A vibrant South Asian woman sits gracefully before a charming brownstone adorned with Halloween-themed decorations – white skeletons, orange pumpkin lights, and eerie embellishments. She dons a burgundy t-shirt featuring three witches, their green skin and black pointy hats infused with a South Asian touch – ornate necklaces, exquisite gold earrings, and intricate forehead jewelry. Their hats are adorned with a tapestry of multicolored hoops. With a radiant smile, the young woman, sporting gold hoop earrings and a jeweled bindi on her forehead, exudes cultural fusion. Her lustrous, dark hair flows beyond her shoulders.
For artist Manasi Arya, Halloween in her formative years presented a distinct challenge. Ghouls, ghosts, and monsters weren’t her primary concerns during this spooky season. As a first-generation Indian-American immigrant, Manasi struggled to find her place in a school environment where Halloween was a prevalent cultural tradition. Unlike her peers, Halloween wasn’t part of her Indian household’s customs. Instead of participating in the conventional practice of acquiring a Halloween costume, her mother encouraged her to wear traditional Indian attire.
It was during a pumpkin competition where Manasi and her mother crafted a design of an Indian woman adorned in traditional jewelry that her revelation occurred. Their victory in the competition brought her to the realization that her dual identity could coexist harmoniously.
Inspired by this revelation, Manasi embarked on a journey to create a collection of clothing that melded South Asian women dressed in traditional cultural attire with classic Halloween imagery. One of her T-shirts features the iconic Ghostface mask from the Scream horror movie franchise, but with the addition of a red bindi dot on the forehead. Another design portrays a skeleton adorned with substantial Indian earrings, known as jhumkas, and a decorative headpiece called a tikka.
Over the course of three years, Manasi’s clothing line has garnered an overwhelmingly positive response. She has received heartfelt gratitude from Indian parents who appreciate her innovative approach to introducing their children to their heritage in an engaging and educational manner.
Yet, Manasi’s work goes beyond just fashion; it delves into the complex realm of debates surrounding Halloween costumes and cultural appropriation that have circulated on social media for some time. While some believe it’s acceptable to dress up as figures they admire, others criticize such acts as “cosplaying” characters from different cultures.
Black British influencer, activist, and musician Solana has encountered these issues firsthand. She recently shared her experience in a TikTok video where she encountered a white man wearing a “Jamaican” costume with an afro wig during the Leeds Otley Run, a popular student pub crawl. Upon seeing Solana and her black friends, the man removed the wig. Solana emphasizes that “cultures are not costumes” and advocates that if people wish to dress up, they should focus less on cultural stereotypes and more on expressing their personal sense of style.
Manasi believes that some costume choices stem from ignorance regarding cultural attire and its origins. She recalls a situation where she confronted a white girl wearing a bindi, who was unaware of its significance in Hindu culture as a symbol of the third eye and saw it merely as an aesthetically pleasing decoration.
Manasi aspires for her clothing line to serve as a platform for people to explore and appreciate South Asian culture while sparking conversations about the fine line between appropriation and appreciation. She emphasizes her comfort with anyone wearing her creations, as they primarily consist of T-shirts, sweaters, and denim.
It’s evident that her designs are providing the inspiration that Manasi longed for during her own childhood. One young Indian girl, in particular, shared her story of being inspired by Manasi’s art, dressing up as a “desi witch” for Halloween, complete with a green and black sari and a witch’s hat.