Among the pool of prom attendees dressed in conventional princess-worthy attire, a white American puts on a traditional Chinese garment and becomes the subject of a worldwide debate on cultural appropriation.
American high school student Keziah Daum faced immense online backlash after sharing a series of prom photos of herself in a red cheongsam.
Labelled a ‘closet racist’, Ms Daum – who is not Chinese – was accused of being culturally insensitive for wearing this iconic Chinese garment.
“Western women have been wearing this garment for many decades and it seems strange that exceptions should be taken to it now,” Professor Antonia Finnane, a historian of China at the University of Melbourne, said.
Cheongsam is custom-made in Hong Kong and Shanghai and is designed to be worn by westerners, so questioning the appropriateness of the dress on non-Chinese women seems “a little odd”, she said.
— Keziah (@daumkeziah) April 22, 2018
Jeremy Lam, a vocal opponent of Ms Duam’s choice of attire, tweeted: “My culture is NOT your …. prom dress.”
“I’m proud of my culture, including the extreme barriers marginalized people within that culture have had to overcome those obstacles,” he added. “For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.”
My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress. https://t.co/vhkNOPevKD
— Jeremy Lam (@jere_bare) April 27, 2018
Professor Finnane said Mr Lam’s comments were founded upon factual inaccuracies, given that China was not a colonised country “as the Chinese history books and the Chinese government will often tell you” and it is rivalling the superpower status of the US.
The argument about the Chinese being an oppressed minority has “taken things a step too far”, she said.
“Do we wait until they are clearly the superpower and then we can all wear the cheongsam because they are no longer in a subordinated position?”
Social media reaction in China was largely positive, the South China Morning Post reported, with one user saying it was “cultural appreciation” not “cultural theft”.
History of the cheongsam
Cheongsam originated in the 1920s and quickly became a fashion phenomenon favoured by the social elite.
It was worn by many Chinese women in the 1940s and 1950s as a daily outfit before the Communist Party took over the country.
Chinese women were expected to do away with the cheongsam and wear a more politically acceptable garment known as the ‘Mao suit’.
The everyday garment regained popularity in Hong Kong in the 1960s. Originally worn loose, the cheongsam became shorter and more fitted.
‘Love to see more wearing cheongsam’
When worn with respect and appreciation, the traditional garment should be celebrated, said Dr Masafumi Monden, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Technology Sydney.
“It would have been a different story, however, if the young woman wore the cheongsam for, say, Halloween.”
Dr Shirley Chan, associate professor of Chinese studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, said wearing a cheongsam to a formal is “definitely fine”.
In fact, Ms Duan’s decision to dress in a cheongsam is “admirable”.
“Shouldn’t we embrace more cultural diversities especially if it is something that is supposed to be beautiful and a nice thing to do?”
Wearing a cheongsam to work or a family outing was never seen as something that you should not do, Dr Chan said.
“Although it is fine to wear to work … people tend to see cheongsam more like a symbol of exotic and iconic dress.
“Nowadays we are so influenced by the Western culture in many ways that not many people would wear cheongsam as a everyday dress.
“Personally I would love to see more people wearing cheongsam even as daily garment.”