15th June 2015: ‘Fancy Dress? Ditch the Cultural Stereotypes’

Another blog for Huffington Post’s Young Voices section, this piece looks at cultural appropriation and culturally insensitive fancy dress costumes, particularly at universities in the UK.

It uses gifs and a colloquial tone befitting the section. Read on for the full text (minus the gifs).


If there’s one thing I can guarantee about next year’s baby-fresh intake, it’s their enthusiasm. I’ll arrive onto campus next year, a jaded third-year, to be met with long lines first-years on their guided tours of campus, hurrying along like over-excited ducklings on their first outing.

They’ll be enthusiastic about the good weather (which only ever occurs on open days and the first week of term), about the over-priced sandwiches in the Guild shop, and about the corridor mates they’ll make and unmake in the space of a week.

They’ll also be enthusiastic about fancy dress.

When I arrived for my own Fresher’s Week, I brought along a whole bag of fancy dress items. I was that girl with the face paint kit that everyone borrowed. I was the one kid who didn’t have to hastily make their cat ears out of cardboard come Halloween. In my Mary Poppins’ bag of props and clip-on lion tails, I had everything from fake blood to fabric flowers.

I also had a kimono.

Silky, crimson red and decorated with arching leaves and painted geisha, I placed my kimono, carefully folded, in a separate bag, and day dreamed about wearing it to a suitable Fresher’s event, my face painted chalk -white like the women on the kimono fabric.

I never wore it. Perhaps it was the realisation that having ready-bought Halloween cat ears seemed a bit eager, let alone a kimono. However, this year I brought my kimono again, just in case.

Then I saw this.


The University of Exeter, where I attend, launched the ‘We’re a Culture, not a Costume’ campaign earlier this academic year. It aims to combat cultural appropriation, ie. using elements of a different culture to your own out of context and without regard to original meaning. One campaign poster in particular hit me. It went something along the lines of: ‘So, what are you wearing to the fancy dress party?’ ‘I was thinking of going as a geisha’.

I realised just how narrow-minded, how culturally insensitive I’d been. I’m always the first to point out clichéd portrayals of the Brits in The Parent Trap, annoying all my friends in the process. The tweed, the butler, the obligatory Beatles references…

If a few too many plays of ‘London Calling’ by The Clash can get me tetchy, I can only imagine how international students feel once faced with the cultural stereotyping that takes place in British universities. Just think of all those ‘African Tribe’ or ‘Bollywood’ themed nights during Fresher’s Week.

The ‘We’re a Culture…’ campaign was partly sparked by the controversial ‘tribal’ theme for one of Exeter’s Safer Sex Balls (later scrapped), which was deemed ‘racist’.

Jessica Yung, one of two Intersectionality Officers who co-organised the campaign, told me it ‘was something that stemmed from many events on and off campus – one of them being the infamous SSB – and other dress-up themed socials, Hallowe’en, Welcome Team celebrations etc.’

I spoke to Tash Parker, 20, and Charlotte Morrison, 19, both international students at Exeter, about fancy dress cultural appropriation.

Tash, a South-African, believes cultures are ‘polluted’ by casual stereotyping and the sexualisation of traditional dress.

‘When a group of privileged, mostly white students, who probably mean no harm and just want the chance to get a little loose and dress up in bright colours, take a brief glance at the traditional costumes of the world and pick a few of the more attractive elements to wear, they risk massively effecting the future of that culture.’

Charlotte, a Trinidadian, agrees: ‘If you take your culture seriously and then a bunch of people who know nothing about your culture start dressing up as a slutty version of it for Halloween, that’s pretty offensive.’

However, Charlotte also draws links between, for example, a ‘tribal’ themed party and a ‘chav’ themed party.

‘I think [‘chav’ themed parties] are also particularly offensive, since they’re often about acting out the negative habits of a less privileged class by a (probably) privileged person.’

I also spoke to Tina Chan, 19, a Year 13 student from Hong Kong who’s hoping to study Law at university come September.

Tina expressed her concern about cultural stereotyping in university culture and fancy dress events.

‘People should not wear a costume from another culture just to be funny’ says Tina. ‘It [traditional dress] should be worn properly.’

Come September, thousands of students like Tina are set to go to university, and unfortunately, the issue of cultural appropriation is alive and kicking. Whilst efforts are being made by universities to combat the issue, all it takes is a couple of sombreros and ridiculous fake moustaches to send us back to square one. Surely it’s time we instilled in students the knowledge that any form of cultural appropriation and stereotyping, from blacking-up to dressing as a geisha, is disrespectful.

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