The Trouble with Festival Fashion

Licensed CC0 Public Domain

By Amanda Lam

Music festivals are in full swing around this time of year, Montreal’s Osheaga music festival being one that concluded last week. Before the festival began, Osheaga made headlines for banning aboriginal headdresses and similar accessories at their concerts. Three other major Canadian festivals — Edmonton Folk Festival, WayHome Music and Arts Festival and the Boots and Hearts Festival — followed suit. The Winnipeg Folk Festival did not ban anything outright, although they are asking next year’s partygoers to leave such attire at home.

Winnipeg Folk Fest’s request came in July after a festival attendee this year wore a headdress and face paint.

“We have been in conversation with members of our aboriginal community and see this isolated incident of a woman wearing a headdress as an opportunity for education and cultural sharing,” wrote the festival in a statement to CBC.

And yet, we need to recognize that this conversation has long been underway and that such incidents are not isolated, but rather reflective of larger problems in society.

Music festivals have become notorious for cultural appropriation. This racist and insensitive act is when someone takes an element from a culture to which they do not belong, and uses it outside of its original and intended cultural context. Often, this is done without understanding the significance of the cultural or spiritual element, and while altering its original meaning.

For example, at this year’s Heineken Escapade Music Festival, attendees were guilty of cultural appropriation as they misused culturally-significant headdresses as a hip fashion trend, much like the incident in Winnipeg.

It has happened that those who participate in cultural appropriation seek to justify their actions as “self-expression” or as “honouring” a culture. And yet, within these justifications lies the person’s failure to check their privilege.

In North America, members of marginalized cultures are often forced to assimilate into Western culture as a means of survival. In contrast, when someone from the dominant culture adopts a cultural element from a marginalized or minority group, this is not a mechanism of survival. Rather, they had the option to choose and therefore they have privilege as a member of the dominant culture.

So, to my fellow festival lovers, as beautiful as you think a headdress is, I urge you to please admire it from afar if you do not belong to its original people group and culture. In doing so, we can make space for all of us to have fun without hurting one another.

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