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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

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The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Is It Regalia, or Is It a Costume?

Hallowe'en costumes and a range of related decorations and products, from the kitschy to the gross, start showing up on store racks and shelves nowadays at practically the beginning of September. There's the usual motley crew of superheroes and monsters for the kids to choose from, and an impressive number of ways to help them look sort of like Harry Potter. You'd be hard pressed to find a few former costume perennials, though, costumes that used to be old standbys every year — you know the ones, the 'Indian Princess,' the 'Indian brave' and their cousins. They have become rare because most parents are rather leery of them these days. Well, that and the demise of the western, of course. More importantly, Indigenous people in North America have made it very clear that 'Indian costumes' whether meant to be worn on Hallowe'en or just for a fancy dress party can't be considered automatically 'okay,' and insist that their formal ceremonial dress should be referred to as just that, or as regalia. 'Ethnic costume' is not an acceptable term either, which can puzzle people who consider themselves to be part of an ethnic group and who may take part in activities such as dancing where they wear clothing they wouldn't on a day-to-day basis.

But let's approach the issue from a slightly different direction. Take a moment and try to think of either three types of dress or uniform you wouldn't dream of wearing as a costume, or reasons that might make you decide a particular costume was appropriate in one situation, but not in another. In the course of informally asking several friends and acquaintances to do this, I encountered several approaches that are not mutually exclusive. Some types of dress or uniform were considered sacrosanct because they are religious in nature (i.e. the papal regalia or a nun's habit), or because they symbolized events that should not be idly invoked by wearing the associated uniform (i.e. nazi or KKK uniforms). Others could be out of the question depending on the situation: would other participants at the event be hurt or offended by the costume (i.e. dressing like a recently deceased person)? Does the costume repeat a harmful stereotype (i.e. 'cannibal' or 'drunken Indian' costumes )? In some cases, people affected by a specific stereotype may consider a 'stereotype costume' appropriate to wear as a means of challenging it. Or they may use a type of dress or uniform to make a statement about the nature of an event they attend while wearing it — a well-known non-violent protest technique.

Clearly the definition of what an acceptable versus an unacceptable costume is is complex and varies depending on person and circumstance. But a common theme is respect: respect for others seeing the costume; and respect for people, institutions, or events invoked by the costume. And respect is exactly what changes in terminology for Indigenous regalia and making people think carefully whether 'dressing up like an Indian,' is appropriate however that may be done, is about.

My small, unscientific survey taught me something else about the term 'costume' as well. 'Costumes' and 'regalia' do not serve the same role, even though both consist of clothing and items a person might not use for ordinary wear. Even the way they are made or acquired is not the same.

Regalia is special clothing worn for ceremonies. In other words, those colourful outfits and painstakingly made accessories are not merely 'fancy clothes.' They are deeply spiritual in nature. Most regalia is hand-made by the wearer and members of their families; many pieces have been handed down for generations, some hidden from the authorities at great risk. For many years, just having any ceremonial object or regalia could land an Indigenous person in jail for at least six months and leave them struggling to pay economically crippling fines. Many missionaries declared regalia to be nothing less than works for the devil. Meanwhile, non-Indigenous people could wear, own, and use regalia without limit or penalty of any kind. The only place where regalia could be worn without penalty by an Indigenous person was if they were part of a so-called 'Wild West Show.' Poet Pauline Johnson may seem like an exception, but she isn't because what she wore for part of her poetry recitals was in fact a carefully designed costume, and not regalia at all.

The word 'costume' isn't generally used to refer to a wedding dress, or a graduation outfit, let alone 'Sunday best' or a 'dress uniform.' I'm fairly sure I know what the response would be if you walked up to a general and told him what a nice costume he was wearing. What sets them apart is not merely how much money they may have cost, or how much care and attention they may need to maintain them. In reality, these particular examples are as much regalia in the Indigenous sense as a grass dancer's outfit, although the ceremony and the spirituality being expressed is certainly much different.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:43:25 MDT