You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that with all the talk of cultural appropriation these days, most people would stick to neutral clothing with no hint of ethnic origin. But that wasn’t the case for one teen in Salt Lake City, Utah, who wore a Chinese qipao (or cheongsam) — a long, tight-fitting dress with a high slit that’s made of Chinoiserie fabric — to her prom.
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Keziah Daum, a high school senior, says she was drawn to the dress, which she found in a vintage store, because of its modesty and uniqueness.
“I was looking for a dress that was going to be modest in the neckline but also unique,” she told Cosmopolitan. “I’ve always admired the beauty and uniqueness of the Chinese dresses, so I went to that section. I saw that dress, and I was like, ‘OK, this is the dress.’”
But after posting pictures from her prom to social media, Twitter user Jeremy Lam vehemently accused her of cultural appropriation.
His tweet has since been retweeted nearly 42,000 times and received more than 20,000 replies, with people clearly split on whether Daum’s choice was right or wrong.
But as the (mostly) American debate raged on, news of the prom dress reached China where the reaction was decidedly more subdued.
In a conversation with the New York Times, Zhou Yijun, a Hong Kong-based cultural commentator, said: “It’s ridiculous to criticize this as cultural appropriation. From the perspective of a Chinese person, if a foreign woman wears a qipao and thinks she looks pretty, then why shouldn’t she wear it?”
Some argue that the qipao’s history is itself a form of appropriation. The garment was copied from the Han Chinese and introduced by the Manchus, an ethnic minority in China’s northeast. It was originally a loose-fitting style with long, wide sleeves, but as Chinese culture influenced fashion designers in the early decades of the 20th century, it was reimagined in the form-fitting dress with a long side slit that we know today.
Hung Huang, a writer and fashion blogger based in Beijing, clarified any doubts that the qipao carries hallowed associations.
“To Chinese, it’s not sacred and it’s not that meaningful. Nowadays, if you see a woman wearing a qipao, she’s probably a waitress in a restaurant or a bride.”
In a followup tweet, Daum said she believed the dress showed her appreciation for Chinese culture. Furthermore, she told Buzzfeed, she researched the dress’s origins after purchasing it and said that its message of female empowerment stuck with her.
“If we are teaching women to be strong, does it matter which culture it is coming from?” she said.
George Nicholas, a professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University, says the issue in cases like this is that the line between appropriation and appreciation isn’t always clear.
“Context is very important,” he tells Global News. “Human societies worldwide have long borrowed from each other, with ideas and technologies flowing through time and place. The Romans copied the Greeks. Many of the foods that are staples of the Western diet (corn, beans, tomatoes, potatoes) were originally domesticated by Indigenous peoples. There is no harm in such borrowing.”
However, he says, this borrowing becomes a problem when it’s done without permission or in unwelcome ways that ultimately cause cultural, spiritual or economic harm. He cites examples like loss of control over heritage, diminished respect for the sacred, loss of artistic control, threats to authenticity and loss of livelihood.
By that rationale, the qipao doesn’t seem to violate any appropriation rules.
“The qipao is a commercial product of Chinese urban modernity in the 1920s,” says Ryan Dunch, a professor of history and classics at the University of Alberta. “It would have been completely scandalous in earlier periods but it became fashionable partly because it was scandalous. Go to any Chinese city as a foreign woman and someone will try to sell you a qipao.”
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