The Thorny Issue of the Red Cheongsam

I’ve watched with interest the reaction to the young Utah woman who wore a red cheongsam to her prom. For those of you who haven’t heard about this, the young white-appearing woman wore a Chinese-style dress that she bought at a thrift store to her prom, and posted pictures on Instagram, drawing the ire of a few people of Chinese descent who considered it to be cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is a tricky subject. Here’s the Cambridge Dictionary definition: “The act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” Wikipedia has a more expansive discussion of “cultural appropriation” and if you Google the term, you will find many articles talking about it. 

I am particularly interested in this because, more than fifteen years ago, I wore a red cheongsam to my wedding. Since it predated most social media, I went uncriticized, and all the remarks I received were complimentary. This recent news report caused me to wonder, though, was I a cultural appropriator when I chose a red Chinese wedding dress?

The wedding dress that is most common in my white, Irish/Italian-American Catholic culture is a white dress, usually full-length and very formal, accompanied by many accessories, including a veil and a garter belt. These items signify purity and virginity (white), wealth and social status (formal, long, expensive), hiding and humility (veil), and the giving of one’s sexuality to one’s husband (the garter belt), which he is free to share with his friends. There was not one single piece of this cultural artifact that represented me or my marriage. I knew that I didn’t want to wear white, and in fact, reject those symbols. To me, that is white culture, and I don’t like it.

I wanted a red dress. In my culture, red signifies lust, romance, promiscuity and danger. Closer, but not exactly what I wanted in a wedding dress. In Chinese culture, though, red symbolizes fire, and with it, warmth, happiness and good luck. The cheongsam, also known as a qipao, worn by a bride in a Chinese wedding, is meant to confer those values. Those values were much closer to what I wanted my dress to symbolize. I went to a dressmaker in Chinatown in Oakland, who took my measurements and sent them off to Hong Kong to have the dress made. She asked me if my fiance or my father were Chinese, and hearing that they were not, she laughed and told all the other women in the shop that I was wearing a red cheongsam instead of a white dress, and they were full of questions. Most of them, all Chinese, had worn both a white wedding dress and a red cheongsam during different parts of their wedding, and thought it was funny that I was eschewing white. The dress cost around $500 to make – right in my budget.

This doesn’t answer whether I was culturally appropriating Chinese culture, though. So I did a little research on the dress style, and learned that the modern cheongsam is not “traditional” in any long-term sense. According to this article, the modern cheongsam was heavily influenced by Western ideology in 1911, and was a symbol of resistance in the 1950s in Hong Kong when it was essentially banned in mainland China.

Cultural appropriation is typically understood as being a part of colonization – the idea of the colonizer stealing or diminishing the culture of the oppressed by adoption. While white people didn’t effectively colonize China, they tried to, making a few in-roads as missionaries, and Chinese immigrants were restricted and mistreated in this country for centuries. I don’t think I was aware of the scope of that when I got married.

Still, I don’t regret wearing my red wedding dress, and I don’t think I was culturally appropriating Chinese culture in that dress any more than I was appropriating Southern culture by having a pork barbecue after the lunch reception. In both cases, I found a culture different mine to be a better expression of the values we wanted to share with our guests and hopefully expanded their understanding of what constitutes a loving community of friends and family. Now I just wish I could still fit into my dress, although I definitely wouldn’t wear it to a prom.

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