The American public has a notorious history of calling out people who borrow ideas, foods, designs, and fashion from other cultures as champions of cultural appropriation. Public figures such as Kendall Jenner, Kim Kardashian, Jeremy Lin, and more have been excoriated online by various ethnic groups for maliciously appropriating other cultures through their clothes, hairstyles, or other stylistic choices. The Kardashian-Jenner family, which is closely tied to black culture, has also come under fire numerous times for appropriating black culture by wearing cornrows, an African-American hairstyle, or poking fun at other aspects of ethnic cultures. Most recently, however, the Asian-American community on Twitter was enraged when Keziah, a Caucasian high school girl from Utah, posted pictures of herself wearing a cheongsam, a traditional Chinese dress, to her prom. Although the angry Asian-Americans may claim that her choice to wear the cheongsam as a prom dress qualifies as cultural appropriation, a closer look into the details of the situation shows that her dress was rather an expression of cultural appreciation and not a culturally derogatory act.
— Keziah (@daumkeziah) April 22, 2018
Keziah, who posted these pictures on her Twitter account, was soon addressed by Chinese Twitter user Jeremy Lam, who replied to her tweet saying, “My culture is NOT your [expletive] prom dress” (Girl Wearing Chinese Dress to Prom). His tweet and her post, both of which gained viral online popularity in the next few days, opened the floodgates to a torrent of criticism from the Asian-American community, with most of the negativity directed at Keziah. Many Asian-Americans spoke out, accusing her of appropriating the cheongsam by wearing a dress she thought was “vintage,” without considering the ethnic history behind it.
My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress. https://t.co/vhkNOPevKD
— Jeremy Lam (@jere_bare) April 27, 2018
Lam then “[lectured] on the history of Qipao as he understands it,” (incorrectly) claiming that the cheongsam symbolized breaking economic barriers amongst Chinese women (Girl Wearing Chinese Dress to Prom). In doing so, he implied that Keziah was defiling the history behind the dress. Although Lam tweeted a few inaccurate facts here and there, the gist of his argument was this: a white girl wearing a Chinese dress to prom was cultural appropriation because the cheongsam, a culturally significant item of clothing, was inappropriately borrowed by a non-Chinese to be used as a mere token of beauty.
It even broke the division of financial classes! It could be made with high-quality materials that only the upper class could afford such as special silks and linens, but a dress just as beautiful could have been made with just cotton and low-quality linen.
— Jeremy Lam (@jere_bare) April 28, 2018
A brief lesson on the history of the cheongsam – the dress was originally “baggy and worn predominantly by upper-class women during the Qing dynasty,” and over time, it began to absorb Western influences as it became “shorter, featuring slits and tapered waists, evolving into the tight-fitting style that’s well-known today” (Adhav). In fact, if anyone appropriated the dress, it was probably the Han Chinese from the Manchus, the original cultural “owners” of the cheongsam (Girl Wearing Chinese Dress to Prom).
However, the dress holds no real significant meaning for Chinese people – to them, it is just a pretty dress. Unlike when Kendall Jenner took cornrows, a hairstyle once used to indicate that an African person was a warrior or king, and claimed to have taken “bold braids to a new epic level,” Keziah’s choice to wear the cheongsam did not make any malicious claims to Chinese history, nor did she intentionally “steal” a piece of Chinese culture and try to westernize it. The dress she chose to wear was already designed to look Western – by the Chinese. If someone were to take a sacred Native American chief’s headdress and parade it around as a hat, then that may be called out as cultural appropriation – and rightfully so. A chief’s headdress is not something that just anyone who hasn’t earned the right would be allowed to wear, and thus we should respect the sacred nature of such an item. But to the average Chinese, the cheongsam is just a dress, something fashionable to wear, much like how jeans are just a pair of pants to Westerners. If a non-Westerner wears a pair of jeans, do we unleash cries of cultural appropriation? No – because jeans do not demand cultural reverence.
The hysteria surrounding Keziah’s alleged cultural appropriation even managed to reach China, where even native Chinese citizens expressed their support for Keziah on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform (Adhav). One user said, “Culture has no borders. There is no problem, as long as there is no malice or deliberate maligning. Chinese cultural treasures are worth spreading all over the world.”
Additionally, Keziah’s prom dress was not chosen in haste. She had “always admired the beauty and uniqueness of the Chinese dresses,” which prompted her to go to the Chinese dress section of her “local vintage store, Decades, in Salt Lake City, Utah” (Adhav). In fact, she deliberately did research on the cheongsam after making her purchase, and what stuck with her about the dress’s history was roots in female empowerment. She then argued that the cheongsam was meant to be a “beautiful message for young women everywhere” and said, “If we are teaching women to be strong, does it matter which culture it is coming from?” (Adhav).
To everyone causing so much negativity: I mean no disrespect to the Chinese culture. I’m simply showing my appreciation to their culture. I’m not deleting my post because I’ve done nothing but show my love for the culture. It’s a fucking dress. And it’s beautiful.
— Keziah (@daumkeziah) April 28, 2018
Clearly, Asian-American Twitter users were quick to label as appropriation what is simply cultural appreciation. But the problem here is the widely-held belief that if something did not originate with one’s ethnic or original culture, one should not be allowed to use it. America, dubbed the “melting pot of cultures,” was founded upon the very idea that the blending of ideas and beliefs would result in a rich mix of multiculturalism, lending to diversity and progress. In fact, almost every piece of “culture” present in our world is the product of cross-cultural engagement: for example, Pablo Picasso “learned about portraiture from African masks,” which in turn influenced Jean-Michel Basquiat, who in turn most likely influenced countless other artists (Nazaryan). If every culture were to ban appropriation and demand that purity be maintained, then we would all remain “tethered tightly to place of origin and ancestry” (Nazaryan). As Kassie Draven put it in her article in Independent, “No culture is ‘pure,’ as in completely removed from influences of other cultures around it. Humans have culturally appropriated ideas from each other since time immemorial.”
The strong sentiment of wanting to preserve one’s culture and the paranoia around cultural appropriation first stemmed from the long history of black culture. During antebellum years, the Southern slaves needed a way to cope with their perilous situations, so they developed their own culture. They began to sing, dance, and cultivate a community amongst themselves. Additionally, rap music originated from an African way of storytelling using handheld instruments, and was first born in the Bronx, where two black men found a way to loop beats and speak on tempo (Mize). As more and more white people began to sing gospel, rap, and take pieces of black culture for themselves, more and more black people got enraged over this “cultural appropriation.” Fusion restaurants and rap music are only a few examples of the rich multiculturalism that comes when people choose to allow cultural boundaries to dissolve. But what may have started out as a legitimate concern has turned into a national frenzy, and people are starting to refuse even the slightest cultural dissemination.
Keziah’s choice to wear the dress represents a spreading of Chinese influence, as well as a greater appreciation for Asian culture. Perhaps if the caption to her prom photos had been more obviously offensive or she had a history of discriminating against minorities, the story would be different. But considering her caption only said the word “PROM” and Keziah’s longtime admiration of Chinese dresses and styles, her prom photos do not represent cultural appropriation, but rather represent the spreading of multiculturalism and the confluence of styles and ideas.
This article is part of Allison’s column “My Two Cents”. Check out her other articles here.
Adhav, Lauren. “Girl Slammed on Twitter for Culturally Appropriating Her Prom Dress Says She Would Wear It Again.” Cosmopolitan, Cosmopolitan, 2 May 2018, www.cosmopolitan.com/style-beauty/fashion/a20123163/keziah-daum-prom-dress-cultural-appropriation-cheongsam-qipao/.
Draven, Kassie. “Self-Identifying ‘Woke’ People, Please Don’t Use Me as an Excuse to Bully an American Teen Wearing a Chinese Prom Dress.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 1 May 2018, www.independent.co.uk/voices/prom-dress-chinese-cultural-appropriation-bullying-woke-twitter-social-media-a8330926.html.
“Dude Unloads On Girl For Wearing Chinese Dress To Prom.” The Federalist, 2 May 2018, thefederalist.com/2018/05/02/dude-ignorant-chinese-fashion-history-unloads-girl-wearing-chinese-dress-prom/.
Mize, Cole. “History of Rap – The True Origins of Rap Music.” ColeMizeStudios, 29 Oct. 2015, colemizestudios.com/how-did-rap-start/.
Nazaryan, Alexander. “A White Student’s Chinese Prom Dress Defines Our Culture; It Doesn’t Maliciously Appropriate Yours.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 8 May 2018, www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-nazaryan-qipao-cultural-appropriation-20180508-story.html.