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Hands Off My Qipao, Ao Dai, and Sari

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

Dear Asian Youth,

As someone who likes to spend a lot of their time online shopping, I've noticed a trend among popular brands such as Fashion Nova, Pretty Little Thing, and Missguided: traditional Asian clothing being sold as “oriental” and “exotic” pieces. I’m not talking about the traditional, elegant, silk attire commonly worn during celebrations or holidays. I’m talking about the sexy, cheap, curve-hugging alternatives that rip off centuries of history and disrespect our Eastern culture. Cultural appropriation is defined as the “unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people by members of another and typically more dominant people or society,” and this is exactly what these clothing companies are doing: inappropriately using our culture for their own gain and aesthetic.

Qipaos, ao dais, kimonos, hanboks, saris, and other traditional Asian garments were not designed to be worn as a sexy outfit for a girls night out. Rather, each garment carries its own rich story that dates back centuries. Being Vietnamese, I’ve only known to wear ao dais during celebrations such as weddings or Lunar New Year. To me, it is symbolic of my culture and connects me to my Vietnamese roots. The ao dai has gone through multiple evolutions since its first prominent appearance in the 18th century under the Nguyen Dynasty. Its most drastic and modern change came about during the era of French colonization when designers started to combine Western beauty influences with the traditional tunic style dress—creating the simple, form-fitting silhouette we see today. Symbolically, the ao dai represents femininity, elegance, and celebrates Vietnamese pride. So, when I see non-Vietnamese people like Kacey Musgraves, the famous country singer, strutting around a stage wearing my country’s national dress without pants and not understanding the history and significance behind it, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable and offended. She even wore a maang tikka, or chuti, which is a traditional Indian headpiece that represents the third eye in the Hindu religion. It carries its own religious and cultural significance that has no relevance to

Vietnamese culture. Her mixing of cultural pieces obviously demonstrates her lack of cultural awareness and the fact that she is cherry-picking aspects of Asian culture purely for the aesthetic. If you are going to wear another

nation’s national dress, the least you could do is wear it properly and not sexualize it to fit your own agenda.

The Kardashians are perhaps the first people that come to my mind when talking about cultural appropriation. In 2019, Kim Kardashian announced her shapewear line which she named Kimono. These were branded as bodysuits, underwear, and bras meant to accentuate a woman’s curves and bore no resemblance to the Japanese kimonos. While Kardashian may not have intentionally named her brand Kimono to dishonor the garment, her poor choice of branding left people feeling disrespected and stripped of their cultural identity. In Japan, kimonos are typically reserved for special occasions such as wedding ceremonies, tea ceremonies, and visiting temples and shrines. With many layers and styles, even small details such as color, sleeve length, and style of pattern can indicate a person’s age, status, and what occasion they are attending. A traditional garment carrying over 1,000 years of history and is symbolic of Japanese culture was now also associated with an underwear brand. Though Kardashian ultimately decided to change her brand name to Skims after public backlash, her rap with cultural appropriation did not stop there.

Aside from appropriating Asian culture, Kardashian has also managed to steal aspects from the Black community. On multiple occasions, Kardashian can be seen wearing Fulani braids in her hair on social media and red carpets. One Instagram post, however, stuck out the most to me. In the picture, she is wearing a head full of Fulani braids with beads, and in her caption, she called them “Bo Derek Braids.” Keep in mind that Bo Derek is a caucasian actress who wore this style of braids in 1979 for one of her movies. Kardashian totally disregards the cultural meaning and significance behind Fulani braids by crediting Derek for the hairstyle when it really originated in African culture. For years, Fulani braids and natural hairstyles have been deemed “ghetto” or “unprofessional,” and Black women are continually told by society that they have to straighten their hair in order to fit into the eurocentric beauty standards.

I’ve seen the argument that “if non-Black people are not allowed to wear Fulani braids, Black people are not allowed to straighten their hair.” First of all, straight hair is a characteristic. Straight, curly, brown, blonde, thick, and thin hair are all characteristics that no culture can claim. Whereas Fulani braids are a hair style originating from the Fulani people in West Africa. For many African tribes, braids are an indicating factor of age, wealth, marital status, and power. In addition, hairstyles such as the Fulani braids have close ties to the slave trade. Before boarding African women onto slave ships, traffickers would shave their heads as a form of inhumane treatment and as a way to strip away their identity. Second of all, many Black women are pressured into straightening their hair in order to assimilate into Western beauty standards. Believe it or not, there are workplaces that discriminate against Black women who choose to wear their natural hair or any hairstyle that is deemed “unruly.” Because of this, some Black women are forced to comply with regulations placed on their hair or face the risk of losing their jobs.

As a member of the BIPOC community, I believe that it is important to actively call-out individuals that are exploiting our culture as we are more than a trend. Bigger influencers, such as Kacey Musgraves and Kim Kardashian, are among many that catapult trends into pop culture for their millions of fans to follow. So when marginalized groups see aspects of their culture as the next “innovative” fashion craze, it invalidates the culture as a whole. Why is it that when ethnic people want to express themselves through their culture, they are mocked, shamed, and made to feel alienated? But when non-POC wear the same cultural pieces, it’s considered hip and trendy. In many cases, cultural appropriation can occur due to the lack of education and awareness of how offensive the action may be. It is crucial that we continue to confront those who may be unknowingly committing acts of cultural appropriation to prevent it from occurring in the future.

From personal experience, I know that it is frustrating to see someone be praised for wearing something that would be deemed as “outlandish” or “eccentric” on you. Growing up, I’ve always felt the need to look the least “Asian” as I could. I never wore my ao dai out in public, and if I did have to wear it to an event, there was always a looming fear of judgement from strangers passing by. Although I am now proud of my Vietnamese heritage and have come to love wearing my ao dai, it still rubs me the wrong way when I see non-Vietnamese influencers donning ao dais on red carpets and social media. Cultural theft completely erases the significance of the victim’s identity and disregards the complex history behind each aspect of their culture. Pop culture seems to always favor the “exotic” look on people who lack the “exotic” culture themselves. With that being said, my culture is not a trend. It is not an aesthetic. Learn to appreciate other cultures rather than ripping them apart and cherry-picking desirable aspects to fit your eurocentric beauty standards.

- Sunna Mai


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