A few weeks ago I spotted the Rudy Jude Karate Jacket in my stories and it stuck with me. Sometimes that happens with an article of clothing- you see it and it calls to you (I remember you, burnt orange wool skirt on Etsy from 7 years ago that sold before I could scrape together $40). Often it's out of reach. At $295 the Rudy Jude jacket certainly is for me. A lot of companies I admire are cost prohibitive for me and many others and that is part of what is tricky about ethical fashion. Anyway- the jacket. After a few days with it hovering in the back of my mind I found a child-size, well worn, cross front martial arts jacket at the thrift for $4. Now- it's not the same thing. It's a poly-cotton blend rather than organic cotton. But the tag says "Made in the USA" and a little digging has revealed that it was actually made in Chicago. And it's black!
Thrift success! A $291 savings!
I've been wearing the jacket almost everyday. It replaced my old black canvas jacket from high school which has finally bitten the dust. It fits over a sweater. It fits over a dress. It nips in at the waist. When I wear it with a long black linen dress and my black sandals I feel like Georgia O'Keeffe heading out to paint in the desert. But if I am honest, I have been waiting for someone to call me out on it, and yesterday a friend did and now I have to reckon with the other half of this jacket, which is its cultural significance. (Yes, I should have done this before I even bought it, but the path to virtuous consumption is fraught and sometimes tempting to ignore, especially when you are broke and just need a damn jacket).
Step one is always a quick google. A visit to the manufacturers didn't offer up much information. I found a chat room where I learned that traditional Karate Gi are white, not black, but in these mixed up times it depends on the school where you practice and on your instructor and also on whether you prefer to bleach out dirt stains or have them not show up in the first place. I also learned that Karate came to Japan from China a long long time ago, and became popular in the US after US soldiers were stationed on a base in Japan after WWII. Karate practice in the US differs as much as yoga- ranging from a full on lifestyle to a straight up workout.
When I think about cultural appropriation I always think about these leggings I've seen at Target that are printed with traditional Navajo blanket patterns. Now- those patterns have incredible cultural significance and they were not created to encase white-girl-buns. The fact that they now do is incredibly offensive and rude. That's a cut and dry example, but where does the issue lie here?
Is it me, a white, American woman of European descent, wearing a bastardized American version of a Japanese garment that was manufactured for American children practicing Japanese martial arts?
Is it the garment makers, who altered the traditional Gi by adding poly to the fiber blend? And manufacturing/selling it in the United States? And making it black to ease up on the laundry burden?
Is it the American kids practicing a traditional Japanese form of combat as an after school activity?
Is it Rudy Jude, for creating a fashion-only version of Gi and selling it? (note: they don't call it a Gi, they call it a Karate jacket, which to me seems like a nod to their inspiration without claiming to be making the same thing- but also like… it’s a Gi)
And while Georgia O'Keeffe is on my mind- what about the tradition of women artists adopting clothing from other cultures? O'Keeffe and her kimonos are not alone. Frida Kahlo donned many traditional costumes that were not of her tradition, and Ray Eames lived day in and out in a dirndl inspired getup. The ability to admire and be inspired by many many cultures is important, if not formative in making art.
My biggest question is how to live in the gray space between America's tradition of bulldozing other cultures and emblazoning them on our sneakers and the scathing judgement that hisses "that was not made for you"?
Note, from January 2019: I haven’t worn the jacket once since writing this. It’s still hanging in the closet, but that hissing judgement that hurt my feelings was right, it’s not for me, no matter how complicated its history. In fact, it is especially not for me to complicate that history more.