Costumed Culture


Tiffany To, Editor

I scrolled through my explore page on Instagram. My eyes mindlessly looked through the various posts, some of them selfies and some scenery. I kept scrolling until a post caught my attention. It was a photo of Kacey Musgraves, a Grammy-award winning country singer, wearing an ao dai, my Vietnamese culture’s national garment. 

Cultural appropriation is defined as taking an aspect of one’s culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest. Cultural appropriation is seen as controversial whenever elements of a minority culture are used by members of the cultural majority. It is seen as oppressing the minority culture or construing the group’s identity and intellectual rights. 

What seems trivial to people may be essential to someone else. Many people who appropriate do not have foul intentions and may try to honor another culture, except to avoid causing harm to another’s culture, they must be open to the different perspective from that culture. 

On April 22, 2018, Keziah Daum wore a Qipao, a Chinese-style dress, to her high school’s prom in Utah. Daum had gotten a string of comments considering her adorning the Qipao as offensive. Some comments were condemning Daum, but most of them were supporting her, asserting that people were overly sensitive to the dress’s value. For some people, a dress may be a dress, but the Qipao is a symbol of Chinese femininity and gender equality. People who criticize the significance of a cultural item are the people who fail to understand the validity of a culture. It is okay to not understand the importance of an element, but it is wrong to invalidate the importance even when it is not valued the same. 

 Alongside misunderstanding the validity of a culture, some people disregard cultural appropriation due to their reputation within the society. In late June of 2019, Kim Kardashian West released a new clothing line for shapewear, but the line was called the “Kimonos,” as a wordplay with her first name. The clothing line quickly became the subject of online comments regarding it as offensive to Japanese culture, since kimonos are traditional Japanese garments and the national dress of the country. She explained that the name was meant to be a nod of respect towards Japanese culture, but people were particularly offended when Kardashian West filed for trademark on the name “Kimonos.”  As the backlash continued, Kardashian West took to Instagram and announced the clothing line was branded under a new name, SKIMS, with no apology to the Japanese people. People must hold themselves accountable for the mistakes they made, even if it may cause harm to their reputation. When they don’t, it insinuates that cultural appropriation is normal which further causes people to overlook the issue. 

Some fail to understand the power dynamics of cultural appropriation. The cultural majority does not get appropriated in the same way as people of color. Some may ask, “What if another culture was following American culture such as African women straightening their hair, Native Americans speaking English, or Asians eating American cuisine?” However, this is not cultural appropriation; rather, it is assimilation. When people of color follow a normality of the U.S. society, it is often done to protect themselves. They have to leave parts of their culture behind in order to “fit in” with the majority, otherwise, they are deemed peculiar and abnormal, which causes alienation. 

During my junior year, my AP Language and Composition teacher was teaching her classes to read passages in a lens frame to critically analyze them. She gave us an excerpt from “Grounds for Writers” by Doug Sweet and Jeanne Gunner discussing the “Postcolonial Frame.” 

After reading the excerpt, I began to look at foreign matters in a postcolonial frame and discovered that few of the aspects the frame was describing were prevalent in our society. Exploitation was one of the many aspects the frame described. Ever since the creation of colonialism and imperialism, many cultures from the Caribbean islands to India have experienced a circumstance where they have been exploited. Although that time period has passed and these nations have gained their independence, we have an issue of borrowing without asking and disregarding the harsh acts against those minority cultures done by the cultural majority. Whether we believe it or not, we have been influenced in some way by the postcolonialism ideology. It’s true that our society would not be what it is today without the role of cultural appropriation in deprivation and disempowerment of indigenous cultures. However, it should not be a pattern that continues in further generations.

When I saw Kacey Musgrave’s photo in the ao dai, I was speechless. Not only did Musgraves wear it, she wore the garment in a way that perpetuated the femininity of Asian women by discarding the pants and exposing the lower half of her body. Asian women have been hypersexualized due to the stereotype that they are submissive and “exotic.” With this stereotype, it was inevitable for me to not feel vulnerable in certain environments where I felt unsafe or my opinions were simply reduced due to the perpetuated image of me being submissive. 

As a minority whose culture has been appropriated before, it is important to understand the slim borderline between cultural appropriation and appreciation. Appreciation involves respect, value and the understanding of one’s tradition and practices. 

However, cultural appropriation encourages society to misunderstand cultural aspects for aesthetic purposes. Everyone has made mistakes when it comes to cultural appropriation, but it is up to us to hold ourselves accountable for our own actions.