Winter is Coming
It’s cold in Winnipeg. Really cold. Cold enough that there are days when we might wonder whether we are in Canada or part of a literally inhospitable and alien landscape. With this merry season fast approaching, talking about clothes seems to be a reasonable conversation to be having. The last time I posted, I was wondering about my use of the Festival ceinture flechée and if this was indicative of me appreciating a component of our province’s foundational history or if I was appropriating a cultural symbol by using it in a disrespectful context. I’ve perused the websites of a few provincial Metis organizations and have yet to definitively answer my question. But this question and the impending weather had me thinking of another article of clothing that I use and, no hyperbole here, completely adore: my mukluks.
From My Cold, Dead… Feet
While it might be somewhat of an overstatement, I fully credit my survival of winter to my mukluks. They are the perfect shoe, and I sincerely believe they should be standard issue to anyone who depends on Winnipeg Transit from December through February. While they are more than aesthetically pleasing and have an adorable rabbit-skin bauble near the top, there is a practical reason why I wear them virtually every day in the wintertime. There is shearling in the foot, and all fifteen inches of the boot is covered in fur and leather. I’m not sure of the science behind it, I am certain that its heat retaining properties are synonymous with magic. Long story short, if cultural respect dictates that it is inappropriate for me to wear my mukluks, there are going to be some real problems. Mostly for me and my desire to get around the city in sub-zero temperatures.
Last time, I talked a bit about authenticity and how that (or more accurately, the lack of) can factor into appropriating behaviours. Fortunately, mostly by luck, I happened to source my mukluks rather authentically and thus my mukluk worship seems to fall more in the category of ‘appreciation’ rather than ‘appropriation.’ This could have not happened in what today would be very embarrassing for me. I am a bit of a mukluk snob (in a totally superficial way). I bought my first pair from Manitobah about five years ago and wore them down to nothing. When it was time for me to replace them, I had a very specific look in my head and set out on the internet to match this image. As it happens, the price and look was right for me to go back to Manitobah. I decided to check out the website for the other company I was considering. It’s changed. I like to think that if these were the images that greeted me when I looked at their website last year, that there would be no question that I would look somewhere else. I’m probably being generous with myself, but it clearly represents all the things wrong with fashion and appropriation. If you let the images cycle through, you’ll see a model in the infamous fashion war-bonnet (I’m not going to touch this one, I don’t have too. It’s essentially the definition of cultural appropriation) as well as some highly impractical moderately sexist representations of mukluk use (I can’t, under any circumstances, fathom why someone would want to sit on an ice-block while not wearing pants. That is not what mukluks are for. You’re doing it wrong). So, it seems I dodged a bullet there. But it made me wonder a bit about the company that I had purchased from and how they were different from the pleather spandex wearing, ice-block straddling, war-bonnet clad company that could have been my choice.
International Production. Local Commitment.
I’d noticed between when I bought my first pair of mukluks and my current replacement that there had been some changes in the company that I purchased them from. Some of their products were being manufactured overseas. One of the keys to avoiding appropriation in my fashion choices seems to be to purchase Aboriginal goods from Aboriginal artisans – usually a safe bet. I wondered what that means for when an Aboriginal company expands to the point that everything isn’t local. I got my answer. What I really appreciate about this article here is how it identifies a double standard that privileged classes are allowed to impose on others. There’s an idea that large companies are allowed to utilize all available resources but, in the name of authenticity, an Aboriginal company don’t deserve that same kind of access. In some of our class discussions it has come up that we, as a nation, haven’t quite wrapped our heads around the idea of economically successful First Nations. I think one of my fellow students will be examining how that relates to commercial developments in more detail, but here we can clearly see how that stereotype feeds into ideas of what Aboriginal business owners can and cannot do where as there are lesser restrictions on what kind of arrangements demonstrably commercially successful agencies can engage in.
Who Can Say ‘No’?
My exploration into the clothing industry and what I can respectfully wear has taught me something about the concept of ‘no.’ Looking into the more defensive comments on blogs and articles that call out cultural appropriation by the fashion industry of First Nations symbols, there is a privileged set that is not used to being told ‘no.’ We don’t often get told we can’t wear or do whatever we want, so when a group says that’s inappropriate and not okay, we fight or ignore it. What is interesting is that it seems to be this same breed of commentator who is a-ok with telling traditionally marginalized groups the appropriate way to run their business. We’re awfully good at saying ‘no’ but not so great and listening and responding to the word. It’s no wonder that misunderstandings come up with as much frequency as we see when only one group is allowed to object that that same group need not listen to objections.