Dear Reformation, stop commoditizing my culture // On cultural appropriation in “ethical” fashion

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.

Dear Reformation, stop commoditizing my culture // On cultural appropriation in "ethical" fashion
left: Reformation’s dress; right: a traditional qipao

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.

Dear Reformation, stop commoditizing my culture // On cultural appropriation in "ethical" fashion

11 thoughts on “Dear Reformation, stop commoditizing my culture // On cultural appropriation in “ethical” fashion”

  • I’ve always liked Reformation’s products aesthetically, but I don’t spend much time on Instagram and only heard about this through your blog post. I am so mad about it I’m basically laughing because I don’t know how else to respond. I think what irks me the most is that they called it a “mock neck collar” because that’s not even the right fashion term for it. It’s like they were purposely trying to avoid using the (correct!!!) term, mandarin collar, to avoid any kind of remotely Asian reference. AGGHHHH!!

    Anyway, I’ve been following your blog for a while but this is my first comment. Just wanted to say one of your older posts inspired me to start knitting a crop top (my first non-scarf item!) and the going is very slow, but it’s soothing and satisfying to partake in (very) slow fashion.

    • Haha, I’m also kind of laughing out of horror/confusion! Who thought this would be a good idea?? Thanks so much for leaving a response! I’m so happy I’ve helped inspire you to knit more 🙂

  • [CONTENT WARNING (added by blog moderator)]: Explicit examples of violent, racist remarks, slurs

    As a pale, green-eyed European (I personally hate the term ‘white’) I have never been the victim of cultural appropiation, but I wonder: when is it okay? I personally love many Asian styles, like qipao’s – I love those the most, honestly. I want to visit many Aisan countries (have already been to Beijing) not in a fetish kind of way, but because I genuinely love many of the arts and styles that come from there. It’s something about modernizing and appreciating what globalization has to offer, while not giving up traditional styles and values. Here in western Europe, we kind of lost all tradition. And I would absolutely love to wear a qipao, a beautiful silk one made by a chinese Artisan, but honestly I wouldn’t be comfortable doing it because a) not only asians are mocked for wearing traditional clothes, no matter what culture the clothes come from, at least here in Europe (where EVERYONE just wears jeans and grey jumpers, basically, and don’t have much respect for artisanal traditonal clothes and crafts) but also because of being accused for cultural appropiation, which in my case really would be cultural appreciation. (I never called an asian slanty-eyed, by the way, I am probably on the few in my community to not make racist comments like that. It’s annoying what people say sometimes…”Hey, a Jew, shoot him!” “Have you met anyone called Xing Ping in China? Oh, you can speak some Chinese? XING PING WANG DONG DANG what does that mean?” “It stinks here, probably because of one of the dead bodies that filthy pakistani is hiding” – quotes from some of my classmates. I wanted to slap them)

    I hope my comment doesn’t offend you, I do not mean it in any way. I understand the concept of cultural appropiation but am simply worried about what is ‘allowed’, as sometimes it really seems like dividing cultures instead of sharing them, something I am personally a huge fan of.

    • Hey girl, I added a content warning to your comment because the examples of racism you gave were very explicit and violent…even though it’s not you saying those things, please be cognizant that those words could be very hurtful to someone reading them!

      In reference to your question, take a look at this blog I wrote on that very topic:

      I can’t answer for all Asian people, obviously, but I think if you have doubts about how it may hurt others, it’s better to be safe than sorry and not wear it. The exception might be in special occasions, like wearing traditional cultural clothing to a friend’s traditional wedding, etc., and also sometimes if you visit a country and wear cultural clothing it’s expected and preferred whereas in Western countries it would be appropriation. You can try researching on the Internet for the specific contexts you’d want to wear something!

      More info here:

      • Thank you for the content warning 😉 forgot to do it myself, but really wanted to give the example because of the whole ‘all/most white people are racist thing’ which is true, a lot of the time, which makes me understand the whole issue.

        I already read that post in the meantime and there really are some brands out there doing amazing things – Unfortunately, I can not support them because of huge shipping and import fees and sizing (I’m very skinny) Otherwise I’d totally do.

  • Thank you for writing this, Cat! Super helpful. I’m such an admirer of this style (although not when it’s hyper sexualized, which I understand is part of what makes the appropriation of it so problematic), but am happy to admire it from afar when it’s in its proper context. 🙂

  • Thanks for writing this! I think it’s such a shame that Reformation is SO so lacking in being inclusive and culturally thoughtful. They could do so much better! It also makes me really sad that they haven’t posted any sort of response!

    • Agreed…it’s making it way worse that they are completely ignoring the problem. Thanks for giving this a read, I appreciate it!

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