Cultural Appropriation in Fashion

With Katy Perry, Vanessa Hudgens, Kendall Jenner, and countless other Hollywood stars donning kimonos, bindis, saris, and hennas as “boho hippy” fashion statements—most notably at American music festivals—the masses have picked up on the trend. There are many bloggers and individuals of all ethnic backgrounds who naively say: “Oh it is not cultural appropriation! I’m appreciating it!” – I hate to burst your bubble but you are not. It is an unequal exchange where a dominant Western culture presses itself onto cultures and taking away symbols, which are deemed precious to that minority culture.

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Mimi Nguyen, associate professor of women’s and Asian American studies at the University of Illinois, told The Wall Street Journal that geisha-inspired pieces are “costumey” and offensive. “It is a way for white women to borrow a racially exotic edge for a moment’s play,” she explained. So I wondered if this trend is shaded with orientalism.

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Terms for this style of dress are often classified as “bohemian, boho-chic, or indie”- words that do not reflect the historical importance behind the cultures they steal from. One of the most ignorant responses imaginable came from Selena Gomez as she wrote on her Instagram, “Sari, not sari” (an insensitive play on the popular phrase, “Sorry, not sorry”). It is a shame that those in the public eye cannot take responsibility for their actions so that the people looking up to them can follow suit. While many think that Selena Gomez and festival-goers who wear kimonos, bindis, and saris is a sign of Asian culture being “mainstreamed” and “accepted” in Western culture, please consider this. Do they even know what a bindi stands for? Have they ever stopped to think why they can wear it without any issues but Asian women can’t? It is not a mainstream fashion accessory to wear on your forehead and say: “Oh my God Brittney! We’re so exotic and trendy!”

I draw the line between appropriation and appreciation when people start dehumanizing others and then place their own emotions/experiences/point of view higher, so that they are okay with using a foreign culture as a tool for themselves.

My family and I immigrated from Hong Kong in 1998 without knowing much about the language and culture of United States. I cannot even begin to fathom how difficult it was to begin a new life in a foreign land. These thoughts cross my mind especially after I am faced with micro aggression or see somebody appropriating Asian culture. I find myself extremely sensitive to situations where I am “othered” or my culture is bastardized, but I always tell myself that this is nothing compared to what my parents faced and continue to deal with.

Elementary school was one of the first places I received negative comments about my traditional dress. In celebration of Chinese New Year, I decided to wear a cheongsam to to school. In a matter of seconds, kids started to make fun of me for the “weird” floral patterns and silky texture of my clothes. They started saying “it’s not even Halloween yet” and proceeded to make racial slurs, “ching chong”. Fast-forward 10 years to when celebrities wear cheongsam and other Asian clothes as a fashion statement, and it is suddenly “cool” and “classy”. In fact, Urban Outfitters and ASOS are selling overpriced and frankly tacky looking versions of an extremely significant cultural and religious adornment. Why is it acceptable for “boho” girls to wear bindis and kimonos? Where did all that passion come from? They sure did not have that passion when their local Asian girl was getting bullied for her culture in the school hallways and lunch tables.

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People need to recognize that it is a culture, not a costume. Why are ethnic features only deemed beautiful on non-ethnic bodies? I personally believe that it is because there is an imbalance of power that still remains between cultures that have been colonized and the ex-colonizers.

My culture is priceless and is not something you can buy from Forever 21. This is much more than just sending a message to white folks that we will not tolerate Asian cultures being appropriated. It is about relieving ourselves of some of the trauma we have faced. There is also a lot of anger I still have over years I spent rejecting my identity. I still struggle with being outwardly Asian outside of my circle of friends and family. I still feel like I exist in multiple identities that can never truly intersect and I wonder if there will ever be a day I can reconcile this. I wonder if there will ever be a day where my “foreign” body will be valued and if my presentation of my Asian identity will be more than exotic.

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