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Mar 15, 2012

"Exotic" Costume Patterns - YEA OR NAY?



Poor Yvonne DeCarlo.  Born Margaret Middleton in Vancouver, British Columbia, her dark hair and smoldering good looks got her pegged as an "exotic" type in Hollywood and she spent most of her early career playing Persian princesses and scantily clad slave girls till she was saved from obscurity in the Sixties by The Munsters, not to mention being cast in Stephen Sondheim's Follies, where she introduced the classic show biz survivor's anthem, I'm Still Here.

I bring up Yvonne as a way to introduce today's topic: the "exotic" (often bordering on erotic) costume pattern.  It interests me because -- excuse me, while I climb onto my soap box for a moment -- imo, when we label something, be it a culture or a person, as exotic, we tend to see it as existing solely for our amusement or consumption.  It's why Western countries can speak blithely about imposing sanctions upon, bombing and/or invading countries like Iran or Iraq: like so many other colonized and/or conquered "exotics," we don't have to think about them as people.  What they have should be ours for the taking.


Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up watching a lot of TV, and so many classic TV shows and movies were -- and still are -- fascinated with anything associated with the "Middle East" -- it's history and culture.  Sheiks, harems and half-naked harem girls, genies, sultans and slave girls were fodder for hundreds of movies, in every possible genre, from Abbott & Costello in Lost in a Harem to Elvis Presley in Harum Scarum.








In the Forties and Fifties, every Hollywood starlet would be expected to pose in some version of the harem girl outfit, if she wasn't actually playing a leggy, chiffon-veiled slave in some high-kitsch silliness with wildly anachronistic costumes, hairstyles, and sets.  While the female characters were fantasy objects, Arab and Persian men were usually presented as clowns, villains, or hyper-sexual savages.  Glamour girls like Adele Jergens and Maria Montez made their names in these types of films, and more serious actresses like Marlene Dietrich and Lana Turner got stuck in them too.



Dominican-born Maria Montez







Let's not forget TV's own Jeannie, a (straight) bachelor's fantasy if ever there was one.



So after all that, readers, if I told you I just bought this pattern, would you think I was nuts?



I've already tried harem pants, as you may already know, but it's the harem girl outfit I'm interested in now, for Cathy.  There were many too choose from, probably due in part to the popularity of Disney's Aladdin.





In the Forties, a lot of these harem-inspired exotic styles found their way into mainstream fashion (or was it the other way around?): think hats with attached chiffon scarfs, veils, turbans, and fancy midriff tops.  It's a look I love.


Readers, what do you make of all this?  Is there something inherently offensive about dressing up as a harem girl or, for that matter, an Indian chief, geisha, or generic "Oriental"?




Is my discomfort a case of excessive political correctness or do these costumes contribute to the ease with which we demean cultures we don't understand?  Or, conversely, are they a celebration of cultural diversity, a la, It's a Small World, and we should just have some silly fun with them?

Exotic costume patterns -- yea or nay?

(Below: Bossa nova meets Rimsky-Korsakov and WHAT'S with the concealed cleavage and potted geraniums?)

39 comments:

  1. Depends.

    I used to do Texas Republic and Civil War reenacting. I will tolerate horrendously cheesy "pioneer" outfits as Hallowe'en costumes that would make me cringe at reenactments. It depends on the context and the wearer's awareness.

    Being Jeannie for Hallowe'en, knowing that it's a bit of midcentury TV silliness, is different than actually thinking women in the Middle East wear that stuff.

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  2. NO you're aren't mad for buying an I dream of Jeannie costume pattern...will Cathy be wearing it? Finding the right function to wear said costume might be difficult since she's not in primary/grade school with an opportunity to take part in a Book Week Parade (in which very few children are actually dressed as book characters LOL).

    Perhaps i'm just a little biased...one of my most favourites costumes i made for miss22 when she was little was a Princess Jasmine harem pant costume...and a Dorothy outfit for miss19 coming in as a close second.

    Truth be told i'm still making them costumes (and loving it)...here's a hand and earless Winnie The Pooh outfit i was in the process of making for miss19 last year

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/suziwong66/6333484197/in/set-72157625510936643

    I tend to think that certainly in the past costumes contributed to the ease in which we demeaned cultures we didn't understand and this could be seen in the plethora of movies that were released which perpetuated cultural ignorance. Mickey Rooney comes quickly to mind in the role of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

    I'm less harsh about costumes in today's world; i think we live in a much more multicultural society which exposes us to a more real sense of cultural diversity rather than Hollywood's demeaning and often ridiculing portrayal. I would loathe to demean anyone's cultural heritage but at the same time I think there's room for fun in dressing up in costume. In saying that, i'm never happy to see a person, in costume, colour their skin in the name of fun or entertainment.

    Great topic Peter, which has made me think that i need to commit further thought to better inform my current position.

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  3. I've been bellydancing since the 80's and sew all my costumes, some verrry elaborate! (shameless plug: just posted one on my FB page L'india a week or so ago.) The dance is respectable and awesome and even better w/sparkles! Those old films/shows are ridiculously chauvenistic, but hey, I just did a performance for 150 WOMEN last weekend and they were agog over my baubles, beads & swirly fabrics! Have fun with it!

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  4. Elaine (Nobody you know)March 15, 2012 at 1:23 PM

    Although I think you're being cynical regarding the "exotic" and bombing and invading; and I'm as anti- "political correctness" as the next guy... WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?

    If you're borrowing from traditional dress (or even stereotypical dress) of a time period or region, it's a celebration. But, a costume is a costume. Unless you are knocking on doors asking for candy, it's probably out of place. And dressing up an identical cousin in such a costume to galavant in and around NYC (possibly in suggestive situations -- I know how Cathy operates!) might offend.

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  5. Ooo, la! Ok, so I took up bellydancing as a teenager, and most of the sewing I did from my late teens until a couple of years ago was related to that. Costumes ranged from bedlah (like your first picture) to traditional regional dress (spanning from Tunisia to Iran). My main motivation for switching to making "real" clothes was no longer having anywhere to wear the costumes I was making.

    This has left me with mixed feelings about "orientalism". On the one hand, cultural imperialism and opression = bad. On the other hand---gorgeous, gorgeous art, beautiful costumes, fun stories, and a rich and exciting (and yes, sometimes tawdry and other times brutal) history. Bellydance led me to an interest in the culture and history of the middle east (and beyond) that I might not have developed otherwise, not to mention that I found it a totally empowering and liberating dance form.

    As for the Jeanie costume... well, personally I wouldn't think much beyond the modern cultural reference. And while I wouldn't personally buy it, if it makes you happy---I certainly don't mind. Coming up with a venue for wearing it---now that's a whole 'nother issue. But this is just one white girl's opinion.

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  6. Great for Carnival or Halloween! I think somethimes it is a bit silly this story of political correctness... My mom at least never thought about this when sew for me and my sister "genie". american idian, pacific island(sarong), hawaian and gipsy costumes! We had lots of fun and funny pictures to remember.

    Maybe this time Cathy could do for the first an indoor foto section, in a harem set with the company of her Major...

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  7. Is Cathy participating in the That's Sew Cinematic! challenge? I didn't even think of doing "I Dream of Jeannie". Great idea! (If that was what Cathy and you were thinking.)

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  8. Let's hear what your sister in law has to say when Cathy asks to borrow a sari.

    I think Little Black Car is correct. It depends on why you are wearing the "costume". If your intent is to honor, versus to use it as a "joke" in our culture.
    I wore a sari to my Brother in law's weddingbecause as a part of his family it was the expected mode of dress. When I wore it to a Halloween party it was to make fun of me- as I think most white women look dopey in them. But I could totally see how any other Indian would take offense to my wearing it as a "costume".

    And toward the last, no one's wearing burqas in any Hollywood movies. Its just like yesterday's posts- all about the "sexification" of women.

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    1. I'm white, live on the Gulf Coast, and frequently wear sarees (cotton, not zari wedding ones) as regular clothing- they are perfect for comfort in humid muggy climates. I see them as modern clothing, not as a costume. Occasionally South Asian Americans come up to me to tell me they like what I am wearing.
      Not everyone who wears Levi's jeans has a cultural/historic connection to the CA gold rush. But jeans are popular in part because they are attractive, comfortable clothing for many climates and tasks. Personally, I think saree wearing should expand for the same reason.

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  9. Hmmm... well I have grown up in a culturally diverse area, so I always have to take something of a step back when these sorts of issues are presented. I guess I never really associated the word "exotic" with "erotic" or with "amusement" or "consumption." Exotic to me was always more about details, textures, rarity... Perhaps growing up in a different era has given me a very different perspective? Though I did know some people who had been called "exotic" and were very offended. I think the comment was meant as a compliment - they were a beautiful and unique person - but I think it made them feel odd and objectified. It is interesting how this word can be so polarizing - I would view it as a positive attribute, but others would see it as being negative and marginalizing. I shall have to be more aware of my usage in the future I think.

    As far as the Hollywood film costumes go - I think it is the same for many of the old Hollywood films - I am simultaneously aware of their historical and cultural inaccuracies, but still incredibly fond of the intricate details and beauty of the costumes themselves. It is difficult, because I don't find them offensive, but I could see how someone might. I don't know... I will forgive a lot when things are brightly colored and sparkly, so maybe I am not the best judge on this account.

    As for sewing costumes and costume patterns.... I have something of a collection of costume patterns, so I suppose I can't be one to judge another's acquisition of costume patterns. And I suppose at some level what you make is perhaps not as important as the intent with which you make it? For example, if your goal is to make an accurate traditional-dress garment from a historical period or foreign culture, then you need to do a lot of research, use accurate materials (as much as possible), and find or more likely modify available patterns to help in this goal. On the other hand, if you are interested in replicating a costume from a film, book, or other pop-culture media then I don't really see anything wrong with using the available costume patterns. I suppose these could be considered offensive in a way, but I really don't see anything wrong with dressing up like fictional characters, even if their dress is an inaccurate interpretation of a different culture.

    I don't know... I guess I am thinking back to third grade when we learned about Native American culture and read Island of the Blue Dolphins... My sister and I used to dress up in "native costumes" made from paper bags and make "abalone" necklaces from shell beads because we found the cultures fascinating. I mean, it was highly inaccurate and I suppose could have been considered offensive, but to us we were just fascinated and interested in a different way of life.

    Something to think on for sure...

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  10. There was an excellent poster campaign about this last Halloween, reproduced and commented on here:

    http://www.autostraddle.com/im-a-culture-not-a-costume-campaign-stars-halloween-2011-118271/

    Personally, I think that when we discuss whether or not it's "okay" to wear a racially or ethnically inspired costume, we're making a crucial mistake by not questioning what the inspiration actually is. In the case of the harem dancer costume, it's certainly not actual Middle Eastern women--it's an image, "the Arab slave girl," that has been deliberately constructed in Western media as an object of erotic conquest. As you pointed out, in those films where Middle Eastern women are "harem dancers," Middle Eastern men are bumbling, evil, or sexually threatening. Same goes for images of the Asian (the "geisha" and the "scheming oriental"), of Native and First Nations people ("Indian princess" vs. "red savage"), of Jewish people, of African Americans, etc., etc., etc.

    My issue with these costumes is not that they are "politically incorrect" or offensive--it's that the images they draw on were, and are, used to justify American/Western/white domination over people of color by defining them by sexuality alone. That's the point of all those revealing costumes, demure body language, and the implication of servitude in "the harem girl" and "the geisha" (both essentially prostitutes), and that's why men of color are portrayed as, as you put it, "clowns, villains, or hyper-sexual savages"--either sexless or oversexed. This is how a culture justifies treating other people as less than human. Given that, I would not wear one of these costumes. And that's my two cents.

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    1. Beautifully expressed, Jessie, and right on target. Thanks!

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    2. Brava, Jessie.

      I don't think it's incidental that Native Americans and Walking People ("Gypsies") are some of the currently most marginlized groups and the most popular of these "costumes."

      When I think about how blackface makes me feel, how could I be okay with this sort of dress up?

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    3. What Jessie said! I loved that "I'm a culture, not a costume" campaign. So yeah, I say a big "Nay" to those kinds of costumes, and it always upsets me to see those goofy Pocahontas or similar costumes at Halloween parties.

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  11. Well it's not really much of a Friday night in NYC if no one is galavanting through the streets in drag, giving the tourists their "only in NY" story to take home with them, is it?

    I think a costume is not likely to offend. But if you truly are worried there is an interesting article in the Times Style section today on the appropriation of Navajo culture and the use of the name "Navajo" by fashion designers and retailers. Is that what inspired your musings?

    Truth be told, the only reason I'm not doing back flips about this project is that, as wonderful as Cathy would be as a harem girl/genie, I think she'd be an even more amazing mermaid. AND she could wear her costume to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. Just a thought.

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    1. I didn't know about the article but thanks for the heads up -- I going to read it now.

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    2. P.S. Clio I agree... I'm actually thinking about Mermaid Parade costumes because my daughter is obsessed with a children's book about the Mermaid Parade.

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  12. My Hawaiian Chinese Portuguese friend thought nothing of allowing her Chinese, Portuguese, Hawaiian, German and Swedish daughter wear a costume of an American dance hall prostitute in her dance recital when she was eight years old. I don't think it crossed her mind that she had let her dress up as a 17th century hooker. Being she was a Pastor's wife and a little naive, I didn't point it out. Was I offended? A little, and I just got over it.Was it ok? Generally, yes. It was about a pretty dress after all, nothing else.

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  13. I was hoping someone would post that Halloween campaign. Right on, Jessie. And basically right on to everything else Jessie said. The most important context is that of centuries (millennia!) of imperialism, white supremacy, and oppression.

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  14. I wonder what bits of our culture other cultures pick up upon? Given our movies, I wouldn't be surprised to find they have just as unrealistic a view of us as we do of them; and that doesn't really bother me. People are inclined to make cartoons of each other all over the world; and if we didn't would we replace it with better knowledge or just less knowledge? If the cartoons sparks some curiosity and interest in other people, then it would be an actively good thing. The more we as a group know about other people the better off the whole world is.

    Sometimes the whole politically correct/socially correct thing strikes me as a straightjacket; when we'd all be better off just realizing people are people, we exchange ideas, make riffs of our own on those ideas, make mistakes, and are silly asses everywhere.

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    1. I think you put in words what I was feeling. Any time I traveled outside the U.S. I encountered the myths of the American Cowboy, and what ever American Pop Singer was making headlines at the time. Today we could probably add the "Jersey Shores" stereotype to that list.

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    2. A myth I encountered in travels in SE Asis is the expectation that American women are sluts. They wear practically nothing in the movies, right? They obsess about their appearances and sleep with anyone, right? Americans who travel can address these myths and surprise their owners, who were always polite in my experience, and puzzled. But in the U.S., we seldom have a chance to hear from the real people who could share some jokes about stereotypes.

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  15. I think (like some people here have suggested) that there is a line that can be crossed when it comes to cross-cultural dressing. It's just that the line is a little hazy. Appropriating another culture for profit, like using the word "Navajo" on your clothing line, when you have no association with the Navajo Nation, is not so nice and maybe not even legal. And putting on a generic costume and doing bad impressions of foreign accents can quickly become racist.

    I know some people get annoyed at what they perceive as "too much PC" - but really, how can it be bad to stop and think about whether or not your actions are contributing to harmful stereotypes? If anything, America could use a little bit more reflection, just like this discussion here. I'm not anti-costumes, I'm just pro-thoughtfulness. And if anyone's interested, here's a blog about on Native American appropriation that I think brings a lot to the conversation:

    http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/2010/04/but-why-cant-i-wear-hipster-headdress.html

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    1. That's a fabulous link (and post) and it really synthesizes the issue better than I did. Thank you, Claire.

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  16. Amen Treadle27! Couldn't have said it better myself. I have a neighbor from Romania who is about my age (50+). We had a good laugh because he thought he knew about Americans and our culture from what he saw in movies, and about the only thing I knew about Romania was that they produced gold medal gymnastic stars. May we never take ourselves to seriously.

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  17. Personally, I think "exotic" is kind of a fascinating word/concept that's been around/used way beyond the classic TV and movies of yesteryear. Exotic, as a means to describe the "orient" (another word fraught with all sorts of political and social meaning) has been around since white western man hopped on a boat and started exploring/conquering the world. AND RECORDING IT. Earliest incidences of the use of "exotic" pop up in travel literature from the 1500-1600s. Its used to describe the African, Arab, Turkish, and Indian, and Native American worlds. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu uses the word "exotic" to describe the Turkish harems she saw while her husband was posted as Ambassador to Turkey. In fact, she on occasion dressed as a member of the harem to observe the women up close (all of her observations can be found in her collected letters--they're an incredible read and were written in between 1716-1718). There were MANY paintings produced during the rule of the Brisith Empire, in fact, that reflect Montagu's observations.

    For me, having lived in a similar culture (I've lived a cumulative 1 3/4 years in India) the use of the term "exoitc" is really about identifying the other in order to exclude and pass judgement. These outfits are seen as "sexy," but these cultures are some of the most rigid when it comes to expression of sexual self. So really, it IS a heterosexual, predominately white, sexual fantasy that creates the harem girl/genie.

    On the other hand, however, I do think that being "PC" sometimes goes too far. There's a big difference between disrespecting/attacking a culture out of fear and extreme ignorance and maybe gently mocking an aspect of it (trust me, I've had to laugh a LOT at American culture--or at least what bits make it abroad --while living in a different country! I've also had to disabuse some individuals of the notion that we're all Bay Watch all the time... seriously, of all the TV show to make it to India, it's all reality TV, Vampire Diaries, Walking Dead, and Bay Watch ::headdeak::). If you really think about it, the version of harem pants you want to make are less a facet of an "exotic" culture and more of a relic of our own history and culture...

    Plus.. they're REALLLY comfortable (this style of pants was really hot in India in 2010--I own like 4 pairs in all sorts of different colors that my tailor whipped up for me).

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  18. I never saw a photo of Ms. Decarlo young before- very pretty

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    1. A real looker who could sing!

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  19. The only "Arabian Slave Girl" costume I had anything to do with was the costume for the Arabian dancers in The Nutcracker Suite for our local ballet company. The man's costume was just as gorgeous as hers. The music is beautiful, as is the choreography.
    Everyone's comments are right on.

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  20. I don't think there is anything wrong in making costumes frm another culture or another era. Taking stereotrypes seriously is another matter .. for example why do all the villains in the old James Bond movies have Russian accents?
    Seriously though being labelled exotic or foreign is only an insult when people assume you have political or religious beliefs purely because of your ancestral background and misjudge you because of it. Nasty.

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  21. please excuse my typos .. stereotypes not stereotrypes lol

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  22. I think a lot of the problems with 'exotic costumes' is just how completely inaccurate they normally are. They're not just stereotyped, some of them are completely ignorant. A few years ago, a Russian figure skating couple had an 'Indigenous Australian' costume for their routine (I'm Australian but not indigenous). The costume had little bearing on any reality. They had a dot painting-style print, but then they had leaves tied all over them. It missed on a few levels - firstly, the leaves are not part of any Indigenous culture in Australia at all. Second, dot paintings are basically stories, as is Indigenous dance - it's storytelling. Indigenous groups were incredibly offended, explained why to the Russian skaters, and asked them to stop using the costumes. They refused, using the 'it's just a fun costume' argument. But that's the problem, it's mining a culture for some pretty colour and movement. And if that culture asks you not to do it and you ignore them, well, that's pretty rude, I think.

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    1. Yeah, those costumes were... well... sort of offensive even to those of us not from that culture, I think. And I think that when you are trying to represent another culture at the international level (they wore them to the Olympics for crying out loud), then you really need to be much more aware of accuracies and making sure you respect the people you are representing.

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  23. I find that the more I know and understand, the more irritated I am by inaccuracies. Whether it is in dressing up from another culture or another era, it peeves me. If I don't know any diffeent, I'm more likely to accept what is put in front of me. So I guess it;s about ignorance, and the impact of it. The impact of ignorance is always lost on the ignorant. That's the problem. If it is ignorance from just not knowing or realising, that's one thing. If it is boorish, deliberate ignorance, it is a different matter. Unfair to cast all ignorance as being the latter, I feel. It's all about balance!

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  24. I spent over $300 on two kimono, an obi, a juban, okobo, haori and various accessories so that I would be dressed authentically for a anthropology costume party. And then I learned to dress myself properly. Traditional Japanese dress is steeped in age-old lore and symbolism, and learning about it was (and continues to be) an intense experience.

    "Appropriating" cultural dress/symbols is only demeaning if done in a satirical manner, me thinks. For example, those hipster feather head-dresses purposefully make mock of an important symbol to certain Great Plains Native peoples. When you wear an appropriated item to declare your awesomeness ("I'm the chief of my tribe of one!" says the hipster), you're disrespecting the meaning of that symbol. I get that being a hipster used to be about counter-culture and pushing boundaries, but now it's just as full of fakes as punk, goth, cyber, etc. I used to wear Native jewelry all the time, but now I hesitate for fear of looking like a d****bag.

    I just want to wear things I feel are beautiful, without fear of being accused that I'm an appropriator :(

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  25. We had an Around the World party where different cultures were supposed to be celebrated. Our Canadian friends were supposed to represent the US so they dressed normally...but carried guns. Offensive to Americans?

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    1. As a Canadian, I find that somewhat amusing! We can't have concealed weapons, buying an assault rifle is almost impossible if you're not a cop or in the military (my parents had to sell theirs when the laws changed; too much trouble to get the new licensing), and up until recently, we had a long-gun registry (YAY FOR ABOLISHING IT!) because a tiny fraction of murders are perpetrated with hunting rifles. We don't have local militia groups, and very few people actually OWN a handgun.

      So yes, the brazen flashing of one's firearms is something unusual and exotic to Canadians.

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  26. I think exotic costumes were really an excuse for actresses to show a lot of skin that wouldn't be acceptable in an ordninary setting, think of some of the revealing costumes in biblical films, basically a jewelled bra and panties, when I was a kid I loved those films and would improvise such outfits with whatever I could find at home and then dance around the house, strange behaviour as I was a boy back then!

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  27. Context is all, I think. And also, I think compartmentalising certain culture's costumes as potentially off-limits and some as ok is a bit of a minefield.

    To take an example I can speak for: As a Scot I hate those stupid 'see-you-Jimmy' tartan hats with the ginger wigs attached. I don't know if they exist in the US but they do here and are worn by English people who think they're being funny (or sometimes by Scotland football supporters in a bit of an ironic twist) but I don't object to anyone wearing a kilt/highland dress. In fact some American kilt wearers (and I mean Scottish national dress rather than utili-kilts etc) are quite touching in their enthusiasm which far surpasses anyone's here. And I certainly don't object to McQueen or Westwood using my country's traditions as inspiration, in fact I'm delighted.

    Similarly, although I can't speak for them, I'd imagine the Irish get fed up of Leprechaun costumes! Especially around St Patrick's Day. However the pill is probably sweetened by Guinness' profits :D

    Basically if someone is wearing an identifiable costume representation of a stereotype in a mocking way then it could well be offensive to many whether it's a harem costume or a string of onions and a beret. But respectfully wearing a country's national dress in an appropriate context or adopting and interpreting cultural elements into fashion should not be.

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