Ethnic Costume

I’ve been away for a week or so, attending my brother’s wedding in Australia.

Here’s my brother, resplendent in kilt, sporran, and skean dhu.

My brother in his kilt

The skean dhu is the traditional knife worn with the kilt — you can see it just protruding from his right sock.

My family is Scottish — my brother and I were both born in Scotland, and occasionally people will ask us what our family tartan is. The short answer is “there isn’t one”. My ancestral peoples were lowlanders on both sides. My mother’s family comes out of Glasgow tenements, and my father’s people are farmers from Ayrshire.

The actual tartan in question is thus for us fairly irrelevant — what is more important is the signification of Scottish ethnicity, rather than any more fine-grained allegiance to a particular clan or tartan group. And wearing tartan isn’t a particularly common event in my family. This was the first time I saw either my brother or my father in a kilt. We have a slew of more habitual daily signifiers of ethnic identity — accent, for instance, or the food we eat, or customs that we follow. We are a people with a different fruit cake for every holiday (hot cross buns for Easter, and clootie dumpling, just because, were the stars of this particular celebration).

There was an interesting conversation surrounding ethnic dress and appropriation that took place in my family before this wedding. My brother’s groomsmen rented kilts to be in the wedding party, and there was some consternation over the idea that they were not Scottish, and ought not to be wearing kilts.

To which I say phooey. I’m not insensitive to issues surrounding the appropriation of ethnic customs, and I’m certainly not going to walk down the streets of DC in a dashiki and dreadlocks. And I’m as annoyed as the next woman by demonstrations of faux Scottishness at Highland Games in North America where Americans of Scottish ancestry call themselves Scottish (or more usually, “Scots”), but wouldn’t know a playpiece from a plook.

But at a family celebration, where good friends stand up as witnesses and wellwishers for the newly married couple? That’s not cultural appropriation. That’s cultural inclusion — praticing one’s native customs in a foreign land, and inviting one’s close friends to participate. Cultural mixing, when it takes place within real personal relationships between real people, is, on balance, a good thing for all of us, and if we swap traditions of food and dress and speech with our good friends from different backgrounds, it makes our communities stronger and more inclusive.


2 Responses to “Ethnic Costume”

  1. Grace Says:

    Agreed. Well, except for the Highland Games part.

    –Grace, Scottish-American, has family tartan

  2. dreadlocks Says:



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