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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.