Dear Reformation, stop commoditizing my culture // On cultural appropriation in “ethical” fashion
Update: It looks like Reformation has quietly pulled the dress from their site. I suspect it sold out and they didn’t want to continue making the dress due to the backlash. You could argue that this is too little, too late; or you could argue that it was a more sustainable decision to sell the stock they had so it wouldn’t be lying in a landfill somewhere. In any case, I am disappointed that this happened in the first case, and that the company refused to acknowledge the backlash at all (they have ignored all comments, DMs, and e-mails about it to my knowledge despite being extremely responsive about all other inquiries).
In their first drop of 2019, Reformation kicked off the year with a new style they’ve dubbed the “May dress.” According to the website, the dress is “a tight fitting, mini length dress with a mock neck collar, frog closures and short sleeves.”
According to Chinese people, that’s a qipao (also known as a cheongsam)—a traditional dress most often worn for formal occasions.
As one might expect, when Ref posted a photo of the dress on a white model on Instagram, the comments section blew up in outrage. And as one might, sadly, expect, Reformation hasn’t issued any statement in response, or pulled the dress off their website; in fact, the dress is on their front page.
I’ve been a huge fan of Reformation’s styles and their commitment to sustainability, but this incident of unapologetic cultural appropriation and their lack of response has me questioning their sincerity as an “ethical” brand. It’s like when the cute white boy you’ve been flirting with tells you he really loves Asian girls. Thank u, next.
If you aren’t sure why people are mad, here’s a post I wrote on cultural appropriation. I actually referenced another incident of cultural appropriation involving the qipao in that article that perfectly sums up how this situation makes me feel, so I’ll quote that here:
“The only time I’ve worn a qipao, a traditional Chinese dress worn for special occasions, besides maybe as a child, was when I found one in a thrift store and tried it on. It was a beautiful dress, similar to the one controversially worn by a white girl to her prom, but the dress that made her feel pretty and confident and cultured made me feel like a caricature.
Why? Well, just take a look at how Asian people are depicted in American media, and imagine growing up in a country that constantly asks where you’re from—no, where you’re really from. Me wearing a qipao looks, to the American public eye, like a foreigner and a target of ridicule; a white woman wearing a qipao looks cute and fashionable.
I wouldn’t wear traditional Chinese garments in public, because I’m afraid to be a target of hateful comments or actions (which are, btw, on the rise for Asian Americans). It’s not right that a white girl can wear a qipao, just thinking of it as a pretty dress, and feel beautiful, while I’d be made to feel self-conscious and be targeted for bigotry.
When I, and many other Asian Americans, see “Asian-inspired” or “Oriental” clothing that reduces our cultures to fashion trends, it doesn’t feel great. I mean, how gross is it that the heritage we’ve been forced to distance ourselves from in order to be accepted as American is now being commercialized for the profit of Western fashion corporations, to be worn and enjoyed by the same people who think “slanty eye” jokes are funny?”
For those arguing it’s “cultural appreciation,” there’s no acknowledgement that the dress design has been copied from a qipao. There isn’t even the perfunctory “Asian-inspired” (or its more problematic cousin “Oriental-inspired”) in the description.
Reformation is just copying a traditional Chinese design, slapping a leopard print on it and stripping it of its cultural significance, and trying to pass it off as their own. It’s like putting your name on an essay you found off the Internet—”cultural appreciation” would be like quoting a source and properly attributing it.
I wouldn’t have been surprised to see obvious cultural appropriation from another fast fashion brand (after all, it happens all the time), but I did kind of think that Reformation was better than that, being an “ethical” brand and all.
I don’t know if this resulted from Reformation not having enough (any?) people of color in their design team, or simply not caring because they are marketing towards a specific demographic (tall, thin white women…apparently). But I am disappointed in an “ethical” brand that values profits over respecting the culture and humanity of people of color.
Of course, cultural appropriation isn’t the worst thing happening to people of color today—but it’s a symptom of our messed up society, and it says something about how even “ethical” brands feel entitled to not only the labor, but the cultural identity of people of color. And from Reformation’s lack of response, it seems that they intend to completely ignore the issue and continue to sell their qipao knockoff.
With ethical and sustainable fashion picking up momentum, we need to and can hold brands to a higher standard. It’s not revolutionary to do the bare minimum of paying their workers, and I’m done upholding brands that think that’s enough.
It’s 2019. Reformation, do better.