This past Monday, the highly anticipated annual fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art took place. The chosen theme was “China Through the Looking Glass” – also the title of their new exhibition which opened today.
As soon as the theme was announced, however, it was met with skepticism and scorn. Everyone was worried about one thing in particular: cultural appropriation.
Now, I’m sure many of you have heard of appropriation and can guess why it might be harmful, but just in case, let me explain it to you. Cultural appropriation is taking elements from one culture and using it yourself, often without cultural context or sensitivity. One example is Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” which uses Japanese cuisine, language, and people in order to perpetuate an “exotic” and passive/subservient view of the culture as a whole. It boils down a culture into a few items, instead of a complex hereditary identity.
Hollywood celebrities in particular have had a horrible track record with appropriating Asian (and non-Asian) culture. And while that did occur on Monday night, there were also great plays on the theme. To keep this post short, let’s look at just three different examples of appropriation and homage.
We begin with Emma Robert’s outfit, which is only vaguely “Chinese” from her dragon purse and chopsticks in her hair. This is an obvious example of cultural appropriation.
Chopsticks are especially poor taste because it can symbolize death in the family–not to mention, they’re eating utensils.
In fact, backlash was so extreme that she took them out before she reached the red carpet. Good job, internet.
A perhaps less overt example of appropriation would be Georgia May Jagger’s dress:
Although the Gucci dress is lovely, it is a technical error that makes it problematic. The dress takes more after a Japanese kimono than a Chinese qipao/cheongsam, which makes it terribly out of place for a Chinese themed evening. Allowing the line to blur between “Chinese inspired” and “Japanese inspired” disrespects the two cultures and countries–especially considering that Japan and China have often been at war with one another.
So let’s move on to an example of honoring Chinese culture: Rihanna
Created by the Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei, this impressive coat and train took 20 months to make and weighs 55 pounds. In a brilliant yellow, it pays homage to Chinese royalty, who were the only ones allowed to wear yellow.
Rihanna found the dress while she was researching Chinese couture, as Pei is a noteworthy designer who even has two pieces featured in the MET exhibition itself.
In an interview, Rihanna shows with grace her intentions while wearing the dress: “The focus and the attention paid to this dress will make it remembered by the world—[what] I want is to make them remember… . It is my responsibility to let the world know China’s tradition and past, and to give the splendor of China a new expression. I hope that people do know China in this way.”
Rihanna sets a marvelous example of respecting Chinese culture. However, it’s important to note that not everyone played to the theme. It was, after all, a suggestion. And if celebrities are having difficulty not appropriating a culture, they are always welcome to not try at all.
Here are a few more shots of what people wore, you be the judge of whether it was cultural appropriate or appreciation.