Qipao Love: Part 18 ~ Cultural appropriation and the Qipao (Cheongsam)...a matter of opinion?

My beehive and a groovy Cheongsam.... [Caroline Opacic Photography]
Having received a reader's email voicing cocerns about cultural appropriation and the Qipao (Cheongsam) recently, it has made me consider some of the questions this issue brings to light. There has been an ongoing spin in the media on famous people wearing certain traditional garments of other cultures being offensive or even racially prejudice, with different arguments from different sources. Perhaps it is time to voice my two pennies worth of thoughts on the matter, and of course I cannot claim to represent all persons of Asian heritage at all, so thoughts are essentially mine alone and they are not meant to be offensive or political in any manner. As a Cheongsam enthusiast and advocate, I feel it is important to spread the beauty of this dress and prevent scaring those who love the Cheongsam into not being able to wear it just because they are ethnically different. Living in London I have come to appreciate diversity as well as freedom, there are not many cities around the world with such great appreciation for difference, culture and freedom. Where I can walk down the street of good ol' London town in a piled high beehive and Qipao without so much of a batted eyelid by passers by, I am probably unlikely to get away with it in other parts of the world....even in an Asian country. Nothing major of course; I will probably get passers by stopping to stare and guessing I am either crazy, dressing up for a fancy dress party, going to a formal event or wedding. Such is the circumstances that have restricted the use of the Qipao today (unless of course it could be Chinese New Year), and almost to the extent of a social phobia in being too different to fit to the norm of daily modern fashionable Western style dress in an Asian country. My question is...should this circumstance be normal even for those who have an ethnically Chinese background living in Asia? Why should the Cheongsam no longer be the norm? Does it have to be in Vogue in order to be fashionable?

Anna May Wong (Source: Pinterest)

Sceen from 'Flowers of War' (Source)

Chinese-born Japanese actress Yoshiko Otaka (Yamaguchi) [Pinterest]
Is it just body image or a deeper fear, and indeed why should women fear what they wear? I have been addressing this issue post by post through developing the Qipao Love series that I hope can become a useful reference point or even inspirational motivation for others, and have been calling forth women who love the Qipao or Cheongsam to embrace that love by celebrating it with others through the monthly Qipao LoveR feature. A garment that was still being worn as daily wear about more than 60 years ago being replaced by modern trend directed clothing in an effort to become more Westernised or fashionable is a fact. The art of making the Qipao through traditional means is dying and specialised tailors are disappearing, so one day it could become something only seen in museums. Therefore I see it important to encourage more ladies to get to know the Qipao, and for those who love collecting the Qipao like myself to be able to wear  it without the prejudice or fear of being seen as some sort of fun-only costume...if I should wear it let it be with love, so if others wear it then I hope it is with love and appreciation too. My close Japanese friend also fears the art of the Kimono might one day die out, and with her teachings I learned to dress in a Yukata (summer Kimono) the traditional way from how to tie the obi traditionally to how to behave when wearing the Yukata. Dressing can be an art. When one loves something one will carry it with respect and appreciate its beauty, which I hope is the message I have been able to spread.

Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor in Cheongsam (Divine Stitches

Clark Gable and actress Li Li-Hwa (Source: Pinterest)

Vintage Butterick sewing pattern....to make your own Cheongsam (Divine Stitches)

Love my Yukata even though I'm not Japanese..... [Yukata How-To]
Photo: Caroline Opacic Photography

Wearing my Yukata with a proper lightweight Obi.... [1920s Modan Garu]
Perhaps I have a different approach to others in seeing information as a means of helping others to understand some context of a culture, and actually encouraging others to appreciate traditional dress. Have a look at the photos (above) of Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor dressed in traditionally Chinese garments, but not looking any bit offensive...well to me anyway, in fact I think they look beautiful. I feel the difference between the offensive and non-offensive is crucially 'how one wears the traditional dress', so here's a few ideas to consider:
  • Research that dress! If you would like to wear a Qipao (Cheongsam) respectfully, then do a little research into what looks nice with it and know the name of what it is that you will be wearing. It is probably best not to mix a widely perceived Chinese dress with items from other Asian cultures, to avoid making broad statements about all Asian cultures, or indeed dig out the political through a historical war context that could simmer a stereotypical grudge of some sort. If in doubt, keep it simple.
  • Mere fun-filled costume or true loving appreciation? Your intention matters, and how you choose to wear a traditional garment will allow others to decipher information about you as well as how you feel about the garment. If you love something, then you will simply want to do it justice and appreciated it in the best way that you can.
If wearing a traditional Qipao (Cheongsam) is still daunting because of cultural sensitivities, then perhaps you can start with a modern Cheongsam instead. There are several newly emerging independent Cheongsam designers in Asia, who are selling rather modernly modified designs incorporating Western dress features with an element of creativity as well as play of fabric, to make the Cheongsam more accessible to younger working females of today. [For a reference of the different Modern Cheongsam designs I have tried, take a look at the Qipao Love series.] Have a fabulous start to the week darlings!

Until the next time,
May xx

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In my very first modern everyday Cheongsam....on a Singapore trip. [Qipao Love]


  1. I don't think anyone's culture should be seen as a fashion trend, because trends come and then get tossed aside like yesterday's rubbish. But, if someone has a deep love and care for these items, then I think this is different. I feel if you research them, learn their meanings and traditions, wear them respectfully and use it as a way to teach others about another culture, then it is a positive thing. But, saying that, there are many who wear these items and sadly do not respect them, they don't know the meaning or even particularly what country they come from. I've seen many just say 'Asian country' which is disrespectful as it saying it like all of these places are the same and they're not. Celebrates often use them as things to make them look cool and that's not ok. But, if they've gone and learned the history and have respect then it makes a difference. I just think many just see them and feel they are pretty and don't give a second thought to the meaning of them. But, it can be confusing when you have people from the countries themselves selling the items and making the items for all people to enjoy them. So, I can look at it from both sides. I enjoy very much learning about cultures and all the Cheongsam you wear as otherwise, I wouldn't know very much about it. I think if we can use them as a teaching tool instead of just primarily as a fashion tool, people would have more understanding. Because for us to wear these items of culture is a gift really when we think on it, because many years ago the people would have been horribly treated for wearing these clothes (and I mean from lots of different cultures) so we should wear them with pride and know their history to keep it from vanishing. The more we know of a culture, the more understanding and love we will have. Xxx

  2. This is a great post! Thanks for discussing this with me; it's really helped me understand your perspective better. Your blog has provided some great insight into qipao history and meaning, and I hope that I will have the opportunity to wear one someday! (Or even make one! That would be amazing!)

  3. Brilliant post and really a subject that shouldn't have so many people offended.
    I was given a qipao as a gift from my mother in law and discovered my love for them. However, I really questioned was it appropriate for me to wear one as I wasn't chinese and there is so much about cultural appropriation being insulting and wrong. I don't wear them as a costume or a fashion statement/trend, I like them aesthetically. Later am I researching and finding out more.
    Being exposed to different cultures and styles should always be a good thing that broadens peoples understanding of the world and different cultures and I think that mostly happens.

    1. The western label of "cultural appropriation" is just that, Western! My country is very diverse - we have largely populations of people from China, India and various Asian countries. To wear clothing from another culture is highly valued because its seen as a way of celebrating our shared multicultural heritage. It's valued, it's appreciated, it's lauded. When I visited India, my Indian friends gifted me with outfits that were Indian to wear, because it was more appropriate and respectful.

      I LOVE it when people take an interest in my culture. When a foreigner wears a qipao, without making "fun" or insulting anyone but with genuine appreciation, it's a sign that you're interested in and value our heritage.

      I get it that in the US, people have misappropriated or misrepresented, for example, Native American cultures.

      And cultural clothing IS FASHION. It's not static. It changes with the times and is about beauty. I LOVE the way fabrics from all over the world made their way into European fashion in the the 18th century, for example. It was about trade and commerce and appreciating beauty and our interconnectedness.

  4. I like your post, I love qipao and am from Europe. Many years ago there was a small exhibition in the V&A showing many different qipao, I particularly liked the day versions in art-deco fabrics. I have a few books on the development of the qipao and you can see how the qipoa is influenced by western fashions of the '20's and 30's but making it truly Chinese. So why shouldn't a non-Chinese woman wear a qipao? Should all non-American people refrain from wearing jeans? I think it's a very silly notion. And I also like to wear Japanese Haori on top of western style trousers. Very elegant.
    We are all living on one planet, to admire and appreciate each others cultures (and clothes) is a good thing.

  5. I think wearing jeans is very different from wearing qipao, because of the history of cultural imperialism and colonialism. I really dislike that false equivalence.

    I'm Asian, and I live in Europe. And because of that, sometimes men want to talk to me only because they think I am "exotic". For example when I was not 18 yet, one old man followed me and called me a porcelain doll. Like they think I am not a person, only a different 'flavor' to try, only a stereotype sexy schoolgirl/concubine/geisha/submissive/anime girl/foreign idea.

    So I don't always like it when European women wear qipao only because they think it is 'exotic' and sexy. They can be "exotic" for one night only, and then take it off whenever they want.
    Especially because some of these women have made fun of me for being asian!

    And then of course they don't always wear it with respect. For example, I saw on TV a (not asian) prostitute wearing a latex qipao. They are creating a false image. Because where I live, Chinese women are sometimes stereotyped as prostitutes, I am afraid of wearing qipao! Because western media makes my traditional clothing seem like just a sexy costume.

    So when I see a western girl at the school dance wear qipao and get really drunk and dance in a very not-elegant way, I don't like it! Even if some people can wear it with more respect, often those people don't listen to me when I point things out about racism and orientalism. I guess I wouldn't care so much if there were not so much racism and orientalism in society, but for now I feel like - if they don't respect me as a person, if they make fun of me for eating rice, if they pretend they know more about my country than I do, if they reduce me to a stereotype - then why should they wear qipao? They only want it because it looks nice- they take the good but not the bad.

    Of course everybody is not like that, but enough are (and even many of those who are not never think about these issues or care about them). So yes, I think that cultural appropriation isn't a good thing because to me it's stealing (but I think if someone invites you to participate in culture, like your friend, and you do it respectfully, then in that case it's not appropriation)


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♥ May xx
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