My Religion is Not Your Fashion Statement
By Thao Nguyen
I’m not one to quickly point fingers at others and accuse them of cultural appropriation. I’m Vietnamese-American. I have no problem if non-Vietnamese people choose to wear an áo dài, eat Vietnamese food without chopsticks, or celebrate Tết - as long as this is done so out of respect or curiosity, not out of mockery. Of course, I can never assume what someone’s intent is, but it can be pretty obvious when someone is attempting to lambast or make a joke out of what they are doing.
However, with the recent debate on the Chinese qipao as a prom dress, culture has been on my mind. At what point does wearing, using, or practicing something from another culture become disrespectful? Does it require a complete understanding of the cultural significance of what they are wearing or doing? Personally, I don’t think so. I don’t know the full history and significance of a lot of Vietnamese traditions, yet I would never be criticized for wearing an ao dai or participating in Vietnamese customs. Do I get a free pass just because of my heritage? Would someone who is not of Vietnamese descent but knows and cares more about the culture have less of a right to practice Vietnamese culture than me? I can think of lots of people who are born into a culture, but have less regard for it than people who aren’t born into it.
That all being said, I did find myself incredibly offended by some of the outfits at this year’s Met Gala. The theme for this year was Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to think of Catholicism as not just a religion, but also a culture. Because being religious does require participating in tradition, it may require wearing or not wearing certain things, and most importantly, it requires a level of respect and understanding of the beliefs and history of the religion.
As a practicing Catholic, I was hesitantly optimistic about the theme. I had hoped to see outfits that would show the intricate and ornate history of my faith or outfits that were inspired by the belief that God’s goodness and beauty could be reflected in anything. But I knew that more than likely, the interpretations would probably miss the mark. And I was right to be hesitant. Most of what people wore was either a superficial attempt (let’s just throw some crosses on here and call it a day), or borderline sacrilegious (let’s emulate some of the most sacred vestments and figures, but sexualize them).
I hope that even those who are not Catholic can understand why I would be upset when someone who openly admits to practicing witchcraft decides to dress up as Our Lady of Sorrows. I hope you can understand why I am not okay with someone taking the vestments and headpieces of the highest offices of the Church and decides to use them just as accessories. I hope that you understand that to me and to other Catholics, the crucifix is the ultimate symbol and image of Jesus’s love and sacrifice, so when someone decides to wear one just for fashion, it is hurtful and disrespectful. Yes, I cannot assume that the people wearing these outfits did not understand the significance of what they were wearing. I know that many of the celebrities wanted to make a fashion statement, that they wanted to be ornate and stop the show. I know that they weren’t wearing these things out of malice or to make a joke of the Church. But it still feels like an affront to my deepest held beliefs. And the conversations I had with my Catholic peers showed me that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way.
Don’t get me wrong. Many of the outfits at the Gala were beautiful, and I felt that they wonderfully emulated Catholic vestments in a respectful manner. But there is a fine line between being inspired by something and ripping something important from a culture and misappropriating it. As photos of the celebrities arriving on the red carpet continued to show up on my Instagram discovery page, I found myself getting more and more disheartened and angry. Disheartened because of the lack of respect I felt that the Church and its vestments and figures was receiving, and anger because of the double standard. I think we can all assume that had any other religion been chosen as the theme, there would either have been more care given to make sure that no one would be offended, or there would be a lot more people on social media getting up in arms about the “cultural” appropriation.
So what is my point here? My point is that when it comes to using something from a culture or belief system that is not native to you, there has to be a level on understanding and respect. Engage in conversations with people from that culture or belief system. Do your research. Figure out what is and isn’t okay. Of course, what’s deemed acceptable for one person may be offensive to another. But if at the end of the day, you can show that you respect what you’re doing and not just doing it for a personal statement, then you can go home knowing that you haven’t made of mockery of that culture.