Reclaiming Appropriated Cultural Fashion
Have you ever noticed tight-fit dresses with high slits and mandarin collars (high chance of dragon motifs) worn at a club or party? I have. If you haven’t, google “Oriental Dress” and you’ll know what I mean. These dresses draw their inspiration from East-Asian garments, particularly Chinese旗袍 , but have become fetishised instead of appreciating the beauty of the original design. Such clothing, when worn by non-Asians who have no understanding of the origins and history, become a prime example of cultural appropriation
Cultural appropriation has been a bingo word across news and social media over the past number of years. These instances aren’t limited to East-Asian cultures, but most under the BIPOC umbrella. As a woman of Chinese-descent, the instances of questionable Chinese-inspired clothing are the ones I’m most aware of. The internet was divided in 2018 when American teen Keziah Daum wore a 旗袍 to prom. The same year, Nicki Minaj’s song “Chun Li” faced controversy over perpetuating Asian stereotypes with its costume designs and performance. Now, Dior has become the latest source of outrage among Chinese Millennials and Gen Zers after their Fall 2022 collection included a plain black skirt with straight panels on the front and back and folded pleats along the sides, the same silhouette as the Ming Dynasty 马面裙.
Most Chinese would be thrilled to have fashion inspired by our culture. However, instead of respectful, tasteful incorporation from luxury western brands, these examples tend to be limited to Chinese-owned brands and the works of Chinese-born designers like Guo Pei and Grace Chen. In the case of Dior, what might have been a success elicited outrage when the company failed to acknowledge the inspiration from traditional Chinese garments. It’s hard to argue on a designer’s side when the garment they made lost the cultural history behind it.
Without this connection to history and culture, people immediately revert to stereotypes. In 2020, #foxeye gained over 74 million views on Tiktok with videos of young white women applying makeup and taping back the skin around their brows to make their eyes appear more upturned and longer in shape – the same features Asians have been mocked over. Non-Asians became famous on social media by appropriating typically Asian features and Asian clothing (i.e. Asian-fishing), such as Tiktok users @rottensofia, @sparrowkatya (since deleted their account) and @itsnotdatsrs. While both men and women have emulated the East-Asian, typically mono-lidded eyes, the problem is escalated by the matter of gender. Racial stereotypes already weigh heavily on anyone of Asian-descent, but there are particular stereotypes surrounding Asian women which paint them as submissive and childlike. By freely appropriating the style and features of Asians, these Asian-fishers actively shovel the discrimination, systemic sexualisation and fetishisation, under the rug. Those backed by white privilege reap the attention and beauty of marginalised cultures and escape the unglamorous side of racism and hate.
These acts of appropriation are insensitive, to say the least, at a time of anti-Asian racism and targeted violence, especially against Asian women. From the Dallas shooting in the US to Chinese students attending the University of Melbourne being assaulted in the CBD, there is no dismissing the anti-Asian hate that has been brought out of the dark by the pandemic. It’s a despairing feeling to realise while we experience racism in our daily lives, people of non-Asian descent are using Asian stereotypes to gain clout.
In the face of bastardised and appropriated parts of our culture, the fox eye challenge and Asian-fishing, counteraction may feel daunting, but I believe in reclaiming our identity by wearing the fashion that has so often been taken from us, reconnecting with our own cultures and spreading awareness. I see Chinese students wearing styles of 汉服 across campus, especially for events at the Chinese Culture Society. I’ve noticed the small elements of culture slipping into modern fashion: silhouettes, patterns, and iconography I recognise, like 祥云 and龙凤 . I notice tattoos reminiscent of 国画. They form a new style known China-chic or New Chinese Style, which incorporates traditional Chinese iconography in everyday wear. Intrinsically tied and predating it is the Hanfu Movement, revitalising 汉服styles from the Han, Tang, Song, Ming and Qing Dynasties.
At the same time, youtubers, instagramers and tiktokers are using their platforms to educate followers on cultural appropriation and the erased cultural history behind such acts. Xiran Zhao combines traditional clothing with history lessons and cultural analysis. Mochihanfu shares 汉服 styles and has spread the word of Dior’s lack of acknowledgement of 马面裙. These are just a few content creators who are using Millennial and Gen Z dominated platforms to open discussions on appropriation and racism. Through these platforms, not only is Chinese culture and history becoming more well-known but the negative stereotypes of Chinese (especially the fetishisation of Chinese women) are being countered. When I search up ‘Chinese Clothing’, I see more and more 汉服 ，旗袍 and respectful depictions of my culture. These quick searches are showing less and less objectified women in what was never meant to be a ‘sexy’ garment.
With these efforts, I hope more people will think twice before partaking in orientalist trends and instead appreciate Asian culture through Asian designers. I hope that however marginally, the negative stereotypes around Asians can be outshone by the rich cultures we have. We are still recovering from a long period of Asian hate, but we are recovering. Little by little, we reclaim our culture and our identity.
Felicity Yiran Smith is a current student of the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing. She likes to experiment with multilingual writing.