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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Is It Regalia, or Is It a Costume?

Photograph of rennaisance faire 2006 partipants by Artemis-Arethusa via wikimedia commons. Photograph of rennaisance faire 2006 partipants by Artemis-Arethusa via wikimedia commons.
Photograph by Artemis-Arethusa via wikimedia commons, August 2006

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. The example of the general is especially telling. However ludicrous all the ribbons, pins, and shoulder pieces on his carefully tailored and oddly coloured suit may be in any other context, because he is a member of a social group and class deemed respectable and valuable in a settler colonialist culture, to call out that stuff as ludicrous would invite a storm of criticism and accusations. Bear in mind, this would be a calling out that is not drawing on any critiques of the military as an institution whatsoever. The general's uniform expresses particular ideas about social and personal power, whose culture should be respected, and whose actions and existence counts. Not every example of specialized clothing work in specific social circumstances carries so many meanings with it, but a great many of them do.

When I originally wrote this article, I noted that 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. Now I have to correct this and note that specialized clothing that would once have been branded "hallowe'en costumes" are now available basically all year around, peaking at the beginning of september, when specialized "hallowe'en supply" pop up stores begin opening up in unleased mall spaces. These include 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. Since so many adults also enjoy the range of product tie ins for Harry Potter and various sci-fi franchises, the pop up stores often include plenty of costumes that are emphatically not appropriate for children due to their sexualized nature. You'd be hard pressed to find a few former costume perennials, though, costumes that used to be old standbys every year, such as 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.

The whole notion of "ethnic costume" is itself incredibly problematic, and in fact, I should state clearly here that personally I would never refer to the traditional regalia of a person from another culture in this manner. At one time this one might have gotten by me, but then my studies led me to reading a number of excellent books dealing with the experiences of more recent immigrants to canada, especially those designated "displaced persons" after world war two. Those persons were typically from eastern europe, and heedless of the facts of their origins, were often treated by federal officials as "uncivilized," illiterate, in a word "savage." They were "encouraged" to make their otherness less threatening to english canadians by rendering up what would now be called a dysney-fied version of their cultures featuring simplified versions of their regalia, home foods, music, and dance. The parallels to how Indigenous cultures are treated by the canadian mainstream are alas all too unsurprising, and their effects more than superficial. Try looking up information on eastern european embroidery traditions, and after learning about how much spiritual meaning they encode, let alone the intensive labour embroidery requires, and then consider again whether the term "costume" is even remotely respectful.

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 a few ideas 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 it. 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. After all, a central critique of someone who questions a general's uniform will inevitably be that the questioning is disrespectful. Which goes back to what calling another person's regalia a "costume" actually does: it attempts to redefine that regalia as effectively meaningless and without social or spiritual power. Such labelling is a form of "fighting words," and will carry consequences.

The word "costume" is related linguistically to the word "custom" in the sense of what people usually do in a particular time and place. But whether we like it or not, a word in use sucks up connotations from the circumstances around it, which shifts its meaning. The only unloaded usage of "costume" for gear that people wear that I know of is in the context of actors using costumes in their work. What "unloads" the term is that it has a specific use, and the very circumstances are quite different. Actors are engaged in embodying temporarily a character for the purposes of some sort of drama or comedy. They are working within a strictly defined space, a stage, and it is well-known today that the roots of european drama are in religious practice, perhaps most famously the ancient greek festivals honouring Dionysius. This remains true today regardless of how irreligious we may be, especially considering that to see a movie we may still go to a theatre where we sit in a special seat in the dark to watch the performance. Yet not all performances are on stage, as participants in events like rennaisance faires, live action role playing games, or comic conferences remind us.

Regalia is special clothing worn for ceremonies. Those colourful outfits and painstakingly made accessories are not merely "fancy clothes." They are deeply spiritual in nature, and they carry ceremony with them. 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. And they did, especially tourists who purchased items and also suits of clothes reminiscent of regalia any chance they got, especially after 1885 in canada. 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.

  1. An excellent all round introduction to this is Franca Iacovetta's Gatekeepers: Reshaping Immigrant Lives in Cold War Canada (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2006).
  2. There are many books on this available, including very brief treatments intended for general audiences. It can be hard to choose, but it can be surprisingly helpful to try looking at books that feature the giggle-worthy vase paintings of men costumed as satyrs on the cover. They tend to spend a bit more time on what scholars have reconstructed about the origins of ancient greek theatre and the practicalities of acting and costuming in ancient times, which are quite helpful places to start.
  3. Another great read on "costumes" that ties back to popular culture and science fiction is provided by Juliette Ward at Dive Into Worldbuilding, Costumes in Worldbuilding. The starting point is how to design and imagine clothing for fictional worlds, which leads inevitably and quickly into considerations of how to do that in a respectful and thought provoking way.
  4. Older, but still useful treatments of the risks of taking part in Indigenous ceremony and having or wearing regalia include Severing the Ties That Bind: Government Repression Of Indigenous Religious Ceremonies On The Prairies by Katherine Pettipas (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1994) and of course the the U'Mitsa Cultural Society's 1975 documentary 'Potlatch – A Strict Law Bids Us Dance.'
  5. This tourist market provided a bittersweet source of income to many Indigenous communities. See Sherry Farrell Racette's work for more on this, including "Sewing for a Living: The Commodification of Métis Women's Artistic Production" pages 137-154 in Rethinking Canada: The Promise of Women's History, edited by Mona Gleason, Tamara Myers, and Adele Perry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:40