An “Oriental Celebration,” 1960

Where do you stand of the issue of cultural appropriation?  You might remember the recent story of a white high school girl who was shamed for wearing a Chinese style quipao dress to her prom.  Some Asian Americans complained that “My culture is not your goddamn prom dress.”

Clearly the woman on the left, Mrs. Shelton A. McHenry, had no such qualms.  The photo, published in the Southern Californian Valley Times, was taken at a party she hosted before she and her husband set off on a round-the-world tour in 1960.  To my eye, what’s offensive is that she seems to be creating an imaginary “Orient” by combining her Chinese style dress with a Japanese hair ornament.  However, I have no objection to the dress itself, which melds a Chinese inspiration with a sixties style sheath.

I think cultural appropriation is inevitable.  The history of fashion silhouettes and textile patterns is so complex and intertwined that it is difficult to trace the origins of things.  After all, the quipao itself was a Chinese response to Western fashion.  While I would never don that style because of its tight fit, my favorite summer garment is my own home-made version of an Indian kurta.  I am happy to give credit for the inspiration—a tunic style that made its own long historical journey through Central and South Asia–but I why should I give it up?

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3 Responses to An “Oriental Celebration,” 1960

  1. Bob Moeller says:

    Interesting coincidence that the movie, ‘The World of Susie Wong’, also appeared in 1960. (“A businessman moves to Hong Kong to pursue a career as an artist and falls in love with a prostitute he hires as a model.”) I think this woman appropriates ‘oriental’ fashion to appropriate a crude notion of exoticism and sexuality, something what white women in the US and Europe have done since at least the 19th century. Would it be worth figuring out what the characters mean? Context is important. 1960 is not the present. This one is, I think, cringe worthy.

  2. Lizzie says:

    I really think that many times when we talk about appropriation, we actually mean racism (or classism) or stealing. When a designer releases a copy of an indigenous garment, that’s not appropriation. It’s stealing. When a celebrity wears a Sioux war bonnet on the cover of Vogue, it’s not appropriation. It’s racism.

    I don’t find the dress offensive, but the chopsticks in the hair is, in my opinion, racist.

    At the last Costume Society of America Symposium, there was an scholar’s roundtable that addressed some of these issues. One of the presenters, who is Native American, made the point that it makes a difference where one obtains clothing and jewelry. Native artists and designers rely heavily on non-native buyers at Indian markets. It’s a major source of income for many Native families. On the other hand, buying “Navajo”
    undies at Urban Outfitters is appropriation.

    I agree that the interchange of cultural influences is inevitable. It’s when the original source is looked at as “other” or “exotic” that leads to problems.

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