Vicky Spratt | Deputy Editor | Monday, 7 September 2015

What Not To Wear To Bestival This Weekend

What *Not* To Wear At Bestival This Year

The Debrief: What You Need To Know About Cultural Appropriation and Festival Fashion

 One of the best things about going to a festival is the escapism. For a few days you remove yourself from reality and you’re free to do whatever you want, eat whatever you want and wear whatever you want, well almost…

Festival fashion is almost an industry in its own right. From around May every year, all of the main high street chains have racks and racks dedicated to outfits to see you through festival season. Crochet dresses and flower crowns are now de rigueur, but there are some clothing decisions that are perhaps best avoided.

Over the last year the term ‘cultural appropriation’ has been banded around in reference to such sartorial slip ups. Remember the backlash against and debate around Kylie Jenner’s cornrows?

It’s true that major fashion houses have been ‘borrowing’ from other cultures for years. This year it was everywhere: baby hairs at Givenchy, ‘squaw’ shoes at Dsquared2 and an exact replica of a traditional Oaxacan blouse at Isabel Marant. Wearing a garment derived from or influenced by another culture often seems to be associated with someone’s sophistication and open mindedness….‘Oh yeah, this old thing? I got it on my gap yah in Peru,’ etc.

However, the issue is of ‘borrowing’ items from other cultures is actually incredibly complex. The problem is that wearing something from a different culture isn’t always seen as an act of celebration, it can be offensive and, even, reinforce negative cultural stereotypes. So, what’s the difference between appreciation and appropriation?

Dr Djurda Bartlett, Reader in Histories and Cultures of Fashion at London College of Fashion, notes that the ‘wide use of the elements of Navajo Indian “chic”, both on the runway and the highstreet, was particularly controversial. She acknowledges that, while borrowing from other cultures in the name of fashion is not a new thing, ‘Today, fashion changes so fast, that it is always hungry for new ideas. But, we should be aware of the historically established power dynamics.’

The definition of cultural appropriation, she says, is clear. ‘It signifies the dominant culture’s appropriation of elements from a culture that has been historically subordinated, and thus made powerless.’ It is very different from ‘cultural exchange’ she says.

Dr Bartlett says that ‘individual festival goers should keep themselves culturally informed’. However, she feels people a rarely being deliberately offensive and that festivalgoers’ ‘acts of cultural appropriation as a more or less innocent and time-limited escape in time and space’.

We’ve all seen that person at a festival – the one wearing a native American headdress or a bindi and a face full of glitter, taking selfies. So, with Bestival coming up at the weekend here are a few fashions that might be more problematic than you realise:


Iggy Azalea wore a bindi and dressed in a full sari in the video for Bounce, and Gwen Steffani regularly sported one in the ’90s. But earlier this year #reclaimthebindi began trending around the world via Twitter and Instagram. The campaign was started anonymously in the wake of Selena Gomez’s decision to wear a bindi to Coachella and post pictures of it on Instagram.

The founder of #reclaimthebindi is a South Asian woman living in the US. We spoke to her about the campaign. She explained that while you might think sporting a bindi with your hotpants and lukewarm cider is just a multicultural homage to South Asian culture, what you’re doing is actually far more loaded than that.

She explains that ‘seeing celebrities like Selina Gomez or Iggy Azalea wearing bindis or saris is just a reminder for me that it’s more acceptable for a white woman or a celebrity to wear it. When they do it they get likes, but when I do it people laugh and stare.’ She recalls how, growing up there would be times when she would be coming back from the temple in America in full traditional attire with her family and they’d stop at the pharmacy or supermarket and she would ‘feel very uncomfortable with all the stares’. This, she says, made her ‘feel ostrasiced by her own cultural identity. When I see people prancing around in what is supposed to be my traditional dress it’s a reminder that I’m supposed to be able to feel comfortable in these clothes, but I can’t.’

Native American Feather Headdresses

Much of Pharrell’s headgear is questionable IMHO but perhaps none of it quite as bad as when he was photographed on the cover of Elle last year wearing a Native American Headdress. He was bombarded with tweets from Native Americans after the image appeared, who explained that it takes their elders a lifetime to earn the right to wear the item. The Kardashians also came under fire for wearing similar items at North’s first birthday ‘Kidchella’ party.

Sporting Native American style gear is generally now accepted to be a ‘not OK’ thing to wear so it’s somewhat surprising that you can actually currently buy a ‘feather headpiece’ online from Topshop right now


When Kylie Jenner posted an Instagram picture of herself with cornrows this summer she was attacked on social media. Jenner is used to getting attention on social media but she probably wasn’t expecting the backlash she experienced in this case. Hunger Games actor Amandla Stenberg posted a comment which read, ‘When u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter.’ Kylizzle’s braids were shortly replaced by a new look.

Many celebrities of different ethnicities have been papped with braids, including FKA Twigs and Zoe Kravitz. They have also been a hit at festivals this year.

However, braiding, unlike bindis and Native American attire isn’t cut and dry in terms of being a do or a don’t. Taiba Akhuetie, co-founder of Keash Braids, whose parents are both Nigerian thinks that ‘cultural appropriation can be a positive thing’. She says she enjoys other people appreciating and borrowing from her culture and thinks that it ‘brings people closer together’.

Keash has had a pop-up in Urban Outfitters on Oxford Street as well as at several festivals this year. Taiba says that there ‘shouldn’t be rules on who can do or wear specific things as this causes segregation. It’s really important that the history is known and is not lost.’ However she acknowledges, ‘There can be a fine line.’

While cross-cultural trends can undoubtedly be positive in some cases, borrowing items from other cultures can also confirm the inequalities between those who can pass the item off as a fun, kooky and exotic accessory for a day and those who can’t wear their own national dress without being stereotyped or judged for the colour of their skin and/or cultural background.

As the founder of #reclaimthebindi notes, ‘It’s really good to appreciate other cultures but the way you do that is very important – but you shouldn’t force yourself on another culture – especially if you’re not being invited. Wearing a bindi to a festival is taking it out of context, especially if you’re not invited to do so. It gets reduced down to a hipster fashion statement – it’s just imitation.’

We live in a global and multicultural society, and it’s important to engage with the customs and beliefs of other cultures. However, it’s important to do that in a way that’s sensitive and empowering. Nobody’s religion or culture should be reduced to a festival cliché, so let’s stick to polyester flower crowns. The only person you’re hurting if you wear one of those is yourself.

Like this, you might also be interested in:

Coachella Festival Fashion  

The Main Stages of Festival Dressing 

What To Wear To A Festival Without Resorting To A Crochet Dress And Fringed Bag 

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt


Tags: Fashion Questions, Festivals