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Chopsticks in Your Hair: Cultural Appropriation at the Met Gala

Just last week, on May 5, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute held its annual fundraising event, the Met Gala. It’s one of the highlights of the season in the fashion world, as A-list celebrities walk the red carpet in all their finery. However, this year, controversy mingled with the sequins and ball gowns.

Per tradition, the Met Gala’s theme corresponds to whatever the Costume Institute’s annual fashion exhibit is. This year, the exhibit was “China: Through the Looking Glass.” And according to tradition, attendees of the ball are encouraged to dress by the theme.

A simple glance on Twitter during the day of the event exemplified the outrage experienced by many people. Using #MetGala, some Twitter users accused attendees of cultural appropriation — one even wrote, “Met gala 2015: upscale versions of most racist Halloween costumes?”

Although Andrew Bolton, a curator of the Costume Institute, emphasized that the exhibit and the theme were meant to portray the “collective fantasy of China,” commentators from news sources such as Business Insider and Huffington Post to Fashionista blog and even People Magazine relayed concerns of Orientalism and cultural appropriation. After all, how do you condense an entire country with thousands of years of culture and history into a piece of eveningwear?

As I watched articles recounting the 50 best looks of the night flash across my computer’s news feed, I winced at the chopsticks in hair buns, the sexualized cheongsams and the inevitable kimono or hanbok interpretation (both of which belong to cultures that are not Chinese). Interestingly enough, Rihanna’s splashy gold cape-gown, which became an Internet meme, was one of a handful of dresses made by a Chinese designer.

So when does dressing for a theme cross the line into cultural appropriation? In this case, a celebration to commemorate an exhibit that portrayed the ways that Western fashion has interpreted Chinese culture lost its nuance in execution. The Costume Institute was careful to say that “China: Through the Looking Glass” was not an exhibition about Chinese couture, but rather the ways Chinese culture has influenced and will continue to influence fashion.

Many of the attendees at the Met Gala avoided controversy with discreet homages to Chinese embroidery or culturally revered colors of red and gold. Some promoted Chinese designers by wearing their dresses — though not aesthetically overtly “Chinese,” these celebrities certainly kept to the theme of celebrating Chinese fashion.

But when an entire culture, race and history is simplified to a caricature, from vaguely Asian-inspired headdresses to a purse in the literal shape of a “China doll,” an event meant to celebrate Chinese culture and fashion ends up mocking the very culture it intended to respect.

Contact Samantha Wong at slwong ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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