Headdresses and bindis may look like pretty fashion accessories for festivals like Glastonbury, but here’s why we should think about the cultural context, reports Claire Hubble.

I’ll never forget the deeply embarrassing day that I, the whitest white girl in all of white, wore a bindi to a music festival. I was 16 years old and trying desperately to have a meaningful and edgy experience at Reading Festival, and somewhere between weeping to Radiohead and pretending to really like the Prodigy, I ended up with a small teardrop-shaped gem on my head.

It wasn’t until I ran into a friend of mine whose parents hailed from Bangladesh that any issues with my attire arose. “Why the hell are you wearing a bindi, Claire?” quizzed my pal and shortly after my beloved gem found its way to the muddy ground, with me gingerly mumbling excuses to my shoes.

Festival-goers arrive on site for the 2009 Glastonbury Festival
(Anthony Devlin/PA)

I had made the massive error that hundreds of festival-goers do every year; I’d stolen a little bit of someone else’s culture and paraded it around as a fashion accessory without really understanding where it came from, and ended up unintentionally offending someone. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you’ll know that this phenomenon is known as “cultural appropriation” and has become a hotly debated subject.

The thing is, it’s not just me and Selena Gomez who have made the mistake of offending people with our misplaced cultural symbols. You can barely refresh your Instagram feed come the summer months without being confronted with yet another photo of a blogger winking as she poses with a Native American headdress at V Fest or some one pasting temporary “tribal” tattoos up their arms at Bestival. Meanwhile fashion brands only encourage this behaviour by releasing “festival fashion” collections which often feature different parts of other cultures, thrown together and sold for profit.

Cultural appropriation is causing such a ruckus these days that several festivals, including Bass Coast and Glastonbury have banned the sale of some offensive items like the feather headdress. But if you’re currently scratching your head and puzzling over why on earth people have got their knickers in a twist over something as trivial as festival fashion, you’re not alone. To help gain a better understanding of why someone might be offended by seeing bits of their culture sliced off and stuck into someone’s outfit can make you feel uncomfortable.

It’s a feeling only too familiar to blogger Trisha Marie, also known as her blog title The Glam Femme. For Trisha, the appropriation of braids from one culture to another goes much deeper than a few fleeting festival fashion trends. She, like many others, feels annoyed upon seeing these hairstyles appropriated by other ethnicities because in her eyes, many do not understand the cultural significance of the hairstyles’ origins.

A flower halo is a less offensive (Yui Mok/PA)
A flower halo is a less offensive option (Yui Mok/PA)

“It makes me upset because I know that as a child, when I did wear braids or cornrows I became the object of stares and insensitive questions from white students at my predominately white school,” she says. “It isn’t fair that other races may now wear these styles and be seen as cool and fashionable. Even as an adult in graduate school, I heard many of my senior classmates say that they would have to remove their braids and other natural hairstyles when they began looking for professional employment.

“The Kardashians have made a career of ‘starting’ fashion trends and make a living off of things like wearing cornrows,” she continues, “while until very recently, black models who also make a living off of fashion were made to relax their hair or wear weaves and wigs in order to be featured in a fashion show or fashion spread.”

For Tate Walker, editor of Native Peoples Magazine, the cultural hijacking of the Native American headdress or “war bonnet” as a fashion accessory represents exploitation of her ancestors in order to profit by people who are already powerful.

However, she argues that it’s not just the dominant white culture who should refrain from wearing the headdress. “It’s worn only in very specific situations these days. Very specific. If I see someone – of any demographic – wearing a headdress outside of these specific situations, I automatically go on the defensive,” she says, “increased heart rate, sweaty palms, rapid breathing. Fight or flight? Because I know if I approach you to take off the racist garment, your ‘free speech’ will be supported by the masses and I’ll continue to be erased as a Lakota woman.

“And that’s what’s happening when you wear a headdress out of cultural context. You’re erasing the Native people you claim to be honouring,” she says. “My ancestors died to preserve a culture and belief system that was outlawed until the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act was passed as a federal law in 1978. It’s pretty recent US history that even wearing a headdress could get someone thrown in jail or killed. Your fashion accessory is our symbol of survived genocide.”

And what of the bindi, the appropriated accessory of choice for me and so many other girls who were tempted by the promise of adding a pretty glittering ornament to our festival faces? We’re not off the hook by any means. Blogger and poet Jaspreet Sangha objects to the double standards at play when a non-Asian person wears a bindi as a fashion accessory. Her mother, who immigrated to the UK in 1970s and owns a corner shop in east London, felt uncomfortable wearing a bindi as it marked her out as a target for abuse.

“At that point, the bindi was a visible symbol that she was not ‘British’ enough yet – whatever that means,” she says. “That’s when I realised what cultural appropriation meant for me. When I recognised that elements of my Indian culture were now being worn as exotic fashion statements, when for years my people have been mocked, discriminated against and demonised for those exact possessions.

“If I see it being worn as an exotic fashion statement, at a music festival or as a costume it does sting because for so long brown-skinned women were never able to wear it so freely and openly,” she continues. “If that was recognised by those that wanted to wear one, maybe it would hurt less.”

Speaking to these three knowledgeable women, it’s plain to see that what many of us might consider as an innocent experimentation with a new hairstyle or accessory could be causing upset among those whose cultures we are copying, and quite rightly so. So what can we do to help ease these tensions?

 Justin Bieber
Justin Bieber (Chris Pizzello/AP)

According to Trisha, it’s all about increasing education about marginalised cultures. “I think I would feel better about it if I knew that as Americans we were all expected to appreciate different cultures and not discriminate others because of their culture,” she says. “But we are not and this is the problem. Yes, we are taught about Martin Luther King in elementary school, but clearly the lack of respect, acceptance and knowledge of other cultures shows that this is not nearly enough of an education.”

However, that’s not to say that all non-black people are permanently banned from dreadlocks or that any white person sporting a bindi should be yelled at; there are certain circumstances under which it’s more acceptable for us to wear such things. “It fully depends on the context,” says Jaspreet. “I’m absolutely fine if other ethnicities are wearing the bindi in appropriate spaces, for example a South Asian wedding or if you’re attending a South Asian festival or ritual.”

Ellie Goulding performs at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival
Ellie Goulding (Chris Pizzello/AP)

It’s fair to say that 16-year-old me certainly wasn’t trying to offend anyone with a little glittery gem pasted on my forehead, I just hadn’t taken the time to consider the ramifications of my make-up until someone directly pointed out that I had no right to wear it. And yes, I do have Sikh and Hindu friends who are happy for anyone to stick whatever they like to their foreheads, but that’s beside the point. One or two members of an ethnic minority saying they’re cool with your attire doesn’t mean everyone else is OK with it too, so it’s worth bearing these arguments in mind before you add that ornate feather headdress to your Etsy shopping basket.

Besides, there’s a million and one ways to unleash your inner kindred spirit with other forms of festival fashion, so why not pick one that won’t potentially harshen the mellow of your fellow festival-goers?

Festivalgoers in fancy dress watching
(Yui Mok/PA)