Friday, June 23, 2017

Pith Helmets, Khaki, and some Implications to Consider When Wearing Adventure Ready Styles


Reading Wikipedia's article for Pith Helmet, it says:

"The pith helmet (also known as the safari helmet, sun helmet, topee, sola topee, salacot or topi[a]) is a lightweight cloth-covered helmet made of pith material. Pith helmets were often worn by European travelers and explorers, in the varying climates found in Africa, Southeast Asia, as well as the tropics, but have also been used in many other contexts. They were routinely issued to European military personnel serving overseas "in hot climates" from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.

The pith helmet became associated strongly with the British Empire. However, the pith helmet was used by all European colonial powers, and for some time even by the United States. It was commonly worn by non-indigenous officers commanding locally recruited troops in the colonial armies of France, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Imperial Germany and the Netherlands, as well as civilian officials in their territories. As such it became something of a symbol of colonial rule. Helmets of a similar style (but without true pith construction) continued to be used, as late as World War II, by European and American military personnel.

Such was the popularity of the pith helmet, that it became a common civilian headgear for Westerners in the tropics from the end of the 19th century. The civilian pith helmet was typically less decorative and more practical, not as tall as the military counterpart, and with a wide brim all round. It was worn by men and women, old and young, both in formal and casual occasions, until the Second World War. "
hmm, to read the full article click here

It is really easy to spot the inherent racism in Urban Outfitters naming products Navajo, in Valentino calling their "African" (as if it is a monolith) inspired collection both "tribal" and "primitive" (they actually used these words...yikes), and the hundreds of other blatant examples of cultural appropriating in the fashion industry. But what about explorer/safari style?

Just as I don't agree with the politics associated with a polka dot 50's "housewife" dress, I also think the ideas behind colonialism/imperialism and the horrors which accompanied such campaigns are truly disgusting. So why do I think its okay to wear a pith helmet? Do I actually think it's okay to wear a pith helmet? ...is it rather cringe actually? Why had I never considered the cultural implications of such a storied accessory before just recently?

I love the Indiana Jones films, and Adele Blac Sec, and the adventurer/explorer style I wear often here on the blog. I would like to think of such individuals, civilian adventurers and archaeologists as different from the colonizers and the khaki clad western armies of say the British Raj for example. However, seeing as most 20th century archaeologists "discovered" things only to take them back to the British Museum, and plundered the places they explored for notoriety and profit at home...the differences between civilians and occupiers seems to blur. The only bastion of hope I have for finding an example of safari style worn without implications of terror and occupation would be that of tourists. Still, now when people go on safari they go to see the animals, in the past they went to shoot them, which is yet again another practice I think is horrid and honestly, immoral. So why should I wish to wear the styles from that time? When going on a shooting party and killing gorgeous animals was thought a delightful vacation? Why do I still think safari suits are super endlessly stylish even while these realizations are rolling through my mind? Urhhhg.

I wore my straw pith helmet in the ruins of Tulum in Mexico, a country which my own home country continues to disrespect on the daily. Why couldn't I see the implications of colonialism in doing so, how on earth could I have been so blind until this moment? This was just a few months ago, dear past me--- think before you wear! In my bubble of white privilege, I had never thought of adventurer styles in this way, and now that I think about it, I wonder; when does saying "oh I just love the aesthetics" start to sound too similar to the absurd "heritage not hate" that racists spout about their horrific confederate flags? In wearing safari fashions, or as they are called in interior design quite blatantly-- colonial styles, its true I am not appropriating other cultures. No indeed instead I am wearing the styles of my own ancestors, often horrible and very misguided ancestors.

But like, I also do that all the time? All of the retro styles I wear, no matter what era they come from, it was no doubt an era when I (being a modern and biased total liberal) didn't agree with the majority of what was going on politically/culturally. We retro style devotees love vintage style, not vintage views on morality, or social justice, or colonialism. That 1950's "housewife" dress represents a lot instantly visually for many people. It represents a time when women were less free, to be outside the home, or even just to be themselves. All vintage style hearkens back to a time less equal. Have modern day vintage wearers, pin-ups, and burlesque stars fully shattered the old implications of vintage style? When I wear a 1950's outfit, I am certainly not trying to imply I want to be treated like women were in the 1950s. When I wear a pith helmet, I am certainly not implying I agree with the 19th century imperialism in various tropical climates worldwide. Are pith helmets and other "colonial" inspired styles actually really offensive? Maybe?

The men in khaki uniforms and pith helmets who came to conquer, to plunder, and sometimes just to fight someone else's wars on very foreign soil also have something that should perhaps be considered in all this musing, and that is their overwhelming maleness. I don't think there were many ladies rolling up and colonizing places, so does khaki and a pith helmet mean something different when worn by different genders? Then again, Queen Victoria was "empress" of India??? Yikes. Is it just a bit off when white people wear such styles? Am I overthinking all of this, or have I been incredibly insensitive promoting adventure/safari style all week long?

Are all so called "colonial" style things, clothing, furniture, architecture, the Disneyland Jungle Cruise ride, so inseparable from their history as to be only offensive? Can one ever truly enjoy the aesthetics of something wholly independent of its historical implications (and in the case of imperialism, continued legacy)? I like to think so, but my opinion isn't really valid because of course these things don't offend me, I am descended from the colonizers (not literally, most of my actual ancestors got to the US from Italy in like 1901, but still just a white girl so...) not the colonized.

I would love to hear opinions (especially opinions from people who say aren't, you know, white. but also everyone) on this, because I truly don't know. It seems like something that should at least be considered before delving into such styles, styles I love mind you, and have been wearing here on the blog just this week. Please consider the comments below to be an open discussion on this topic, and also, please be civil in doing so.

Some links to other discussions of this topic or things relating to it:

British Colonial Co: Outrage in Australia over theme restaurant

Open Thread: Is Taylor Swift’s Video Really A Racist Nod To Colonial Africa?

NPR's article about the same video

UNCOMFORTABLE CONVERSATIONS: SAFARI ICONOGRAPHY AT BALMAIN 2014

Valentino show inspired by ‘wild Africa’ sparks controversy

ARE THESE FASHION ADS RACIST OR HARMLESS?



21 comments:

  1. All clothing has problematic history if you look deeply enough at its past. I find the concept of 'cultural appropriation' puzzling in many cases, since all cultures borrow and adapt and appropriate from each other. Certainly, we should try to not insult or demean other people with our clothing choices, but in the end all clothing is costume, fantasy, an amalgation of disparate images and hard to interpret signs.

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    1. True enough that all clothing has a history and all history is gray rather than black or white. I find cultural appropriation to be much easier to understand because there seem to be harder lined differences between what is and is not appropriate. It's easy to decide when something is obviously offensive that I wouldn't want to take part in that, but when something is more nebulous like this it's harder to know where the line is!

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  2. Oosh, I tend to find this one hard! As a loose rule, I tend to go with; if it would have affected Me in the past (so the lovely 50s dresses) I can "reclaim" it, but not if it would've affected other people (so, as a white person, wearing things very associated with colonial rule or past "ooh isn't it exotic" items such as turbans) as the people who were harmed by it (or there ancestors were...) is the person who gets to make the judgement call of whether it can be successfully removed from its past connotations.

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    1. Its interesting too because the adventure looks from the 1920s-1950s are already distilled one layer down from the actual colonial Victorian/Edwardian era atrocities. Not that the implications of imperialism and actual colonial rule had ended by the 20th century by any means, just that those "safari fashion" looks were already inspired by instead of directly a part of such colonization. Too many layers!!!

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  3. This is a really interesting topic, because it's not cultural appropriation, per se, the way wearing a sari or other cultural garb might be; the items of clothing that you're talking about were the uniforms of the colonizers, which as you say carries its own implications. As a white person, my first thought is "oh, we're so far past it that as long as we're not appropriating and stereotyping traditional garb, we're probably good," but I would be really interested in hearing the perspective of someone who is coming from the other side, who may have a different perspective.
    I really appreciate seeing conversations like this. It's so easy to just decide not to think about the implications of certain things that we say or do (or wear), so taking a moment to recognize that certain images that we have that seem harmless - the late 1800s/early 1900s explorer, glamourous as they may look - can have rather ugly roots.

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    1. I totally agree, I can imagine too that such styles are less offensive here in the US, but if you showed up to a resort in Kenya looking like an Edwardian adventurer the implications would be very different! It's all about keeping in mind context and care I suppose.

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    2. Yeah, I won't be wearing my earlier vintage styles on my trip to India next year! Should be safe with the 60s though...

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  4. This is one I'm struggling to resolve in my own mind, I must admit. Is it because 'safari style' is not about 'copying' a culture, it's about the 'things that white folks wore whilst suppressing minority cultures'? In that case then, can we also stretch this to include all of the other fashion items that white folks have worn at other points in time when rampaging all over other cultures? (Which would be everything, no?) I don't have the answers, just more questions! xx

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    1. Exactly! As soon as one realizes that all vintage clothing essentially is "items that white folks have worn at other points in time when rampaging all over other cultures" than safari fashions don't actually stick out as more or less problematic than the rest. Everything is problematic! Darn history...

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  5. Good text! :) Often these ponderings come only with knowledge; as an ignorant youth for exaple one does not know, or think, of origins of things, ideas and fashions... But when one gets to know that there might be controversy behind seemingly simple pieces of clothing, it is good to be considerate, like you are!

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    1. Thank you! Yes I think it's good to at least think about these things, we all give off impressions by what we choose to wear, so it's important to think through what those impressions might be.

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  6. Whoa! As someone, who is very much like you in loving this style, and who wears it regularly, I honestly hadn't given this much thought. But also like you, I have a little white bubble. I've worn a straw pith helmet many a time, and have done so without comment, although I lived in a very white city, and despite moving, still do.

    I also think that there is something to be said for being too PC. I consider myself a fairly PC person, but when people get outraged over something, it can sometimes be something they don't fully understand, or are simply just "too sensitive."

    I also think that while some people who wore safari or "adventurer" garb were of the groups you talked about, conquering, killing animals, etc., there was also still a large group who wore it and cared a great deal for their country, people, and history. Most of that fashion really has a purpose, mostly related to weather and terrain, so I still find it acceptable, and not indicative or representative of a negative moment.

    Thank you for providing the link list! I look forward to reading the articles.

    xoxo
    -Janey

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    1. Thank you for such a great response Janey!

      I find, for me, when it is other white people getting up in arms about something being offensive to another culture, but people from that culture are actually fine with it, that's when PC has probably gone too far. Still, I always think it is better to just err on the side of not offending anyone. It's a bummer that the "Great White Hunter" is the main stereotype associated with safari style, but it is true history so this really can't be changed.

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  7. This is a rather wide open topic, and I can't say I have any answers to give to you. :(
    One thing that I will toss out there is that a lot of "safari" styles- boots, linen fabrics, pockets and even the pith helmet originally started being worn for practical reasons. It's not as though people were saying, "I will wear this helmet because it makes me better than you." They were wearing them because they kept their heads cool in the sun. That people may have had those attitudes and committed atrocities while wearing those clothes doesn't necessarily mean that the items themselves are bad. No doubt it became a symbol of colonialism over time though. Like the "housewife's dress" became a symbol of the 1950's.
    Like I said, I have no answers for you- just more questions! Good for you for thinking of this in how you dress though.

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    1. I agree that it was indeed that things which were created for practicality were intended merely for ease of use and comfort originally, but that negative associations would have grown with time (and the stacking of terrible offenses). Thinking of it this way makes me think of like how fedoras are now a bit taboo (on men) because of the whole m'lady gross internet bros (see urban dictionary for fedora, http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=fedora). Obviously fedoras were just hats, nice hats really, but associations get attached to styles so easily!

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  8. My mixed-race relatives wore khaki and the like, if that makes you feel any better. (Though the relations between the Eurasian community and the white and Indian ones is worth a whole study in itself...)

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    1. It seems like kakhi was adopted by many local forces in various colonized lands and became partially associated with independence in some places too, then becoming I assume at least a bit neutralized in its association with the colonizer after it was adopted as the nationalistic uniform of the once colonized. I feel like one could easily write a masters dissertation on just khaki!

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  9. This is such an interesting topic, so much to think about. When I see you in a pith helmet I only think about adventurer/explorer style and it feels like part of the look. I hadn't considered it as a symbol of the Empire, maybe because I wasn't thinking widely, maybe because I am in a white bubble. So when I think of it like that it raises lots of questions as you say.

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    1. I never thought of it as a symbol of empire either until I was suddenly struck by the association recently! Proof that there is always more to consider and learn about!

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  10. I had never thought about it before. A pith helmet is clearly a part of my own cultural heritage, as we have a photo of my great great grandfather wearing one. But he is, as you say, wearing it while fighting another country's war on foreign soil, and was in fact responsible for the removal to Australia of a significant historical artifact from Turkey that has since been the subject of disagreement about its return. On the other hand, he was, though a very colonial sort of guy and a product of his time, also wise, compassionate, and a provider of comfort and spiritual guidance to many young men struggling with the horrors of war. I wonder sometimes how to view his legacy and I would certainly think of him if I wore a pith helmet, and wonder about that too. Again, no answers but a case study of one that shows the conflict in the history.

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    1. Interesting that you have such a personal connection to this subject, though I suppose many must! History certainly is full of grey areas, if only they didn't gloss over them so much in schools (or at least they do here in the US).

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