To Borrow & To Claim

Vogue magazine dropped its latest offering to the world last week, in the form of a trailer for an upcoming documentary chronicling the planning process of last year’s Met Gala, and we couldn’t be more thrilled. The magazine’s last documentary, The September Issue (circa 2009), made us all want to grow up and be Grace Coddington, and maintains its position as one of the most important fashion films to date.

If you’ve been living under a rock, the Met Gala is an annual fundraising event for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City. Dubbed as the fashion-event of the year, the event also serves as the grand opening of the Costume Institute’s annual fashion exhibit. This is THE event for guests to bring their A-game as they dress to the theme of the night, which corresponds to the theme of the exhibit.

Last year’s theme, China: Through The Looking Glass, saw some major fashion moments such as Rihanna’s big Guo Pei moment, for instance. The Bajan beauty showed up to last year’s event in a canary yellow fur-trimmed cape, which weighed 55lbs and required the assistance of at least three people for the star to move about, sending the Internet into a meltdown and countless memes were born.

The theme however, was met with criticism, as torch-wielding netizens were quick to call out allegations of racism and a term so overused of late within the internetsphere: cultural appropriation. The term has been so liberally abused over the course of the last year we can’t help but approach this sensitive subject with the slightest tinge of cynical annoyance.

If you are lucky enough to be blithely unaware of what cultural appropriation is: read. While we mostly agree that the cultural appropriation struggle is alive and kicking, it is undeniable that it has reached a point of hypersensitivity that we are all just walking on eggshells around each other, particularly on the Internet, as it is so accessible and easy for anyone and everyone to express opinions. Careless adoptions of cultural elements from minority groups perpetuate ignorant stereotypes, and it gets worse when the majority group makes a profit from it. This is evident in pop culture, and the problem has trickled its way into the fashion industry.

While it is common to borrow cultural elements in fashion, Valentino’s S/S16 collection was met with much criticism as it borrowed heavily from African influences, which were described as “primitive” and “wild” (yikes!) by the acclaimed fashion house. To add insult to injury, the African-inspired show had a stark absence of dark skinned models on the runway.

The Valentino situation is only a brief example of how cultural appropriation can go so wrong. In the case of the Met Gala however, we felt that the criticism garnered was highly uncalled for. Growing up in Malaysia, a melting pot of cultures, we appreciate it when someone of a different cultural group embraces our culture. This exhibition resonated with me because I have long felt that my Chinese heritage has been widely underrepresented especially in Western culture and media. For the longest time, Chinese imagery in Western media has only been synonymous with epic period martial arts films. All the richness and opulence of our history has been muddled with other Asian cultures from widespread ignorance. It didn’t help that the cast of Memoirs Of A Geisha consisted primarily of Chinese actors, further blurring the lines for the ignorant.

As the most talked about fashion event of the year, this is the best platform to shine the spotlight on Chinese culture and create visibility for the entire world to see. It should be seen as a celebration of our heritage, as well as an opportunity to introduce Mainland Chinese figures, such as Guo Pei and Fan Bingbing, into pop culture.

It would be highly unfortunate and regressive for us to segregate cultures to exist only within it’s intended audience. Be informed, be respectful, and most importantly, be discerning. Let’s all just try to celebrate one another and bring some fun back into everything.