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From Cultural Revolution to cultural appropriation: a brief history of that dress

Women present cheongsam (Credit: Xue Jun / Xinhua News Agency / PA)

Women present cheongsam (Credit: Xue Jun / Xinhua News Agency / PA)

May 4, 2018   3 mins

This week the social media mob went after a teenager from Salt Lake City called Keziah Daum.

Her ‘crime’ was to wear a Chinese-style dress called a cheongsam (or qipao) to a prom. On the grounds that Daum is not Chinese, or of Chinese ancestry, she was accused of ‘cultural appropriation’ – which is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as follows:

“The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

Given that humanity is involved in a constant process of cultural exchange who gets to decide what is acceptable? Also, where will they find the time?

Writing on the issue for the Independent, Eliza Anyangwe argues that what makes cultural appropriation so, er, inappropriate is that the appropriators “separate the garment from the meaning that a community gives it”:

“Just a few weeks ago we were all in awe of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s choice to wear a Kahu huruhuru – a Maori cloak – during the Commonwealth heads of government meeting, because it was recognised as an indigenous symbol of power and pride.

“If school kids were to don copies of that to their prom it would cheapen that culture…”

That’s a fair point to make about garments that have a ceremonial or religious purpose, but there are many culturally-distinctive items of clothing that aren’t in that category. Each will have its own social history, of course, but does one really need to know about it in order to wear it respectfully?

Food is part of culture too – and a no less important one than clothing. Consider, for instance, the complex and diverse cuisines of China. Every dish will have a story, but if you haven’t read about it does that mean that you can’t eat it?

It’s all very well to condemn cultural appropriation as a manifestation of ‘privilege’, but having access to the knowledge required to stay on the right side of the outrage police is itself privileged. Prime ministers will have expert advisors within reach; the teenagers of flyover country not so much.

That said, a bit of research into the cheongsam is most instructive. In the form that we know it today, the garment originates in 1920s Shanghai. It was popularised (and, in part, designed) by Oei Hui-lan a.k.a. Madame Wellington Koo – China’s First Lady (1926-27), a behind-the-scenes influencer and one of the great international style icons of her time.

Under the Communists, all forms of fashion were condemned as bourgeois. In the madness of the Cultural Revolution, the cheongsam came in for special contempt because of its history. Another Chinese First Lady, Wang Guangmei, was abused and humiliated by the Red Guards for wearing the dress on an overseas official visit. She was imprisoned for 12 years, during which time her husband, Liu Shaoqi, died as a result of his own mistreatment in prison.

Wang Guangmei was freed and rehabilitated when Deng Xiaoping took power. It was Deng who opened up China to the world again – a process that has involved China exporting its culture (including distinctively Chinese garments) to the West, just as the West has exported its culture to China.

According to a report in the South China Morning Post, this is something that Chinese people today are proud of, not offended by:

“Weibo users added that Daum looked beautiful and criticised those who have accused her.

“‘Culture has no borders,’ one wrote. ‘There is no problem, as long as there is no malice or deliberate maligning. Chinese cultural treasures are worth spreading all over the world.’”

What lessons might we distil from the history of the cheongsam? Three immediately come to mind: Firstly, that cultural exchange is generally a good thing; secondly, that mob rule is generally a bad thing; and, thirdly, to be wary of people telling women what dresses they can wear.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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