My African Print Dirndl: Cultural Appropriation, Racial Tension, Pride & Respect
The Ghana Dirndl was part of the collection I called #GirlsWhoTravel and each dirndl in the collection was inspired by a world travel. Many of the dirndls were inspired by adventures of my favorite travel bloggers right now, but this dirndl was inspired by my own travel experience to Africa. This trip to Ghana in 2007 as a study abroad trip was truly amazing! In addition to it being so much fun, it pushed me to think differently and never quit learning. I was so glad that I went instead of going to Paris and London where most of the fashion students did their study abroad.
Dancing with the children in Larabanga
I got the photos back from the photographer and sent them to my bff. She said “wow they look great!” “Ernest wants to know if you think you’ll get any pushback on the Ghana dirndl” … “mmmm… I haven’t really thought about it. Why does he say that?” “He’s wondering if you’re worried about cultural appropriation or racial insensitivity.” (And to set the stage a bit, I’m a super white, blonde girl with blue eyes, my best friend’s boyfriend is black).
My initial reaction to this was, no I’m not worried about it because I’m not the first one to do it… but then I started to really think about it. Is that a good enough reason? It’s ok to do this because someone else already did? I mean, I wouldn’t apply that to other things. There is brand out of Munich called Noh Nee and I’ve always been in LOVE with her designs. She is an African woman, living and working in Munich and one day I hope to own one of her designs. I’ve always wanted to design a dirndl using African prints and I thought dedicating this dirndl to my trip was a perfect opportunity.
I guess I wasn’t worried about cultural appropriation because I wasn’t trying to bring Ghanaian fabrics mainstream… are dirndls even mainstream? Some people make the argument that non-Germans wearing dirndls is cultural appropriation. (I wrote another whole article on that too.) But I really feel that if you are wearing a dirndl to an event where it is appropriate and you’re doing it in good taste (aka not wearing that skanky-ass beer wench costume from Party City) then enjoy it! Dirndls for everyone! And I feel the same way about African fabrics…but then can I have that opinion because I’m obviously not West African.
Then there is the mention of racial insensitivity…the last thing I want to foster with my designs. The current political climate and racial tension in this country makes me sick to my stomach, so the idea that someone might think my design is insensitive made my throw up in my mouth a little. But I swallowed that lil bit of vomit and stuck to my guns. We had a good conversation about it and Ernest agreed that design wasn't offensive and followed up by saying, “That’s my favorite one anyway.”
These ideas were still kinda weighing on me as the weeks went on, but I decided to just go for it. The dirndls were already in production. Do I think it’s going to be a best-seller? No. Do I think I’ll sell the dirndls I have in stock? Yes. Do I think maybe someone will be offended? Sure. Do I think that there will be some people who buy it not knowing what it’s all about? Yes. Is that my problem… mmm… kinda?
Jump ahead to German Fest in Milwaukee where I’m debuting the collection before it’s available online. I’m wearing the Ghana Dirndl on that Friday and I’m introduced to a (couple? not sure if they were together, but they were standing cozily together…) anyway, he was white and she was black and I suddenly found myself becoming a smidge nervous and she says, “I love your dress” and I immediately recognize her African accent and I replied, “Thank you so much! It is inspired by my trip to Ghana” She smiles wide and said (in her beautiful West African accent), “Ah ok, so you know what you are wearing?” and I replied, “Well it’s obviously not real Kente cloth, but it’s the print. And I tried to channel my inner African woman to mix the prints. I did an ok job, but they are the true masters.” We went on to have a really lovely conversation about textiles and a little bit about my trip. She said that she was initially taken aback by the design but only because she wasn’t expecting it. One of my favorite things that she said was, “I never ever thought I would wear a dirndl, but that one… that I would wear!” She didn’t buy it, but that conversation felt like the greatest win of the weekend.
After all this, I’m back to how I feel about “non-Germans” wearing dirndls. If it’s in good taste and respectful… do it! It becomes a problem when you’re mocking another culture for their dress instead of embracing it. Kinda goes back to one of my favorite mantras, “Don’t be a dick”.
Wear what make you feel most awesome, and if it’s making another cultural reference, just do a little homework. Wearing clothing with confidence might mean you need to know a little bit about it. In my experience, most people probably won’t confront you about what you are wearing, but at least you know and sometimes that’s all that matters.
In conclusion, my dirndl designs might offend some people, but that’s fine. Not everything I design is going to be for everyone, it’s part of being a designer. And in the case of the Ghana Dirndl… it’s a direct reflection of my experience and time in Ghana: fun, colorful, and all about the textiles!
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As always, ideas and opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own. - Erika