The NYT’s fashion director decries cultural appropriation

February 15, 2023 • 10:15 am

Vanessa Friedman is the fashion director and chief fashion critic of the New York Times, and she also will answer your “burning style questions” at openthread@nytimes.com

In today’s paper, she answers a question about whether it’s bad to culturally appropriate clothing, with a special focus on Asian clothing. All I can say is that I’m in trouble if that appropriation is bad, because when I’m in India, and sometimes in the U.S., I wear Indian clothing. In India it’s simply far more comfortable than “Western” clothing like heavy blue jeans, and it’s also a lot easier to get light cotton kurtas (shirts) and drawstring pants washed by the local dhobi (washer); they are cheap to clean and they dry fast. And I like the look of kurtas, too, and have several silk ones—including some given to me by Indian friends.

I have never been called out or criticized for wearing Indian clothes. Indeed, in India I think the locals appreciate my “appropriation.”

That said, I’m clearly DOING IT RONG, at least according to Vanessa Friedman, because I haven’t deeply educated myself on the clothes. I wear them because I like them and they’re comfortable. (I also have two New Zealand All Blacks rugby shirts in case a Kiwi wants to go after me.)

But I think Vanessa is deeply misguided, and sets herself up as a Pecksniffian arbiter of what’s proper.

Let me say first that yes, in some circumstances I wouldn’t wear clothes from other cultures. I wouldn’t dress up as a Mexican bandit at Halloween (though it shouldn’t be banned), nor as a Japanese samurai. This is mainly because there is no circumstance in which that would be necessary. The only time when I think it would be actually offensive to wear clothes of another culture is when you’re doing it to mock other cultures.  Dressing up as a samurai would be deeply weird, and hardly “appropriate” in any circumstance, but it’s not a mockery of Japanese culture. And I have no problem with Western women wearing Indian clothes like saris—which I consider the world’s most beautiful women’s apparel—or the two-piece salwar kameez. It’s nearly always done out of respect and admiration for the garment, so why is that wrong?

According to Pecksniff Vanessa, it’s wrong unless you wear it exactly as it’s meant to be worn (hard with a sari) and if you have educated yourself on the “specific meaning” of the item.

Click the headline to read her misguided advice, and I see the article is archived here as well:

Here’s the question from an Inquisitive Reader:

I lived in Bangkok for a few years and traveled the region extensively. I love Asian-inspired fashion, but I now feel self-conscious wearing some of my Asian pieces as I am not Asian and don’t want to be disrespectful in any way. What do I do with my ao dai, Chinese jacket, Shanghai Tang items and more? — Mary, La Jolla, Calif.

My answer would be, “You go, Mary”, but Ms. Friedman finds this “problematic”:

The question of cultural appropriation is a highly complicated, fraught issue with no simple answers. You may remember that a few years ago a white high school senior wore a cheongsam to her prom, and it set off a firestorm of criticism in the United States — though in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, many social media users saw it as a cultural victory.

Note that the Chinese weren’t offended: it was Americans (including Chinese-Americans) who wailed. That tells you already that it’s the local Pecksniffs, people looking to be offended, that make people who wear clothes from other cultures feel bad.

And remember when, in 2015, the Met Gala celebrated the exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass,” and though some guests understood the theme, others got their traditions and countries mixed up in a pretty egregious way?

There is a difference between wearing a garment as a homage and sign of cultural appreciation and wearing it as a costume or because you think it looks cute. And when it comes to Asian sartorial tradition, the stakes have only increased since the pandemic began, with its wave of despicable anti-Asian violence.

This can be especially tricky when it comes to fashion, which has long loved to dabble in what used to be termed the “exotic,” often without any regard for point of origin or meaning. See, for example, Gucci’s use of turbans that evoked Sikh dress as a runway accessory in 2019, not to mention the continued widespread use of the generic and derogatory term “Oriental” in reference to style and prints.

“Cute” is deliberately demeaning: people wear foreign clothes because they think they look good. I don’t wear kurtas because I think they’re “cute.”

People do not wear foreign clothes as a deliberate sign of homage or cultural appreciation unless they’re going to a special cultural event. They wear them because they like the way they look. If Ms. Friedman thinks that wearing Asian clothes somehow buys into anti-Asian violence or bigotry, she has no idea what she’s talking about. As for turbans, well, they’ve been worn by women for decades, and don’t especially conjure up Sikhs. But even if they did, so what? Gucci is not making fun of Sikhs, but adopting a garment out of admiration.

As for “Oriental,” well, yes, I wouldn’t use that term, but we’re talking about clothing here, not words.

Further, according to Friedman, you have to think deeply and do some sartorial study before you don your garment. Just to be sure, she asked an Asian American

I asked Jodie Chan, a fashion professional and the producer of the short film “Invisible Seams,” which tells the stories of New York’s Asian garment workers, what she would advise. First, she said, intention and understanding matters, so educate yourself as to the meaning and history of a garment to ensure you are wearing it as it is meant to be worn.

“While clothing is universal, some pieces can carry specific meaning and should be researched and treated as such,” Ms. Chan said in an email. “If you want to wear a kimono/yukata or robe piece suggestive of a kimono, for example, it is very important to consider how you wear it — always the left side over the right side, as the other way is for the deceased in Japanese culture.”

Well, yes, if you want to be accurate, but really, if it’s on the wrong side, are you mocking or making fun of Asians?  Jodie Chan, by the way, is a Vice President of Marketing at Carolina Herrera, which purveys Western clothes, and if you want to see lots of photos of Ms. Chan appropriating Western dress, go here. Apparently she has the right to culturally appropriate clothes (more on that below):

Another expert finds some stuff problematic:

Susie Lau, a fashion editor and influencer better known as Susie Bubble, said that context was also important, noting that if she saw a qipao dress worn as a sort of sexy waitress look with exaggerated cat-eye makeup, “that is immediately problematic.”

But, she added, “I believe culture should be shared, exchanged and disseminated with the most positive of intentions,” and sometimes that is done through clothing.

Does she not know that wearing foreign clothes is almost invariably done with positive intentions? Does she not know how the world works?

I have to say that qipao dresses, form-fitting and often slit way up the side, are intentionally sexy, and what’s the issue with pairing them with “cat-eye makeup”? I don’t know what Lau is talking about with the “sexy waitress look”, but quipao dresses aren’t exactly modest clothing.

Oh, and there’s one more thing that’s problematic:

Finally, consider who made the piece, and thus who is benefiting. Is it an Asian designer or a Western name profiting from another country’s culture?

Can we ditch the idea of “who’s profiting from another country’s culture”? For crying out loud, all over Asia, including Japan, people wear Western clothing, usually made locally, not in America. Japanese salarymen wear suits and ties, many women get their fashion from the West, and blue jeans (Levis), invented in America, are worldwide.  Do Friedman, Chan, and Lau decry the widespread cultural appropriation of Western clothes by Asians: indeed, by people throughout the world? No, of course not, because it’s okay when they do the appropriation.

It cannot be wrong for an American to wear a qipao if it’s not wrong for a Japanese woman to wear blue jeans, or a Japanese businessman a suit.  That’s all ye need to know.

What we have here are cowed Americans worried sick about whether they’re offending people from other cultures, and they’re made to feel that way as a power play by people who are pretending to “protect” their culture. But this is not offensive because in the case of “cultural appropriation,” as with language, intent does matter.  And I’ve never seen a case (except perhaps at Halloween, and I can’t think of an example) where the intent was mocking or malicious.

Every country is involved in cultural appropriation—of food, of dress, of hairstyles, or machinery—and so on. This is, I think, all to the good. But there are those Pecksniffs who want to put a barrier around their culture and check the Purity Passport of every person who wants entry. Frankly, I’m sick to death of those people who, in their fervent desire—indeed, sometimes a vocation—to be offended, call out things that are good or well meant. If you want to see the apogee of the Deliberately Offended, read about “Kimono Wednesdays” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts a few years back.

A good anti-creationist tee shirt

May 19, 2022 • 9:15 am

While I’m writing a post on free will (up next), I thought I’d show you one of my favorite tee shirts that I chose to wear today. I can’t remember where I got it, but I’m sure you can still order them. It’s a funny one that makes fun of fundamentalist creationists, and I’ll let you figure out what it’s saying. It’s not hard!

“Teach the controversy” was, of course, the mantra of creationists after they failed to get creationism taught in public schools, either as Biblical or “scientific” creationism. They then started saying this mantra, hoping that teachers would think there was a real scientific controversy about whether evolution was true or not. Like all their other machinations, that one failed too.

I’ll leave the rest to you. This is the first time I’ve worn this shirt. I have an aversion to wearing new tee shirts, for fear that they’ll begin to wear out. But that’s stupid because I’m 72, have a gazillion tee shirts, and won’t be around before my collection even begins to wear out.

Anyway, enjoy. Maybe you’ll want one of these:

“Cultural appropriation” of a Chinese dress causes big kerfuffle

May 1, 2018 • 1:00 pm

Some people are permanently poised to be offended; in fact, you’d think they get pleasure out of being offended.

One of the topics that often triggers unwarranted offense is cultural appropriation—the adoption by one culture or ethnicity of food, clothing, music, or other aspects of a different culture.  In principle this could be offensive, as in the use of blackface, but more often than not it’s simply the appreciation by one culture of another. BuzzFeed (click on screenshot below) and other sites like the Washington Post and the BBC describe a particularly ridiculous example:

What happened is that 18 year old Keziah Daum, a high school student from Utah, decided to wear to her senior prom a quipao, or traditional Chinese dress with a high neckline and slit skirt. While this was worn in China (and still is by societies that try to preserve the dress style), it was really a form of women’s clothing invented in Shanghai in the 1920s and limited to wealthy socialites. Here, for example, is a quipao society I photographed in a mall in Macao on my last visit to Hong Kong:

Well, Ms. Daum made the deadly mistake of liking a quipao she saw in a Salt Lake City vintage clothing store, saying that she was “immediately drawn to the beautiful red grown and was thrilled to find a dress with a modest neckline.” She wore it to the prom and posted the following pictures on Twitter.

You can see the four sub-pictures by clicking on her tweet, but here are three of them. Daum looks lovely, though of course the last picture might be considered offensive by some. I don’t, as it’s not making fun of a culture but imitating (I think) a gesture thought to be Chinese (it’s also Indian, Nepalese, and used in many other countries):

 

Well, you can question the wisdom of the last photo, but believe me, this fracas would have happened had just the other pictures been posted. Sure enough, Jeremy Lam, a student at the University of Utah, took great offense and posted this tweet:

As you see, it got 17,000 comments and was retweeted 42,000 times. As you might expect, though Daum had her defenders, she only got those defenders because of the spate of people who called her out for “appropriating” a “traditional dress with a long history and making it into a fashion statement.” Well, the dress doesn’t have a long history, was limited to the upper classes, and is supposed to be a fashion statement. If the dress represents “Chinese culture”, it is only a very narrow segment of Chinese culture. (If a lower-class Chinese woman wore it, would that be considered “class appropriation”?).

Daum, as might be expected, was sandbagged, not expecting this at all, and was hurt. You can see all the negative and supportive comments at BuzzFeed (it turns out Jeremy Lam had engaged in even more impure forms of cultural appropriation in previous tweets.) But she even tried to be nice about it:

“I never imagined a simple rite of passage such as a prom would cause a discussion reaching many parts of the world,” Daum said. “Perhaps it is an important discussion we need to have.”

She said that she was sorry if she had caused any offense, and that her intent was never to anger anyone.

“I simply found a beautiful, modest gown and chose to wear it,” she said.

No, we don’t need to have a conversation about her wearing a quipao as a prom dress. It’s not insulting and wasn’t intended to be. It was the best kind of cultural appropriation: the adoption of some aspect of culture that you admire. Yes, we can and should talk about blackface, Mexican sombreros, and the like, but if we’re going to talk about cultural appropriation, how about this site, showing Asian workers adopting “dress-for-success” fashion, which happens to be Western? How about if we talk about the limits of “offensive” cultural appropriation?

Isn’t the picture above an example of cultural appropriation? If not, why not? After all, at least in the U.S. Asians enjoy a social and academic advantage over Caucasians; so if “punching down” is worse than “punching up”, Asians wearing Western suits would be the graver sin.

But this is all nonsense. Cultures intertwine and enrich each other; I can’t imagine the U.S. without the musical, culinary, linguistic, and artistic contributions of non-Caucasians (I won’t say “other cultures” because all of us descend from immigrants). We wouldn’t have the great musical form of jazz without the African-Americans who invented it, and yet its adoption by cultures worldwide occurred without the supposedly negative aspects of “cultural appropriation.” That’s another example of cross-fertilization of cultures.

Making a poor high school woman feel awful about her choice of dress is something that these misguided Social Justice Warriors like to do. It accomplishes nothing positive; all it does is make the “appropriators” feel bad and the puritans feel good about themselves. Can you tell me if anything positive came out of this?

 

h/t: Seth Andews

A supermodel speaks, and it ain’t pretty

December 6, 2017 • 2:45 pm

Yes, I do follow popular culture, at least to the extent that I know who Bella Hadid is. She’s a very wealthy  21-year-old supermodel (as is her sister Gigi), with both sisters the offspring of a very wealthy Los Angeles real-estate developer.  Bella was voted “Model of the Year” in 2016, and you can see her virtually everywhere advertising fashion and makeup.

Also sneakers. Here, if you have the stomach to watch it, is an eight-minute video of Hadid going shopping for Nike sneakers with Joe La Puma, whoever he is.  She’s known for wearing sneakers, even with fancy dresses, and is an official spokesperson for Nike. (That means her “purchase” of sneakers at the end is bogus.)

Notice these things:

1.)  Hadid’s repeated use of the words “homeboy”, “dope” and “sick” as synonyms for “friend”, “awesome” and “cool,” respectively. She also says “fresh”, which here doesn’t mean “not stinky”, but “new and in style.” These words started out in the black community, and Hadid may have picked them up because she dated a black rapper named The Weeknd; but they’ve now become general argot among Millennials. Even Matthew knew what “dope” meant!

2.) Hadid’s implication that she’d have sex with a guy who wore the right sneakers (my emphasis). At 1:32 you can hear this:

“Sneakers on a man is definitely the first thing I look at, so if you’re going to have a dope shoe both guys and girls can wear, come on, matching shoes? That’s dope.”

When asked what sneakers she didn’t like, Hadid added:

“You know what? I’m cool with it and I don’t mind dirty sneakers but they better be fresh.”

“If homeboy’s coming through with these [shows a pair of sneakers] it’s quiet for him, but if he comes through with these…you got some Air Maxes out here; you’ve got some Jordans.”

“Homeboy’s going to like, get it.”

I can only imagine what “it” is. Watch the rest of the video at your peril. For some reason—probably the laws of physics—I was compelled to post it.

Remember, as mushbrained as this woman is, she makes more money in two years than any of us will make in a lifetime.  All it takes is looks, some wealthy parents, and a bit of plastic surgery.

Hadid has been called out for using black argot in this video, which is “cultural appropriation”. But, as Cosmopolitan notes, she’s also been called out for the whole interview, which is not dope. Here are a few tweets:

another:

https://twitter.com/BRANDONWARDELL/status/917532975079628801

https://twitter.com/jdgmntlgay/status/916340103785705474

. . . and the best one:

https://twitter.com/dstfelix/status/916673191069863949

Cat eclipse tee shirts: one day left

August 24, 2017 • 4:21 pm

If you have a spare $30 or so (that includes shipping), and want this lovely cat solar eclipse tee shirt I posted the other day, reader Victoria found out that you can buy it here. Hurry if you want one, as there’s only one day left.  There are also mugs, tote bags, and ladies’ shirts and leggings with this design.

Holocaust revision tee-shirt

August 8, 2017 • 11:30 am

A place called Teespring, which seems to offer pretty innocuous teeshirts, also sells this one (click on pictures to go there):


Front:

Back:

 

They appear to be out of the shirt temporarily, but you can reserve one for yourself, and it’s only $21.99.

Now of course I think it should be legal to sell and wear these (both acts might be illegal in Canada, and are surely illegal in Germany), but that doesn’t mean this isn’t reprehensible and anti-Semitic.  It’s a staple of Holocaust denialism that there is no direct order from Hitler mandating the gassing of the Jews, but there is plenty of evidence that he fostered the Endlösing (“Final solution”), and knew about its implementation. And of course there’s lots of evidence on paper that Hitler’s high-up minions devised this plan and carried it out. Finally, there is material evidence (several camps still exist, some with gas chambers), photos, and eyewitness evidence testifying to the Holocaust.

It’s almost as if these people are saying that if you can’t show a piece of paper saying, “Gas all the Jews. —A. Hitler”, then the Holocaust didn’t take place.

UPDATE: The Jerusalem Post reports that the same site sells swastika tee shirts—these ones:

and this one:

But they have a good reason:

The US-based clothing website Teespring is selling T-shirts and sweatshirts branded with swastikas, aiming to make them a “symbol of love and peace.

. . . The designs, created by KA Designs and sold on the site, all display large swastikas in the front.

. . . “Here at KA we explore boundaries. We push them forward,” the company wrote as a description for the products. “Let’s make the swastika a symbol of Love and Peace. Together, we can succeed.”

Before being used by Hitler’s German Nazi regime, swastikas were commonly known as an ancient sign used by Hindus and Buddhists carrying positive associations such as auspiciousness and good fortune. KA Designs is attempting to revert the now negative sign to its origins.

The company even made a promotional video claiming that the Nazis “took the swastika, rotated it 45 degrees, and turned it into a symbol of hatred, fear, war, racism, power.”

“They stigmatized the swastika, they won, they limited our freedom, or maybe not?” the video continues. “The swastika is coming back.”

Not everyone is happy, though:

 

In a Facebook post on Sunday, executive director of the Israeli-Jewish Congress and pro-Israel activist Arsen Ostrovsky called the shirts “obscene and disgusting.”

“It may have been a symbol of peace,” he wrote. “That most certainly is not what it is primarily associated with today.”

Ostrovsky also pointed a finger at Teespring for seeking “to profit off of this in the name of art, trying to turn this irredeemable Nazi symbol of hate and murder into a symbol of ‘love and peace.’”

My new shoes

May 18, 2017 • 8:00 am

Having stupidly left my fleece on a bus in New Zealand, I needed to replace it, and found a brand-new Timberland fleece, in my size, on a consignment site called “Poshmark“. It was less than half the retail price, so I ordered it. I didn’t notice until later that Poshmark has received many complaints about people getting the wrong stuff, or not getting anything at all.

But I did get my package two days ago. In it was this:

That’s not a fleece!

Well, they’re pretty spiffy shoes, size 7.5B, but they don’t fit me. After complaining, I was told that there had been a mixup, and was assured that my fleece would go out immediately. They also sent me a mailing label to return the shoes. If you’re a woman, would you wear these?

Tee shirt logos from a reader

March 12, 2017 • 9:15 am

Reader and artist Pliny the in Between has posted a number of tee-shirt logos he/she has designed over the years and put on the site The Far Corner Cafe. As far as I know, none have actually been put on tee-shirts, but I wouldn’t mind wearing one or two of these. Here are four. It took me a while to figure out the first one, but it’s the best!