My friend asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding, which I’m really excited to do. However, she wants all of us to wear kimonos. She loves a lot of Japanese culture and spent some time there, but neither she nor the groom have any Japanese heritage, and to me this sort of feels like cultural appropriation. How do I deal with this, given that I’ve already agreed to be her bridesmaid?
Hopefully Staying Respectful
The Emily Post Institute lists the top responsibility of a wedding attendant as “pay for their wedding attire and accessories,” though they say nothing of who gets the choose said attire. The general protocol is that it’s the bride’s choice, though a polite bride should always take her attendant’s opinions into account.
Victoria: Maybe we should first explain what cultural appropriation is and why it’s bad.
Jaya: Yes. But that is so difficult! For a lot of people I think there is a huge grey area between enthusiastic cultural exchange and one-sided cultural appropriation, which is where these issues happen. To this bride, I’m sure this is a way to honor her love of Japanese culture. But to others, it may come off as unfair appropriation.
Jaya: To me, it involves this idea of someone in a more privileged position utilizing an element of a marginalized culture without experiencing or understanding that marginalization. This is a good post on it, and I like this quote in particular: “It’s a matter of telling people that they don’t wear things in a vacuum and there are many social and historical implications to treating marginalized cultures like costumes.” Here’s another good conversation about it. This is not to say there can’t be any cultural exchange, just that if you’re doing it, you have to work for it, not just use it however you want because it “looks cool.” What that “work” looks like will depend on a number of variables, but it has to be there.
Victoria: Right, a big part of this is using important cultural symbols as “decoration.” For instance, I think it would be fine if the bride were Japanese and asked her non-Japanese bridesmaids, or guests, to wear traditional Japanese clothing. Because in that instance she is asking people to share her culture with her.
Jaya: Definitely. I’ve been to weddings like that, where one of the couple is of another culture than the majority of the guests, and asked everyone to dress up in that culture’s “traditional” clothing.
Victoria: So what do you do if the bride wants you to participate in this?
Jaya: I think she should first ask the bride why she’s doing this, and then maybe explain her reservations.
Victoria: Absolutely, and explaining is important. I feel like awareness of cultural appropriation is still, unfortunately, new. Some people need it spelled out for them.
Jaya: I think a lot of people really are convinced doing things like this are nice ways of being “colorblind” and “international,” not realizing that glosses over so many issues. I can see how it happens though. Maybe this bride spent a few years living in Japan, fell in love with a culture (as so often happens) and now feels this connection that she wants to incorporate, not seeing how it comes off.
Victoria: Yeah, it’s a nice thought, but no. The only way I can see an event like that working as “international” is if you invited guests to wear traditional clothing from their culture, if they wanted.
Jaya: That would be nice. But yeah, maybe HSR can suggest alternatives. Serving Japanese food is always a great option, or incorporating a reading from a Japanese writer or poet.
Victoria: Oooh totally! But if the bride is still being stubborn, I think you are well justified in bowing out as an attendant.
Jaya: Yes, this is bigger than the bride putting you in a dress you don’t like. If it goes against your belief system and makes you uncomfortable, don’t do it. Maybe it’ll shock the bride into realizing what she’s doing. Or maybe she’ll flip out and not want to be friends anymore.
Victoria: Yeah, that is for sure a risk you will be taking. But why would you want someone who is that insensitive as a friend anyway?
Jaya: Haha oh no! Man, the line is so thin though, especially with things like westerners connecting to traditinally non-western cultures or even religions. Though that is no longer etiquette. Unless socio-political interactions are etiquette. Which, sorta?
Victoria: Everything is etiquette to a certain extent.
Jaya: Ugh, just don’t treat another culture’s regular form of dress as a costume.
Victoria: That’s what this boils down to! Even if that culture is really important and meaningful to you, it is still likely just a costume to you. We should also mention that this applies for things like Halloween as well.
Jaya: Yess. Unless someone from that culture is asking you to wear it, maybe don’t do it. Like, I went to my Indian cousin’s wedding, so I wore a sari. But if you invited us over to your house for a party and asked us to dress like Native Americans for fun, I would not come to your house.
Victoria: Omg, I wouldn’t come to my house if I did that.