Asian Girl Problem #29: Apropos-priation

I only follow like three fashion blogs, coincidentally all by Asian girls who are around the same age as me. So I found it appropriate after writing this post that one of them just featured an American designer living in Shanghai who’s collection is entirely inspired by the styles of communism and textiles of Chinese Miao tribes.

Emulating or taking directly from a tribe’s craft/clothing tradition is widely popular in Asia, for good reason. The work is beautiful, seeped in meaning, and continues to be made with the same ancient technique and skill by the tribal women. Whether it’s a woven scarf, print dress or beaded necklace, they are rarities compared to the cookie-cutter fashion in stores, and attract fashionistas just like the vintage-hunters we have in America.

jacket My family used to have tons of these unisex army green jackets (without the beautiful embellishments) at home, but got rid of them long ago. Once, on a visit, I tore through my grandparents’ closets to find one of the last remaining ones to bring home. I was certain I could incorporate it into an outfit for a retro-chic, ironic touch. Alas, these jackets (the originals, anyway) are totally unflattering and it still languishes in storage. vest Speaking of fashion don’ts…each person’s boundaries are interesting. I’ve vowed to myself never to wear ethnic Chinese clothing, especially qipaos, unless it’s for a culturally-relevant occasion. On the other hand, my mom loves qipao-inspired jackets and traditional embroidery. When it comes to another culture’s traditional garb, it’s easy to cross the line into tacky.

Photos above from Hart Hagerty

On the designer’s website, it says, “Many Miao are still too poor to send their daughters to school, so when young men leave villages, females must take on agricultural work, leaving little time to teach or learn textile pursuits.” And “Hart’s featured embroidery was made between 1970 and the early 90s and sourced directly from artisans’ homes. Vintage embroidery has far better quality and ingenuity than contemporary pieces, which are cheaply machine-made with artificial fibers.”

The jackets run you $1000-2000 a pop. I must not be the only one wondering how she acquired the embroidery, how much she paid for them, and how she intends this business plan to actually “inspire and empower young Miao women to pursue the ancient art of their mothers and grandmothers as a means to support their independence and cultural heritage.” Might she be able to commission and pay them enough to survive on? To spearhead a new economy and liberate the women from fieldwork, and while she’s at it, start a CSA box delivery program to get food on the table?

Let’s say this is really the goal of these designers.

Because that’s one thing that troubles my understanding of appropriation–if you’re taking the art from the source and paying the artists a fair (keyword: fair) price, bringing their work to greater heights, doesn’t that counter whatever bastardization you make of it? If you buy and then destroy someone’s tablecloth to make an expensive skirt and sell it to a celebrity who wants to seem “authentic,” does the good you bring to the tablecloth-maker outweigh the possible damage you’ve done to culture? Yes, survival takes precedent over culture or art.

Unfortunately, fashion designers are not philanthropists, nor are they usually wealthy.  Their businesses would crumble if they paid a just price. So whatever their intentions, they’re better off keeping their ideals to themselves. Do it for your fashion, and let the people be. Better yet, find better fashion.


Asian Girl Problem #26: The Problem with Miley

It’s impossible to look away from the train wreck. I don’t follow a lot of celebrity news or pop music, but after I saw a clip of her VMA performance, I just wanted to talk about it. Not that I expect to come to any conclusive way to wrap up my feelings and make a final judgment call. But, as it’s my nature, I’ll give it a shot.

I don’t feel like putting up a picture of Miley because I’m tired of seeing her tongue. So here is someone else slightly relevant to this whole brouhaha.

What about appropriated Japanese women appropriating gangsta fashion?

When Gwen focused a whole album and tour around her Harajuku girls, the peanut gallery didn’t make a huge fuss. I found a couple articles of outrage, and Margaret Cho had her choice words, but that was the extent. The whole thing was quiet enough to go under my less-than-acute radar, and I found out years after the fact. I do remember enjoying a few songs from that album.

A few differences between the singers, in ascending order of importance:

1. Gwen is of my generation, and I loved her with and without No Doubt. I don’t follow her extensively, but if a Gwen music video is on I’ll be mesmerized until the end. I love her face, fashion and perfect arms and I feel like sometimes Madonna prays to look more like her. I don’t know or worship Miley’s body, making it easier to criticize her.
2. Gwen was sane, and not treading a precarious line between child and adulthood. She had a reputable image and she didn’t change the way she acted, she just added Japanese(-American) dancers and appropriated Asian aesthetics. Miley continues to embarrass herself and offend both white and black people (as well as any others who may associate) with her exaggerated interpretations. Acting possessed and looking like child porn star is at least half the reason she’s getting so much flak.

3. Different targets of appropriation. The level of gravity depends on who is appropriating and who it’s done to. Miley chose the worst culture to appropriate for her situation, background and generation. Appropriating a European, Asian, etc… culture just isn’t as volatile. Now, if a wealthy person in Hong Kong was appropriating the communities of Filipino migrant workers there, you might be getting closer to an equivalent.

I know there are more important things in the world that deserve our attention, but I’m grateful for these discussions, and that this event has sparked as much buzz as it did. There’s a thin line between respect and appropriation that I’m constantly trying to manage as well. And it often makes me uncomfortable, and it will always be worth discussing.

I listen to hip hop, say “fsho” and have asked a black friend to teach me how to twerk. (btw whatever Miley’s doing isn’t it.) But then on the other side of the line are things I won’t do, like wear a bandanna around my head, glorify drugs or say “ratchet”. That line gets pushed around by culture and context. But it’s naive, even for a 20-year-old, to think you can ignore it in the name of entertainment, and the world will praise your performance.