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Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Appreciation?


This past week, a High School student's Prom Dress took the Twitterverse by storm. A flurry of tweets accusing the teenager of cultural appropriation flooded timelines. The student purchased a traditional Chinese qipaou; a dress featuring a mandarin collar and beautifully knotted buttons, from a vintage shop. She posted the pictures to her social media accounts setting off a debate about whether this was cultural appropriation from many Asian-Americans.

The backlash started with this tweet from Jeremy Lam

The teen in question argued that she was appreciating the culture; she purchased the dress because she thought it was pretty and modest. Although many argued that it was cultural appropriation and disrespectful to Chinese culture, others defended her, stating that the teen was not disrespecting the culture or outfit but rather honouring the cultural dress.  George Nicholas professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University stated that it can be difficult to determine what is appropriation and appreciation; "Context is very important, human societies world wide have long borrowed from each other, there is no harm in borrowing". He argues that borrowing becomes a problem when it's done in a way where there is cultural, spiritual or economic harm; such as loss over control of heritage, diminished respect for the sacred, loss of artistic control. The general consensus in this case seems to be that this was not a case of cultural appropriation but a case of appreciation; the teenager paid a tribute to the traditional Chinese dress that didn't harm or takeaway from the significance of the outfit or culture. The qipaou has generally been worn by brides and isn't viewed as a culturally significant garb. In contrast, Gucci recently featured models wearing turbans in their Autumn/Winter 2018 Show. This was definitively viewed as being cultural appropriation as it borrows from the Sikh religion in which the turban is viewed as both culturally and religiously significant. As it was taken out of the context of culture and religion; Gucci's use of the turban was a case of cultural appropriation that faced backlash from prominent south asian figures in Hollywood such as Avan Jogia of Victorious fame. It's doubly harmful, as diaspora Sikh's face humiliation in Western communities for wearing something that is of great significance to them, while Gucci is ignorantly using it as a fashion statement therefore discarding its significance.

Gucci autumn/winter 2018

Gucci faced criticism from South Asians and Non South Asians alike.

  Although it can be difficult to identify what is cultural appropriation and what is cultural appreciation. It can be easy to avoid with the wealth of information about cultural appropriation out there, or by asking individuals of that particular culture the significance of the piece. Overall, cultural appropriation is definitely a huge conversation, there's a million different angles or   perspectives you can look at it from, but the good news is open discussions on social media or with your friends can make us further understand and become comfortable with typically uncomfortable topics surrounding race, diversity and cultural appropriation.      

By Daman Grewal

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