Traditional Dress in Asia: Cultural Appropriation and Keeping Traditions Alive

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Asian countries have some of the most beautiful, diverse, and distinctive cultural dress. From the áo dài of Vietnam to the hanbok of Korea, one look at these traditional outfits and you are given a window into their culture and heritage. There has been a lot of effort on the parts of these countries to keep their traditions alive. As they have stepped into the modern era, opened their borders to the world, and allowed the hand of the west to influence their cultures, it has been harder to interest their own youth in keeping touch with their past. And in their efforts and desire to share with the world, they have turned the eye of culture vultures onto them. There is a lot of talk in the west about cultural appropriation when it comes to donning the traditional clothing of another country, but the conversation in the east is much different. I want to bring these two conversations together, and have a frank talk about what it means to wear another country’s culture.

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Losing Touch With History

Chinese advertisement featuring qipao.

Chinese advertisement featuring qipao.

Food is obviously a great way to track a culture through its history, but better so, I think, is its clothing. A question I got quite often from my Korean students was about traditional American clothing, and most of the time I struggled to give them an answer. Blue jeans? Cowboy hats? Pilgrim costumes? We just don’t have the same distinct cultural link through clothing that they did, and this baffled them. It doesn’t matter where you look in Korean history, there will be someone wearing hanbok. The styles may have changed, but whether it was a colorful saekdongot or a simple garot it was undeniably Korean and something they took pride in. Often people will know little of the minutia that makes up a countries cultural identity, but they will almost always know what clothing makes that country distinct. Ask someone about Japan, and they might know little more than sushi and a kimono. Show them a picture of a qipao and they will most definitely tell you it’s from China.  The conical shaped grass hats are almost ubiquitous for Vietnam. My point is that this clothing is so closely linked with and often used as a symbol for its particular culture that one can understand why people decry a westerner donning them as a cultural appropriator. In the west, we are so hyper aware of the fallacy of white supremacy and colonization that we fear anything that touches on it. The idea that a white person would wear something from a society they systematically and historically oppressed for generations, just because it’s pretty, is incredibly insulting. However, in that same vein we are ignoring the thoughts and desires of those same societies.

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With the incredibly rapid urbanization and modernization taking place in Asia, the youth there are looking forward more than ever before. There’s so much promise, growth and opportunity in the future that it makes sense they are forgetting to look back. A decade ago, the wonder and pride in the Korean hanbok was dying, shocking considering how deep national pride runs there. It had mostly been relegated to weddings and cultural demonstrations. Outside of rural areas there was no reason to wear it, and with it being a tie to the past, it was seen as quaint and passé to wear one on a daily basis. The 2014 New York Times Article titled In China, ‘Once the Villages Are Gone, the Culture Is Gone’” lays out this very problem in great detail, both how modernization is displacing those most likely to carry on traditions, and the struggle that elders are having in passing them on.

Regaining Interest

Many countries are attempting to fight this and restore pride in their heritage, and are finding an easy way to get young people interested is through clothing. By setting up rental shops, they are making the clothing more accessible. To purchase a hanbok you are looking at a price of at least $500, and for something that will still only be worn on special occasions, that’s just too much to invest for most people. But when you can rent one, accessories and all, for under $30 it is suddenly available to everyone. Most rental shops are near historical sites in Korea, temples, palaces, museums, notable villages, and a lot are offering discounts or free entry to those who arrive in historical dress. This is a great way to tie together the history of your surroundings with the novelty of wearing something beautiful. There are several fashion designers who are taking inspiration from their country’s traditional dress and working it into modern pieces. This way they can once again be worn on the daily, without losing their cultural significance.

Young girls in rented hanbok enjoy their time at Gyeongbokgung.

Young girls in rented hanbok enjoy their time at Gyeongbokgung.

This accessibility and tie to many tourist locations is part of why you see so many foreigners partaking in historical costuming while abroad. When it’s so easy to get your hands on them, and they’re just so damn pretty, why wouldn’t you want to wear them too? So, this leads us to the question I’ve been tap dancing around. Is it okay for foreigners to partake, or is it unabashed cultural appropriation? From my experience, and conversations with those whose cultures it affects, as long as you are being respectful, it is absolutely okay, BUT only while you are in those places of cultural significance. They see their traditional garments as beautiful, and understand you would want to wear them for that reason. They also think it’s great that a foreigner would take an interest and want to partake in their history. It’s helping to keep the traditions alive. They see it as a chance to open your world and share more of their history with you. If you take an interest in learning about this little part, it may lead you to learning more about what is culturally significant for them. That being said, there are definitely things to consider while you are enjoying something so significant. Here are my do’s and don’ts.

A Foreigner’s Guide to Traditional Dress

Monks at a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Monks at a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The biggest don’ts and probably the only things you REALLY need to take seriously are simple. Don’t treat it like a joke, and don’t act like an ass. You are now not only representing your country, but holing up the significance of the country hosting you. Treat it with as much respect as that entitles. Don’t run around in their dress being a jerk, don’t be culturally insensitive while doing it, don’t make a spectacle of yourself for the sake of taking the piss. You wouldn’t like it if a foreigner dressed like a stereotype from your country only to make a mockery of it. If you are being respectful, and you are using this as a genuine opportunity to learn more about their culture, then you should be A-Okay.

There’s a time and a place for everything. Obviously, you shouldn’t show up to your job, or a bar (unless it’s some themed event or a special occasion, obvi), or to rent an apartment, or to file your taxes, in full traditional regalia. That goes along with making a mockery. But, if you want to wear your yukata to a local festival? Go for it! Taking advantage of the free entry to Gyeongbokgung in hanbok? Absolutely! Strolling a historical site in chut thai? Yes, please! As long as you understand where and when you should wear traditional clothing, you will be happy to see how well you will be received.

This should go without saying, but DO NOT wear the religious clothing of another country, or the traditional clothing of another country while in historical areas. Were you to walk through a Korean palace dressed in full geisha regalia, the locals would be incredibly insulted. And under no circumstances is it okay to play dress up in a monks uniform.

Myself in Hanbok and a HORDE of Korean girls taking cute photos at the grand palace in Seoul.

Myself in Hanbok and a HORDE of Korean girls taking cute photos at the grand palace in Seoul.

Don’t be afraid to have fun! Getting dolled up and feeling good is fun. Wearing traditional clothes is fun. Don’t be afraid to express that. Take pictures (I promise you the locals will be), visit the sites and stroll around like you belong there. If you look like you aren’t enjoying it, it makes it seem like an insult.

Finally, use this as an opportunity to learn more about the culture you’re participating in. Research a little bit about the clothes before you wear them. Their origins and histories are fascinating, and it will help you with all the rules above. You can’t know where, what and when it’s appropriate if you don’t know anything about it. Ask the people who run the rental stores for information! They will love that you want to learn, and it will make the experience over all more enjoyable. You will feel less uncomfortable if you have a genuine base of knowledge about the culture. When you care about it, its less appropriating and more participating. If a local does express discomfort in you wearing it, don’t get defensive! This is their culture, so it’s their right to have an opinion on it. Use it as an opportunity to learn more and ask them why they feel that way. It only adds to your respect for the garments when you are trying to understand the people behind them.

A friend and I in matching hanbok. Note: If you are over 5’5”, your feet will stick out. Wear cute shoes.

A friend and I in matching hanbok. Note: If you are over 5’5”, your feet will stick out. Wear cute shoes.

Ultimately what amounts to cultural appropriation is up to the individual and differs by culture. Obviously these rules don’t apply in the west where we have much more mixed feelings towards heritage and how it relates to race. If your friends from that culture comment on your photos expressing their discomfort, open a dialogue and listen. Basically research, educate yourself, and be respectful. You will get the most out of this experience, and life, if you do!

Feel like a celebrity when a crowd of locals and other strangers want to take a photo with you. Here you see me awkwardly posing with five lovely Filipina ladies. Not pictured: the line of Korean tourists also wanting a picture with me.

Feel like a celebrity when a crowd of locals and other strangers want to take a photo with you. Here you see me awkwardly posing with five lovely Filipina ladies. Not pictured: the line of Korean tourists also wanting a picture with me.