Is wearing a qipao cultural appropriation?
July 12, 2016 1:32 PM   Subscribe

A few years ago while studying abroad in Beijing I had a qipao (cheongsam) tailor-made. I have since learned about the phenomenon of cultural appropriation, and as I am white I have not felt comfortable wearing it. I'm attending a wedding soon and would really like to get some use out of this dress. Would it be cultural appropriation/inappropriate for me to wear it?
posted by cosmic owl to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I, a white person, got a traditional garment tailor-made while working in Shanghai (at the urging of my students, no less!). Regardless of the label that you put on it - call it cultural appropriation or not - I felt pretty weird about wearing it in the US because it really seemed theatrical and costume-y. It really felt like I was "dressing up like a Chinese person" and it seemed inappropriate. It also got sort of weird attention from other white people that I think had a lot to do with exoticism - that is, people didn't just treat it as a pretty dress but treated it as an exotic dress, and that wasn't very comfortable.

I did wear a sort of modern-style fashion padded jacket that I got in Shanghai, because that seemed like contemporary fashion and was sort of a sporty, modern reworking.

Also, I have met some folks who think that white people look really ridiculous in qipao - like, ridiculous in a way that we would not in a padded jacket or embroidered slippers.

I ended up hanging it on the wall for display for a while because it was pretty and I liked to look at it.

I wouldn't wear it, frankly, because you'll spend the whole wedding worrying about whether people are judging you, offended, etc. I've met Chinese-Americans who were fine with that kind of stuff and some who really hated it, and it seems like "I am betting that no one who really hates this and finds it morally offensive will be at this wedding" is not a great situation to put yourself in. Also, do you want to end up on tumblr as that girl? I venture to say that you do not, but this is precisely the type of situation where someone might feel moved to take a photo.

"When in doubt, don't" has been my watchword about clothing since I became aware of this issue, and it has served me well. The one time I wore something I wasn't sure about (it was a print that had been inspired by but was not ikat) I worried about it all day and it so was not worth it.

(For the sake of clarity - my gender presentation was waaaaaaayy different back then - this was a while ago.)
posted by Frowner at 1:47 PM on July 12, 2016 [16 favorites]

Aren't those, to a large degree, a Chinese import from western fashion in the first place? Not especially long ago, either?
posted by kickingtheground at 1:51 PM on July 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think this is the kind of thing that it's hard to draw a line on from a cultural appropriation standpoint.

On one hand you bought it in China from a Chinese tailor (presumably) who could have refused to sell it to a white person, it's not a western knockoff appropriating the design for profit, and it's not something a Chinese person would be discriminated against for wearing (cf dreadlocks). On the other hand, I brought back a couple of cotton yukata from Japan and I feel fine about wearing them but I absolutely wouldn't wear full kimono to a formal event, and perhaps this is equivalent. I don't know.

"When in doubt, don't" is a good rule. I'm white, so this may all be bollocks.
posted by corvine at 1:59 PM on July 12, 2016

I think it depends a lot on the fabric and cut - if it looks like a fitted dress you can probably get away with it, if it looks like fancy dress then no (both dresses linked are very pretty, the first looks vaguely chinese-influenced to me while the second looks too much like a costume). Goes without saying you should NOT have any chinese-inspired accessories, fans, parasols, chopsticks in hair, etc regardless of the style of the dress.

I'm sure an actual Chinese-American person will be along in a minute with some proper advice, but in terms of random people at the wedding judging you, I'd definitely give you a bit of a side-eye if you turned up in the second one and I knew you had no chinese heritage.
posted by tinkletown at 2:02 PM on July 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

There's no definitive answer to this question. People have different definitions of "cultural appropriation" and even if they have the same definition, they may have different feelings about whether or not a particular instance qualifies.

That said, I don't think you should wear the dress.

I have some clothes that I had made while doing research abroad that I really enjoy wearing. But I never wear them in the US, because the context really matters. Where I do my research, they're everyday clothes--cute, but unremarkable. In the US, they read very differently. Because they're not everyday clothes here, they stand out; I'd be an obviously white woman wearing African clothes.

And importantly, no one who sees me will know the story behind those clothes. They won't know that I commissioned them from an African tailor while I was living in Africa. They only have access to the broader US context of white people appropriating fashion and dressing up as other ethnicities as if they're costume; they don't have access to my personal context.

Some quick Googling finds plenty of examples of Chinese-Americans who feel bothered by this. That's more important than what a bunch of people who aren't Chinese-American say.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:02 PM on July 12, 2016 [22 favorites]

@kickingtheground: Definitely no. One dude has an opinion that the qipao is "a hybrid of traditional Chinese costumes and western costumes such as the waistcoat and one-piece dress" but there is no doubt the qipao has a long tradition in China.
posted by watermelon at 2:04 PM on July 12, 2016

Earlier this year, APW published some good rules of thumb when trying to decide if something is cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation.

I am a white person, so my opinion here doesn't matter really, but I think you'd be fine, as long as you stay away from other East Asian styles in you accessories. I mean, don't also wear your hair in a traditional bun or put chopsticks in your hair.
posted by donajo at 2:05 PM on July 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Asian-American here. I'd go with kutsuwamushi on this one with sprinkles of tinkletown. I'd lean toward not wearing it (especially if the bride or groom are Asian -- that would be super weird) simply because you can't control what people think. That said, if the dress looks fairly contemporary, I might be okay. Qipao that are very traditionally styled (liked red and gold with medallions or golden flowers) would be something a Chinese bride would wear so there'd be a lot of mixed messages if you wore it to a wedding for a couple of any ethnicity. But a fitted dress (like what tinkletown linked to) with some Western outerwear and accessories would not bother me.

That said, a lot of Asian people get annoyed by white people wearing ethnic clothing as if their entire culture were kind of a novel fashion statement, so be aware of that. Personally, it depends on what's worn and where for me. But you can't really control what people think, so if you'e worried, I just wouldn't wear it.
posted by mmmleaf at 2:41 PM on July 12, 2016 [7 favorites]

This is just a personal opinion to a similar situation, from the other side.

When non-native people wear a sari or salwar kameez (I'm South Asian), it makes me feel somewhat patronized. Not only that, many Westerners that do wear saris just don't wear them well. Not sure if that's because they've attempted to wrap it themselves (I've heard women say "it's just six yards of fabric!"), or if they just don't know how to carry themselves while wearing it, which contributes a lot to the overall look of a sari, especially at weddings and other special occasions. Sometimes the blouse worn underneath is ill-fitting, or the fabric doesn't drape well... or just numerous other nuances to wearing the garment that someone who hasn't grown up around generations of women that have worn it wouldn't comprehend. I've been in Indian stores with Western women attempting to buy saris and the storekeepers have made tongue-in-cheek comments and roll their eyes about how someone or other has no idea what they're doing and they should just wear something they're familiar with.

Now, I do realize that there are non-native sari-wearers who may have lived in India, or have perhaps married into Indian families, but these women are often influenced by friends or family and understand how to select fabrics and get tailored undergarments that flatter their figures.

Thinking of it like this: I'm South Asian, and I wouldn't wear a cheongsam to a wedding whether it was Asian-inspired or not. In fact, I'd feel weird wearing any sort of culturally-influenced outfit to anything other than perhaps a themed event, because it's not my culture. I'm also certain that if I wore a cheongsam, there'd be Asian people judging me regardless of how benevolent my intentions were. From experience, older generations of Indians tend to be - how do I describe this - quietly amused to vehemently outraged when Westerners wear saris or other such garments. I'd be willing to bet native cheongsam wearers feel the same way. You have to decide if you're comfortable knowing that the majority of attendees will likely view you that way.
posted by Everydayville at 2:41 PM on July 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think you wouldn't be doing anything wrong, but that you'd ultimately be uncomfortable because you'd be conspicuous and wondering what other people thought of your outfit.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:50 PM on July 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am a second-generation Chinese-American and to me it would be weird since I have no way of knowing your personal history with the dress. I wouldn’t be offended, per se, but I would assume you are in the same category as white people who read Amy Chua and then breathlessly ask if I got into college because my parents beat me. Basically, I would avoid you to not have weird conversations where you try to get me to deliver my Azn stamp of approval on your cool, exotic ways. (I am not saying that you, personally, would behave like this, but this has happened to me before.)

If the married couple is not Asian, I would find it all quite random, and if they are Asian, I would find it questionable and trying too hard.

I also just asked my SO (first-generation Chinese), and he said he wouldn’t be offended, but he would think you are a clueless white person and mock appropriately behind your back, so . . . obviously my SO and I do not represent all Asian people and maybe we are assholes, but I would err on the side of not wearing it.
posted by angst at 3:40 PM on July 12, 2016 [9 favorites]

Hey, Chinese-American male here. My sister wore one (changed into one) at her wedding, as you do.

I think it depends on how traditional your dress is. Is it modern/vintage or fashiony, like it came out of In The Mood For Love? That reads to me that you care about clothes. Is it very traditional, maybe in red & gold with a floral or dragon pattern? You might look like a stock photo for "Chinese woman" to me.

If I saw a white woman wearing a traditional one at a Chinese wedding, I would first assume her spouse/family is Chinese. And if that was not the case, I would think "well that's a little on the nose". There would be mocking.

If I saw her in a non-obviously Chinese context* it wouldn't be offensive to me, but my thoughts would fall in the range between "eh" and "really?".

* there was a time in NYC in the late 90s where it was kind of everywhere.
posted by danny the boy at 4:01 PM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh and maybe more to the point, if you're wearing like a bright red & gold qipao to a western wedding... should you be drawing attention to yourself, away from the bride, like that?
posted by danny the boy at 4:03 PM on July 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

While I, a Chinese-American, personally wouldn't be offended by a white person wearing a qipao, I'd find it super-weird to wear a distinctively Asian outfit to a Western wedding. Like, it would look totally out of place, even if the wearer was Asian. If the event was Chinese-themed (a Chinese wedding, etc.), then sure.

The only exception is if the qipao in question looks Western enough to pass muster at a Western wedding with some accessorizing. Which I kind of doubt exists, but we'll need pictures to be sure.
posted by curagea at 4:22 PM on July 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

On the cultural question, I just asked Mrs. Duoshao, a Chinese lady, and she doesn't see any problem with non-Chinese wearing a qipao. She said she's been thinking of buying one for my mom (white lady) as a gift.
posted by duoshao at 5:32 PM on July 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think the question of whether it would be cultural appropriation to wear it at all, and whether you should wear it to a wedding, are two very different questions. There are so many unspoken etiquette rules that engaged couples, engaged couple's families, and other guests have about weddings -- many of them contradictory! -- that I don't think a wedding is a great time to be pushing the fashion envelope. And if for whatever reason the marrying couple finds the dress offensive, or worries that other friends or family will, you're likely to be in (or least in the background of) a lot of pictures that they want to share or keep, making their lives difficult.
posted by lazuli at 8:14 PM on July 12, 2016

You wear it at home for fun. It is interesting to wear some different thing. Not sure I feel the idea of cultural appropriation is as useful as some think. Humans exchange culture. The key is to be respectful in your accepting of cultural exchange. Don't put yourself in situations where your explorations could offend others. That's why fully depicting another culture is pretty dangerous territory. Walking around in a full set of foreign clothes is fully depicting, as are accents and putting on makeup or changing one's appearance.

Also its just not a good look on you.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:57 PM on July 12, 2016

My suggestion is to take it to a tailor and get it turned into a very nice top. The neckline style on those things is where the tailoring is fabulous, and paired with jeans, wide pants or a pencil skirt, you get a look that will work in a variety of settings without being a costume. If the fabric is great, they make nice pencil skirts for a separate piece.

I (white female) wore one at my own chinese ceremony wedding, and again at some other chinese dinner things or CNY stuff, and I would be okay to wear one as a fancy evening outfit because the ethnic chinese community is a dominant culture where I live and I have a personal family tie to them. I wouldn't feel okay wearing the same for a north indian outfit (my personal preference for fancy evening outfits, also available and worn here) because they're a visible minority who I don't have the same personal family ties to, so that would be a costume.

I would only wear an entirely ethnic outfit not of my own ethnicity to a wedding if specifically requested by the wedding party. A glam qipao-top with a evening-wear skirt would be fine, an entire cheongsam is a costume.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:41 PM on July 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

Seconding the idea of two separate pieces (worn separately). I'm half Chinese and find it a very versatile, chic and hard to pigeonhole look.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:54 AM on July 13, 2016

I am of Chinese descent, and I think it's fine if the cheongsam was fairly "modern" looking, i.e. not bright red and gold or other more traditional looking patterns. Then it's cool with a nod towards Asian customs, which is okay.

In my community, no person below the age of 50 would wear a full traditional cheongsam to a wedding, Chinese descent or not. The bride themselves might wear one, and the mother of the bride or mother-in-law of the bride, and that would be it.. So you will stick out like a sore thumb because of your clothes.

A glam qipao-top with a evening-wear skirt would be fine, an entire cheongsam is a costume.

Thirding this.
posted by moiraine at 2:06 AM on July 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Another Chinese-American here. I wouldn't be offended, but I'd probably think you're at least a little bit weird, and wonder what made you think a Western style wedding is the appropriate venue for it.
posted by ethidda at 8:18 AM on July 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

In my community, no person below the age of 50 would wear a full traditional cheongsam to a wedding, Chinese descent or not. The bride themselves might wear one, and the mother of the bride or mother-in-law of the bride, and that would be it.. So you will stick out like a sore thumb because of your clothes.

Yeah, people don't wear full qi paos to weddings unless they're the bride, and in general, I think a lot of people in China now lean toward more contemporary designs with traditional cultural clothing. So even if you're Chinese and you wear a full qi pao people comment on it, it's a bit unusual unless it's a special event. Even with garments, like Vietamese ao dai, that are worn both on special occasions and on a regular basis, people don't really wear that stuff anymore.

And the other part, for me, that can generate weird feelings and sometimes anger, is it (however intentional or unintentional) seems to stem from the belief that Asia is this ancient traditional place that is still ancient and hasn't changed much (at least when people wear clothes that are not worn conventionally anymore, or have very traditional designs and fabrics). It's different from people wearing cultural garments that are worn on a daily basis. So anyway, like several people have said, that's why I think a more contemporary design or a two-piece would be appropriate. A nod to Asian customs and design is a fine way to do it.
posted by mmmleaf at 8:37 AM on July 13, 2016

An analogy would be if you bought a really cool military uniform at an army surplus store and decided to wear it to a wedding, even though you've never been in the military. People probably wouldn't say anything, but it'd be weird.
posted by ethidda at 9:47 AM on July 13, 2016

I'm Chinese-American. If you look good in it and it looks good on you, then no, I don't think it's cultural appropriation. I wouldn't be offended.

Qipao aren't even part of the Chinese 'traditional costume', they're just a piece of clothing that was popular in China during a certain era and is not so popular anymore. It's not really the same thing as wearing a salwar kameez or sari at all because people in South Asia actually wear those on a regular basis in their everyday lives, whereas basically nobody in China wears a qipao, except for special occasions. Qipao do not have long historical roots in China and they don't have some kind of deep cultural meaning. Qipao were introduced during the Manchu era (similar to men braiding their hair into queues, it's not really a truly "Chinese" thing) then had a brief resurgence as a fashion item during the 1920s. The "modern" 1920s version of the qipao is clearly influenced by Western clothing designs as well, and this is the kind that most people think about when they talk about qipaos.

So what I'm trying to say is that if a Chinese woman wears a qipao, it's not like she's putting on some ancient traditional costume, it would just be like a woman in the US dressing up like a 1920's flapper. So in this case, no, I don't think there is any cultural appropriation going on, because in this case, the qipao isn't really culture, so much as it is just a specific style of retro clothing. For example, if you dressed up like this, I don't think anyone would even really think about cultural appropriation, they would just think you looked good.

Now, for example, if you were to dress up like a traditional Chinese bride at your wedding (without any other context, like being married to a Chinese person), then I would think that's cultural appropriation, because you would be taking from 'our' cultural traditions and just using it to give your wedding a 'Chinese' theme.
posted by pravit at 7:03 PM on July 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

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