Just a Dress

Words by Maggie Zhou
Art by Kat Xiaoyang Pei

We’re a melting pot of cultures, a globalised world, an interconnected species. Between cultures, we share food, music and art. Many insist that clothes should also be freely shared. Yet clothes are not merely the threads and fabrics that physically make it up.

Cultural dress is significant because of the history it holds; these items of tradition are worn to signify cultural heritage. With that in mind, cultural appropriation is defined by American lawyer Susan Scafidi as “the taking of intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission”. More often than not, this property is taken from marginalised or oppressed minorities.

Growing up, like many other Australian-born Chinese people (affectionally known as ABCs), I tried to denounce my Chinese ethnicity. I would emphasise my Aussie accent. I hated Chinese school, wishing I was at netball or footy like the other kids. I would beg for Vegemite school sandwiches instead of my mum’s tofu dishes. When my mum forced me and my sisters into wearing traditional cheongsams, I hated it. I hated the restrictive high necklace that always felt too tight, the ridiculous frog closures instead of normal buttons and the too-long skirts.

I thought it was hideous, but more than that, I hated the fact that I couldn’t escape my Chinese heritage.

The cheongsam (also known as a qipao), is one of China’s national dresses. The origins of the garment are unclear, but it’s mainly believed to be derived from the Manchu women in the Qing dynasty in the 17th century. The golden age of the garment was the Republican period. Many scholars relate this to the women’s liberation movements where Chinese feminists sought to break from traditional gender roles and segregation. Wearing a cheongsam became an act of rebellion; it was a symbol of the silent fight for gender equality.

Today they’re not used as daily wear, they are an emblem of Chinese culture and tradition. Cheongsams are held with high regard and respect, worn on formal occasions such as one’s wedding day and Chinese New Year.

So can non-Chinese people wear a cheongsam? Can designers take elements of the traditional dress and modify it for their own monetary benefit?

Just last year, Utah senior Keziah Daum wore a cheongsam to her high school prom. A Twitter storm followed suit. A man named Jeremy Lam tweeted the prom photos Daum had posted, writing, “I’m proud of my culture, including the extreme barriers marginalised people have had to overcome those obstacles”.

Personally, I was ready to give her the benefit of the doubt, thinking she could be appreciating Chinese culture. However, in response, she tweeted, “I don’t see the big deal of me wearing a gorgeous dress… It’s just a dress”. It’s just a dress. By disregarding the context and history of the garment, she silenced its significance to Chinese people. By purely wearing it for aesthetics, it diminishes it into a mere one-dimensional fashion trend.

It happens time and time again. Chinese patterns and Mandarin characters are slapped on trendy crop tops and misattributed as Japanese or Korean (because we are all the same, right?).

Maybe we should give regular citizens a break. But celebrities with a horde of stylists shouldn’t be let off that easily. In November 2013, Katy Perry performed ‘Unconditionally’ at the American Music Awards. Bafflingly, the song was inspired by a trip to Madagascar, and the performance was a mash-up of stereotypical Asian imagery. Perry was seen with a heavily powdered face, wearing a modified kimono that jumbled Chinese and Western alterations into a sexualised Japanese fantasy. The fact that Perry can indulge in what is known as yellowface but does not have to face any of the discrimination and hardships of the culture she is wearing, is privilege.

Fear not, the media isn’t all bad news. One highlight of the 2015 Met Gala, themed China: Through the Looking Glass, was Rihanna. Rihanna arrived in a larger-than-life canary-yellow gown designed by Guo Pei, one of the few Chinese haute couture designers included in the Gala. Pei’s sense of national identity is intertwined in every piece, she says, “it is [her] responsibility to let the world know China’s tradition and past”.

So how do we navigate this tumultuous road of cultural appropriation? Where is the line between appreciation and appropriation? It’s important to remember that there’s no black and white answer, we are negotiating in a largely grey area. The opinions I hold may not reflect other individuals with the same ethnicity.

To me, my Chinese identity isn’t some ‘exotic’ costume I can wear once then leave hanging at the back of my closet. To me, it’s intrinsically linked to who I am.

Appreciating the aesthetics of a culture isn’t enough. It’s about wanting to deepen your understanding of the history and traditions behind it. Be critical about what fashion you’re consuming. I personally commend designers who do their research, show an eagerness to genuinely want to learn about cultures, rather than create throw-away collections of over-simplified and stale tropes. Brands should consider collaborating with artists or designers from cultures they aren’t a part of.

If we are to truly be a multicultural society, each culture should be treated with the respect, nuance and individuality it deserves.

Because at the end of the day, it’s more than just about clothes.

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