Teenager’s dress sense shows cultural appreciation

An 18-year-old US student who wore a cheongsam to her school prom is accused of ‘cultural appropriation’ on Twitter, but then Chinese rally to her defence

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 5:27am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 5:27am

When you share something on social media, you are running the gamut of possible reactions from positive feedback to bullying.

Even so, if an American teenager had not inadvertently touched off a media storm with a photo of her choice of attire for a rite of passage, you could not make it up.

We are referring, of course, to Keziah Daum, the 18-year-old from Utah who wore a form-fitting red cheongsam or traditional Chinese qipao to her high school prom – and was so proud of it she posted a photograph on Twitter to share with her friends.

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The storm broke with a tweet by someone of Chinese heritage called Jeremy Lam, who posted: “My culture is not your [expletive] prom dress.” This was retweeted more than 40,000 times in the following days. “I’m proud of my culture,” he wrote in another post.

“For it simply to be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience is parallel to colonial ideology.”

After more criticism, much of it from Asian-American Twitter users, the issue soon came to be seen as an example of “cultural appropriation”, presumably to be grouped with the appropriation of Lam’s Western given name and the baseball cap he is wearing in his Twitter profile.

Go ahead, appropriate my culture

Other Asian-Americans said the criticism was silly. Ironically, far from being critical of Daum, who is not Chinese, many in Hong Kong, on the mainland and Taiwan hailed her choice of the traditional dress as cultural appreciation, and a victory for Chinese culture. In fact, the design of a once loose-fitting garment has been influenced over the years by more liberal Western fashion values.

Daum said she was not aware of the dress’ history before buying it at a vintage shop in Salt Lake City, but “simply found a beautiful, modest gown and chose to wear it. I am sorry if anyone was offended”.

The storm in a teacup, or tempest in a teapot, if we may appropriate the idiom from wherever, is summed up by one Weibo user: “I am very happy she has chosen to wear a qipao (cheongsam). It means that she thinks our culture is beautiful …

“And if Western people are saying that she can’t wear Chinese clothes, does that mean Chinese people can’t wear Western clothing, such as a wedding dress? That would be stupid.”