AN OPEN LETTER TO PRETTY LITTLE THING: My culture is not an aesthetic and it certainly isn’t for profit

Dear Pretty Little Thing,

My culture is not an aesthetic for your latest collection and it certainly isn’t for your profit. Based on your latest Valentine’s Day collection, it’s clear that you don’t understand this. In honor of the start of the Lunar New Year, I decided to dedicate my LNY blog post to explaining this statement.

Your latest collection (which reeks of loose threads, uncomfortable material, and the fastest of fast fashion) is a strong example of cultural appropriation. Congrats! You now have something in common with luxury, high end fashion brands. Say hi to Dolce and Gabbana for me, would you? You could have a great conversation about your love of boiling down entire cultures to a few, over simplified [racist] elements for aesthetic.

I’m sure you haven’t heard of cultural appropriation before, otherwise you wouldn’t have created an entire collection based on it, so let me break it down for you. Cultural appropriation, also known as cultural misappropriation, is the act of taking something from a culture that is not your own without showing said culture any respect.

For examples, see:

In other words, cultural appropriation involves taking something from a culture and removing it almost entirely from the culture of context in order to gain something. Oftentimes, that’s money. Other times it’s gain social status from others, namely white people. It’s wildly different from cultural appreciation, which I’ll explain later.

Any of that sound familiar? It’s your collection to a T. In fact, you and your colleagues probably discussed how “trendy” “oriental” prints are lately and how much you could make by throwing them onto some poorly made sets.

To the average white girl hoping to wear something more unique this Valentine’s Day, your collection may seem innocuous, but to myself and many other Asian Americans, this racist collection is all too familiar. It’s yet another example of white people using our culture for profit. What’s worse is that they’re the same white people who made fun of our “smelly” lunches in elementary school; imitated our languages (regardless of whether we spoke Chinese, Japanese, or Mongolian) with “ching chong;” and confused us with the one other Asian student in class.

white-asian-people-meme

Let’s break down some of the many issues with your collection.

First and foremost, your collection is essentially botched versions of a qipao, a traditional dress worn by women in China and many other East Asian countries (although it varies from country to country).

The qipao is far more than a piece of clothing. It has its own rich history and is a representation of East Asian culture and women’s liberation. It is NOT something to be poorly mimicked and overly sexualized by a fashion corporation in the name of profit. It enables the same white people who make fun of my culture to wear botched versions of qipaos created by a company that clearly has no understanding of Asian culture.

Reformation’s dress next to a traditional  qipao , courtesy of Cat Chiang and her aforementioned  blog post  about Reformation’s cultural appropriation.

Reformation’s dress next to a traditional qipao, courtesy of Cat Chiang and her aforementioned blog post about Reformation’s cultural appropriation.

Which brings me to my second point: your collection is a VALENTINE’S DAY collection! You couldn’t even call it a Lunar New Year’s collection. Clearly, your company did zero research, or you would have known that Lunar New Year is also in February, just a week before Valentine’s Day.

You don’t even mention Asian culture in your description, choosing instead to allude to them as “figure flattering bodycon dresses, cute two-piece sets straight through to streamline satin pieces for the fashion confident,” completely erasing the cultural and historical significance of these pieces to the Asian community.

All you had to do was name the collection, at least those pieces so blatantly stolen from East Asian culture, after Lunar New Year’s and troves of people would have flocked to your defense, attempting to call it cultural appreciation. While I still wouldn’t agree, I could at least respect that perhaps (emphasis on perhaps) you created the collection out of a sort of messed up, racist admiration for Asian culture.

Myself in a  qipao,  something I occasionally wear to Lunar New Year’s celebrations. Photo by  Jie Lan

Myself in a qipao, something I occasionally wear to Lunar New Year’s celebrations. Photo by Jie Lan

But you didn’t. You took designs from the elegant, traditional qipao and slapped them onto garish nylon sets and called them “oriental” because white people love exotic shit.

Speaking of white people, not a single one of your models appears to be Asian. You probably thought you were doing good by having some women of color in there, but… really? Out of the dozen “oriental” pieces in your collection, not a single one was modeled by an Asian woman?

In a world where representation and diversity are such hot topics, you could have easily chosen to have only Asian models model your garish clothing in the name of “representation and diversity.” Truthfully, this would have been nothing but a marketing ploy on your end, but at least you would have made some kind of effort. Instead, you again chose to make your collection as appropriative as possible.

Besides this, using non-Asian models sends the message that Asian women aren’t beautiful enough to model their OWN culture’s clothing. This is seriously damaging to the esteem of Asian women, who are already going under the knife in countless numbers in countries like Korea for surgeries for double eyelids, pointier faces, etc. Note that these surgeries help these women achieve WHITE features.

The last point I’ll make (Although I’m sure there’s more. Blog readers, sound off in the comments below.) has to do with your word choice. You essentially slapped “oriental” in front of every article of clothing to describe it.

Seriously? ORIENTAL? To many people, the word seems innocuous, but that’s probably because said people aren’t Asian Americans. Honestly, the only time I’m ok with hearing the word oriental is when it’s used before the word “rug.”

To be fair, oriental hasn’t been used as a racial slur for awhile, so some of my fellow Asian Americans may feel differently about whether or not the term is racist. Even so, I personally hate the term and I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Oriental implies this sort of “exoticism” that white people just loooove to associate themselves with. After all, it’s only cool to associate yourself with other cultures if you’re white. (See: yellow fever) If you’re actually from another culture, then you can’t claim just the parts of it that white people are into. You have to claim the whole culture, “bad” and “weird” stuff included. For me, that was strange smelling lunches all throughout elementary school and eyes that always felt just a bit too small, even as someone who’s half white.

Seriously. Don’t call me Oriental OR exotic.

Seriously. Don’t call me Oriental OR exotic.

The term is also associated with a time period in which Asian Americans were considered inferior. That time period continues into today, but the term was used around the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese Internment camps. Can you blame a girl for hating a word associated with such acts of racism?

I think what surprises me the most about your collection is just how obviously bad it is. Not only are the pieces overly sexualized and poorly made (I can just FEEL how uncomfortable your fake silk is), you did just about everything you could to make this SCREAM cultural appropriation.

There’s been no shortage of scandals as of late, and I would have thought that your brand would be aware of these. After all, many of these have involved fashion brands like Forever 21 (a direct competitor of yours with the US market) and Dolce & Gabbana. I would think that your company is aware of such scandals and would have learned from them in order to avoid having such a massive scandal of your own.

Clearly, I thought wrong.

Your Valentine’s Day collection is one of the clearest examples of cultural appropriation I’ve seen in awhile. I’m all for cultural appreciation, but this just… it’s not it.

I’m blessed enough to have grown up in a mixed race family. My mother was born and raised in Taiwan, but chose to move to the States to start her family after meeting my father (who’s white). My mother always made sure that her children knew their culture, signing us up for Chinese school as soon as we were old enough, cooking us the dishes her own mother made for her as a child, and taking us back to Taiwan every few years.

In this context, I’ve grown to understand what cultural appreciation is and is not. Cultural appreciation is not your garish usage of traditional Asian dress for your Valentine’s Day collection.

Cultural appreciation is my choice to major in Chinese so that I could better understand my mother’s native tongue and my own culture’s language. It’s my father dressing in traditional Taiwanese clothing alongside my mother in Taiwan on their wedding day. It’s my mother taking me to audition for a Chinese folk dance troupe at age 10 and my father coming with her to my performances in the following 8 years. Cultural appreciation is my father attending the Chinese festival each year and enjoying the traditional Lion Dance. It’s me taking my friends to a Szechuan restaurant and introducing them to the dishes my mother taught me to love from a young age.

Cultural appreciation is not taking a historical piece of clothing out of context and turning it into a fast fashion nightmare in the name of profit. I hope that you can learn to appreciate the rich culture that I’m blessed enough to be part of, rather than appropriating it.

Happy Lunar New Year. 新年快樂。

Best,

Annabelle

Annabelle Schmitt3 Comments