Another day, another fashion history lesson brought to you by way of a Kardashian. We’re slightly kidding, but really — if there’s one thing the Kardashian clan is good at, it’s convincing millennials that they’re the arbiters of trends. It leaves us fashion folk room to talk about what we know best, y’know, clothes and where they come from. For today’s fashion crash course, the most famous of the lot, Kim, posted a familial holiday greeting to Instagram. Sandwiched between her fur clad children, she can be seen wearing a qipao, or cheongsam, dress.
Before the cultural appropriation cards are drawn, there’s more history to the getup than meets the eye. The dress in question is vintage Dior from 1997 — a rare artifact of designer John Galliano’s golden era — and is part of a collection that was inspired by China. For context, several of Galliano’s pieces were featured in the Metropolitan Costume Institute’s controversial exhibition China: Through The Looking Glass last year. Telling the costume institute’s head curator Andrew Bolton, in 2015, Galliano said the collection was inspired by his curiosity for the culture.
“In retrospect, I think it was because I knew very little about it,” Galliano told Bolton, for Vogue. “Before I visited China, it was the fantasy that drew me to it, the sense of danger and mystery conveyed through Hollywood. Much later, I learned more about the real China through research — paintings, literature, architecture. My design process involves in-depth research, and I make a scrapbook for every collection with images that show my current thinking.” Kardashian sported the look to her mom Kris Jenner’s annual Christmas party, completing the look with a set of Yeezy heels ( duh).
The qipao, also known as a cheongsam, is a traditional Chinese dress that came to popularity via socialites and the upper class in the 1920s. Of course, this was under Mao Zedong’s communist leadership, when most of China was built into a global, industrial superpower, at the expense of millions of Chinese people. The wearing of the qipao shouldn’t be negatively construed, per se, but it is a fabrication of very real people and events that largely go ignored by admirers of other cultures, especially the fashion industry — Dior or not. To note, as well: The original qipao was wide and loose, covering most of a woman’s body, only revealing her head, hands, and toes.
Most of the comments on Kardashian’s post are positive, so far, with most attention being paid to her husband Kanye West’s somewhat blank stare (or, as one commenter called it, his “smize”), but a few users have caught on to the potential issue drawn from the Dior getup. One commenter asks, “Is this cultural appropriation if she’s wearing a Chinese dress?” with another pointing out the style of the dress ahead of a rolling-eye emoji. For the record, Kardashian has donned qipao’s in the past: once, an inspired version during her pregnancy, and before that, as a teenager, while she looked into a home video camera telling the world she’d be famous someday. And boy, did she ever.
When it comes to fashion, the question of whether or not cultural appropriation is indeed in play is best answered by the culture that’s been oppressed, i.e. the one that’s being appropriated. But, one thing’s for certain: Kardashian, if anything, has renewed conversation around an otherwise routinely appropriated style of dress. And maybe it’s a conversation that still needs to be had.
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