Thoughts on “Chinoiserie” and “Oriental” in the name of fashion

“You look like a waitress at a Chinese restaurant.”

Someone, likely a relative, said to me when they saw me in this qípáo 10 years ago.

I felt embarrassed. I didn’t want to look like I worked in a restaurant. I wanted to look beautiful. I wanted to take pride in my culture.

This dress has a long history dating back to the 1600s, but it was most notably worn by celebrities and upperclass Shanghainese women in the 1920s.

Maggie Cheung in “In the Mood for Love” via Pinterest

I don’t remember how I came up with the idea to make this dress. But I wanted one and my mom took me to a small shop in Taishan. I picked out the color of the fabric, color of the stitching, and the overall design. I’m pretty sure the shoulder pads were not my decision though.

That was the last time I wore this dress. For the last 10 years I pretty much forgot I even had it. Until the discussion came up about what I would be wearing for my Chinese wedding celebration. My mom suggested this dress. Red symbolizes luck, fortune, and happiness in Chinese culture so it only made sense to wear something in the color family.

When I finally put on the dress after so many years, I felt silly. It didn’t fit well and the comment from 10 years ago stuck with me. On my big day, I didn’t want to look like I was serving food. P.S. I didn’t end up wearing this dress.

This also reminded me of the time when “Chinese” slippers were all the rage in high school.

Photo: Amazon

I owned a black pair but always felt embarrassed when I wore them. They felt inauthentic, cheap, and silly. And I always felt like they only looked “cute” or “stylish” when non-Chinese girls wore them. There was obviously no rhyme or reason to this besides society holding European women to the highest of beauty standards.

Then last month, I came across these two pages of Instyle’s September issue that didn’t quite sit well with me. The first one is titled “Chinoiserie” and the other is “Orient Expressions.”

I’ve never heard of Chinoiserie before and had to google it. It was defined by Google as “the imitation or evocation of Chinese motifs and techniques in Western art, furniture, and architecture, especially in the 18th century.”

So I thought, isn’t this just glorifying cultural appropriation? Taking someone else’s culture and using it to create a separate artistic expression and naming it chinoiserieI was confused that in 2017 I was still asking myself if something like this was considered racist or if I was being too sensitive.

This next one, “Orient Expressions” really struck a cord because I thought, isn’t the use of “orient” or “oriental” outdated and offensive? Why couldn’t the article have been called something else? Would “Far East Opulence” (taken from the description) have been better? I don’t know. I do know though that these two pages made me angry. Angry that in the name of fashion, cultural appropriation can be trendy and fashion-forward.

This wasn’t the end of it though. I managed to stumble upon Bamba Swim, an Australian swimwear brand that used Chinese characters and motifs in their Fall line and campaign. My response in two tweets:

I didn’t get any responses but that’s no surprise.

But wait, there’s more.

There’s the Emilie dress in Shanghai Nights from Insta-famous brand, Realisation Par.

I think my biggest problem with Bamba Swim and Realisation Par is how they market their cultural appropriation by using Caucasian models to celebrate Chinese influences. Does this make any sense? Were there no Chinese models available? If they exist, wouldn’t it feel genuine and authentic to celebrate their culture with them wearing these pieces? I don’t have all the answers, but this felt like Chinese culture was being “White-washed.” I mean, even Zara has this dress in their Fall line for the masses:

Some people might argue that the fashion world is actually celebrating diversity by doing this. There’s even different opinions on whether the use of “oriental” is offensive and racist. Some argue that it’s not racist. And others argue that by making historically offensive words inappropriate, by extension and wishing, racist ideologies will be viewed as unacceptable as well. Offensive or not, we can’t deny that we still live in a deeply racist society.

My final thought is if we want to celebrate a culture, we should use proper representation. Let Chinese girls and women take pride in the influences of their cultural heritage. Use Chinese models, highlight Chinese designers, and maybe even give people a brief history lesson when something is a “trend.” Perhaps, in being more conscious of how we represent the ideas that we are trying to celebrate, the world can become more inclusive, accepting, and culturally aware.

Like I said before, I don’t have all the answers. I am basing this post on my own experience, my thoughts and feelings, as well as my own research.

One thing is for sure though, you won’t find me using Chinoiserie or Oriental to describe anything related to my cultural heritage. As for the dress, I’m not sure I’ll be wearing it anytime soon. It definitely needs some tailoring. And until it’s considered a regular dress and not a costume, it’ll have to stay in the closet for a different day.

What are your thoughts on this? I would love to know. There are definitely no right or wrong answers. Unless they’re racist, then it’s definitely wrong.

Thanks for stopping by. I’ll see you in my next post!

Sophie 🙂

Disclaimer: This is not an ad. All opinions are my own.

  • Kendraya Hampton

    Sophie, this post was so necessary! I’m glad you’re so passionate about this, as I also am. Cultural appropriation (or any other label that people are comfortable with to deny what it truly is) has never been okay in my eyes. It’s perfectly acceptable to appreciate different cultures, but it’s unacceptable to exploit cultures for the sake of making money or “being cool.”

    Thank you so much for sharing your honest thoughts on this topic. When seeing photos like that, it would spark anger and/or hurt for anyone who truly loves their heritage and culture. There’s so much pain behind cultural appropriation that some people would never understand.

    Coming from my mixed background, it’s always been sad and disheartening to see various cultures and people be subjected to cultural appropriation. One thing that you mentioned was educating people along with presenting aspects of a certain culture. I wish more people and companies would take that approach. Also, it would be so much more impactful to see models who are actually from a particular ethnic background (fully or partially) versus seeing someone who does not represent the culture. It makes traditional clothing seem like a costume when it’s portrayed in that way, and it’s sad.

    Sophie, you did an amazing job with this post! I’m so proud of you! Your thoughts and feelings are justified. 🙂

  • YES GIRL YES!! Thank you for speaking out on your opinion. I hate cultural appropriation and used to be more vocal about it. Being a fashion blogger but also socially aware, meant that I always struggled with fashion trends like “boho” and every time Halloween rolls around I have to mentally prepare myself for all the racism that is about to ensue.

    Orientalism in fashion still being a thing is a bit odd but I’m not surprised. Racist thinking takes years and years and years to erase and unfortunately western media continues to appropriate cultures and make those who actually identify with that culture feel inferior.

    I also can identify with feeling “bad” about my heritage…I used to not necessarily like how “Asian” I looked without my glasses, and always hid behind them hoping they would make my features look more white. But I also hated being fetishized so that had a lot to do with it too. Why is this world so messed up?? Haha great post girl <3