Hands Off My Qipao, Ao Dai, and Sari
Updated: Mar 12
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