Seeing someone or something from your culture being represented on screen can be hugely impactful to anyone. Helping them feel seen and provide opportunities for them to relate to stories better. This has led to various visual references and depictions of centuries-old clothing and objects.
Chinese civilisation has stood for at least 3000 years of history. Its culture and fashion have evolved over time, changing to suit each dynasty and its values. Fast-forward to the modern age, Chinese fashion has taken more of a backseat in day-to-day activity. That said, the depiction and presence of Chinese fashion can still be spotted on catwalks, media and games like YueHwa and Shanghai Tang and Street Fighter II. Traditional dresses have been reinvented in many ways. In some sense, this is a celebration of Chinese culture by exploring its history and themes, allowing us to share our cultures with a wider audience.
Qipao's hybrid history
In 2018, controversy broke out when a Caucasian girl wore a qipao dress to her prom. This sparked online debate on whether this was a form of cultural appropriation. The qipao is a type of traditional dress that became "new fashion in the 1920s" in China. The qipao eventually garnered enough popularity to be recognised as the national dress of China. But is it really appropriation when the dress itself borrows from Western fashion?
To put it simply, the qipao was a product of the shifting opinions on traditional views on gender equality. The first ones to wear the qipao were the Shanghai students who began entering the education sphere. This was a rebellion against the conservative views on the female body, and as such, were designed to accentuate the body's natural curves and exude sexiness.
Qipao is defined as a kind of one-piece dress. It should comprise all or some of the following elements: right-opening or half right opening, standing collar, textiles made-of hoops and toggles (belonging to button known of Chinese knotes), two dimensional structure and cut. (Bian, 2003)
Due to the more liberal nature in Shanghai, the designers took inspiration from 1920s Western fashion. Particularly the blouse and skirt combo, which had a tight slim fit on a person's body. That mixed with Manchurian clothing characteristics like the standing collar. The haipai (or qipao as we know it today) was born and over time has been "considered the de defacto" design.
A lot of the criticism directed at the girl (Keziah Daum) were from the Asian-American community, while the local Chinese community comments to Keziah wearing a qipao were positive.
In fact, people from the latter group often praise people who wear garments or participate in those activities because more often, their actions are not seen as offensive but rather appreciative and happy that their culture is being welcomed, shared, and enjoyed by someone apart from their culture. - Pigeonhole Illustrations
Despite the positive response from the local Chinese community, I don't think we can fault the Asian-American community for feeling offended by the behaviour. The Chinese people who live in a Chinese country have the luxury of being surrounded by others like themselves. This means that they wouldn't be judged by their race, rather they face other kinds of prejudice. This could range from the way they dress or speak to their gender.
Due to this, it is more likely that Asian-Americans would feel more strongly about cultural aspects that may not be so accessible to them. Though this doesn't immediately validate their opinion, it only serves to point out the flaws of the system in place.
Problematic posing: don't do it
Yet, there is one more thing that should be pointed out on this topic. One of the more problematic things about Keziah wearing a qipao stems from one image. The image in question pictures her with her friends with her hands in a praying pose.
This can be easily mistaken for mockery against Chinese and perhaps Asian people are a whole. In an interview, Keziah clarifies that the gesture was a reference to the Youtube channel h3h3Productions.
Despite best intentions, when wearing clothing from a different culture, one should always remember to avoid posing or behaving in any way that may seem demeaning if put out of context.
How can we help?
My personal conclusion is that people should be able to choose what they wear freely as long as their intentions aren't to demean another culture by doing so. People shouldn't have to feel ashamed about their culture or identity.
People are people and they are just that, the more we learn about ourselves, the more we can learn about others. Learning to share and coexist is the next step to a happier world. But first, we need to have better representation, better representation on screen and behind the scenes so that more stories, perspectives and experiences can be seen and heard.