don’t think I am inappropriately appropriating Germanic culture by wearing a sleeveless dress with a small white blouse and an apron. Or the one-piece version of the same style, or loden jackets with A-line skirts, both made from the softest boiled wool you have ever touched.
What’s the difference between me and the college kid with the “Indian” headband? Tracht is European. I’m of European genetic descent. According to the Guardians-of-All-That-Is-Proper (GATP), if I were to wear a kimono, I’d be insulting the Japanese, no matter how hard I tried to wear it properly, but clothing my ancestors never wore is just fine.
The sense of proportion has gone out the window when an Anglo enjoying someone else’s traditions, or joking around without meaning offense, is as guilty of Bad Things as is someone talking about going looking for blacks or Mexicans to beat up, or using one of those dozens of words no one uses in polite company (unless you are taking about crackers and wops.) The GATP have reinvented sumptuary laws, with restrictions once more based on station in society and determined by your birth and social rank.
And it will end up being about as effective as the original sumptuary laws were.