Every time we get dressed, we make hundreds of conscious and unconscious decisions that are often far more complex than they seem on the surface. Choosing certain colors, brands or silhouettes may seem purely aesthetic, but that’s not always the case, and nowhere is that more true than when it comes to navigating your wardrobe as it relates to your race.
Despite the occasional announcement that we live in a post-racial world, most of us are well aware that that’s not really the case. In fact, race has become even more overtly contentious in the last few years, rendering all of its implications—even those on our closets—more pertinent.
After overhearing a conversation while shopping a few weeks ago between a white woman and a black woman about how the same dress would “read differently” on each of them due to race alone, I was struck by the fact that—despite an endless slog of Internet think-pieces relating to race—not many people are exploring the ways in a which person’s race affects their fashion choices. Hair, maybe, but not clothing.
Of course, in the scheme of racial issues we need to unpack, this is not number one—but it is important, and it’s one that we likely face more often than others. As a white woman, I would never pretend to understand the thought processes of non-white women when getting dressed, so I've asked a few of them about their experiences below. But I also believe white women experience this phenomenon on some level, which is why I've included them in the mix. The results are merely a glimpse at getting dressed in a society which is far too diverse to cover in one post, but I hope that it starts an enlightening and important conversation.
Editor’s Note: the language used to describe each interviewee’s race was provided specifically by them.
Scroll down to find out what 9 women had to say on the matter.
“Racial stereotypes affect my style most at work, specifically [related to] the stereotype that black women are overly and overtly sexual. My professional style is ultra conservative, and there are many days when I'll put on a dress for work and second guess whether or not I should wear it. I am always thinking about whether or not my legs (one of my favorite assets, but not great for shorter work dresses) are on display too much. I’m always putting a cami under a dress or blouse if there is too much cleavage and I wear hosiery year round. Maybe these are things most women in a professional environment do and consider [anyway]; I don't know. I do know that my conservatism is fueled by not wanting to be seen as the overly sexual black woman in the office.” –Tyece, African American
“You’ll never see me in feathered jewelry or headdresses, no matter how much I love music festivals and all the other usual styles that come with them. It’s not that I’m ashamed of my roots, I just think wearing that stuff mindlessly is offensive so I would never promote it.” –Lena, Native American
“I avoid overt references to cheongsams or attempts at modernizing them by keeping the look but making it mini-dress length. Also any item which features mandarin collars, this type of fastening or even kimono sleeves (though that last one is more a personal taste thing). [All of that] feels like a costume. While I do reference modern Chinese women a lot in my silhouette choices—the long, tight column skirts and dresses are something that females in Shanghai wear [often today]—they are usually in pale tones that are less traditional than brights. [That said] Shanghai women are not wearing jackets with mandarin collars or frog closures made of embroidered silk with dragon motifs, it’s more likely to find them in a cropped cashmere cardigan.” –Lulu, Chinese
“I love preppy, simple clothing, and I spent most of my life being told I was trying too hard to be white as a result. Being white probably would have made my life easier, but I think I’d be drawn to this style of clothing regardless of my race. I’ve second-guessed myself before, though, and tried to push myself to wear more exotic things to prove people wrong. I always regret it.” —Jen, African American
“Racial stereotypes do affect the way I dress and consume fashion. The way I see my history as a south Asian is contextualized by the pain my parents and grandparents experienced while trying to assimilate. My mom often recalls being asked as a child if she was black and desperately trying to seem white. Her favorite outfit was a khaki vest and Osh Kosh B’ Gosh overalls, until she went to India as a teenager, and came back sporting the now-accepted khurtas.
Fashion is one way in which we have always been connected to our history and homeland, but we've also occasionally experienced micro aggressions when sporting our traditional wear. I don't often wear the prints or clothes of India because I'm not always ready to engage in a conversation where I have to explain my appearance (i.e. why I'm wearing a sari on a given day, why I wear a bindhi daily, why my hair is always braided etc.) For me, those are all style choices with cultural origins. Paisley prints, cashmere, bindhis, madras shorts, tunic styles and henna [come in and out] of fashion, but to me those objects are so reminiscent of colonial histories and my family's own immigration story, that it's hard to wear them outside of social functions with similarly identified people.
In the same way that black culture is now marketed as “cool,” and readily consumed without the need for the consumer to engage with dialogues of racism, south Asian culture is constantly commoditized and consumed in a way that makes me uncomfortable. There are a few elements of south Asian culture/fashion that have been deemed cool now (outside of yoga) like bindhis worn during festival season and Hindu deities plastered across t-shirts, but it's [still] hard for me to look Indian and feel like I belong. American culture is defined by conspicuous consumption, and for many south Asian immigrants and their descendants, that means consuming things that will demonstrate our assimilation and 'American-ness.' I think all people—regardless of their specific background—are negotiating their multiple identities and desire to assimilate when they get dressed." —Lakshmi, Indian
"I intentionally avoid wearing certain labels because of Asian stereotypes [that we wear lots of them]. I feel like I would seem totally cliche if I wore Burberry or Louis Vuitton, so I won't even consider buying their clothes as a result, even if I like them." –Sue Jin, Asian American
“I think that a lot of people expect latina women to be very voluptuous and sensually dressed at all times, like a Sofia Vergara type, and, growing up, I resisted that as much as I could because I really didn’t want to prove the stereotype right. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with women who prefer that look though, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve allowed myself to try it out more the way women with other backgrounds might, but I still occasionally feel like a caricature of my race when I’m dressed like that.” –Eva, Mexican American
“I’ve always been really into street wear and items like Timberlands, etc., but I feel like, as a white girl, people often perceive that as me trying to co-opt an urban culture that’s not ‘mine’ to touch. Liking these kinds of clothes has never had anything to do with me wanting to seem more in line with a certain race, I just think they look cool, but I’ve definitely gotten the ‘white girl trying to play black’ card, as if all black people are walking around in hoodies and Timbs.” –Clare, white
“I never really hopped on the hipster flannel-wearing bandwagon because it felt too suggestive of the stereotypical chola girl, and you’ll never see me wearing loads and loads of jewelry (no #armparties for me) for the same reason. I wish I was cool enough not to care, but the shame I felt about my background growing up is so hard to shake.” –Daniela, Mexican American
Do racial stereotypes affect the way you get dressed every day? Share with us in the comments!