To the Editor,
During the week of October 26th, the Department of Theatre Arts held a sale offering an assortment of items from costume storage. This has been done from time to time in recent years, often near Halloween, to offer students the chance to purchase clothing without having to leave campus and also to clear space in the department’s costume storage space. Amongst the various pieces of clothing, costumes and accessories on sale this year, there were a number of sombreros.
From a costume designer’s perspective, questions of identity, including race, culture and character are part of costume design, and issues of cultural and community representation, both in casting and design, are part of the dialogue of theatrical production. As part of our artistic practice, we think carefully about this when we make design choices and present and represent a range of stories, cultures and individuals on our stages. In any theatre’s costume stock, there is a wide range of garments and accessories, many of them specific to the diverse range of cultures that are part of our work. Along with historical garments, costumes and old clothes of many styles; that there are a variety of culturally specific items in the theater department’s costume stock is standard practice. Set out for sale was an assortment of items that have not been used for some time and that will likely not be needed for use in any upcoming productions. Offering garments from costume storage was intended as a convenience for students. There was no judgment made or intended regarding who would purchase any particular item, or how it might be worn.
While the garments from costume stock were offered without any particular intention or position regarding Halloween, this year across campus, there was also a deliberate effort to remind our students “We are a culture, not a costume” and to develop sensitivity about appropriate Halloween costumes. While there was no intention to diminish any culture with the costume sale, and though the heart of the issue in the campaign is about how Halloween costumes are worn, not where they are purchased, the impact of including the stack of sombreros was painful. As Jonathan Garcia describes in his preface to the article published in the Bulldog “The Problem with Halloween”, his encounter with the sombreros in the costume sale was shocking and hurtful as it seemed to be putting his culture on sale, and giving a message to potential buyers that condoned dressing up in a way that appropriated another’s culture. Without knowledge of the educational campaign regarding cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes, Theatre Arts had inadvertently created a situation in which at least one of our students felt betrayed. We regret our part in causing this situation, and are sorry for the pain it has caused. While a garment used as part of a costume within a specific theatrical event has one meaning, that same garment worn in a very different context has the potential to be inappropriate, harmful and hurtful to individuals who feel that their culture has been disrespected and appropriated. Jonathan asks for an apology for “a blatant sign of disrespect and disregard for the well being of our students.” The act of setting the sombreros out for sale had no intention behind it beyond offering garments at low prices as a convenience for students, but in the context of our campus last week, it caused a strong and painful emotional response. Whether the fact of sombreros being part of the sale was a mistake or not, we regret that they caused a painful response in our students. We have high regard for Jonathan’s choice to wear the hats with the addition of signage meant to re-appropriate the image of the hat. In selling the hats, the Theatre Department did not make assumptions as to who would purchase them or wear them, and Jonathan’s choice was a powerful one.
This experience has been a learning moment for many of us. In the context of our campus community, the encounter of an educational message regarding cultural appropriation with a stock of theatrical costumes was painful.
But this series of events has also created the opportunity for dialogue and increased understanding regarding intention and impact, institutional responsibility and personal choice, and for that I am grateful. For any future costume sales, it’s clear that there should be a coordinated effort to discuss issues of cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes prior to the sale, and to align that discussion with action. If Theatre Arts organizes another costume sale in future, we will work to create an environment for it in which none of our students feel that their culture has been cheapened, or inappropriately offered up for sale.
Jonathan, on behalf of the Theatre Arts department, I offer our apologies for contributing to an environment where you felt disrespected. I look forward to our continued dialogue.
Chair, Theatre Arts Department