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Teen accused of 'cultural appropriation' defends Chinese prom dress

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A US teenager's decision to wear a traditional Chinese dress to her high school prom has sparked an online frenzy.

An American high school student accused of cultural appropriation for wearing a traditional Chinese dress to her prom has defended her outfit choice.

Utah resident Keziah Daum, who is not Chinese, sparked a backlash after posting photos on social media of her wearing a qipao.

"I never imagined a simple rite of passage such as a prom would cause a discussion reaching many parts of the world. Perhaps it is an important discussion we need to have," the 18-year-old said in a statement to SBS News on Tuesday.

"I found the dress at a vintage store in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah. I was immediately drawn to a beautiful red gown and was thrilled to find a dress with a modest neckline. Since purchasing the dress, I did some research and found various explanations regarding the history of the dress."

Keziah Daum, who is not Chinese, sparked a backlash after posting photos on social media of her wearing a qipao.
Keziah Daum, who is not Chinese, sparked a backlash after posting photos on social media of her wearing a qipao.

She continued: "One comment about it really stuck with me: 'Female empowerment.' If that is the case, then such a gown sends a beautiful message for young women everywhere. If we are teaching women to be strong, does it matter which culture it is coming from?

"I am sorry if I have caused offence to anyone. My intent was never to anger anyone. I simply found a beautiful, modest gown and chose to wear it. We live in a multi-cultural society and should learn about all cultures. It is the only way we can move past racist attitudes and be better people." 

Her comments come after social media users criticised photos she posted of herself in the gown, including Twitter user Jeremy Lam, who commented: "My culture is not your ... prom dress".

Mr Lam's tweet was liked more than 173,000 times and garnered 15,000 comments. 

Mr Lam followed up by explaining the significance of the dress and why he thought it was inappropriate to wear it to a social event.

"The qipao was originally a loose dress/garment without shape, made for Chinese women to clean the house and do other domestic chores with," he wrote.

"It was then altered and embroidered as a beautiful form-fitting outfit to wear publically (sic), which Chinese women were not allowed to do at during the times of extreme patriarchal oppression.

"In short: I'm proud of my culture, including the extreme barriers marginalised people within that culture have had to overcome those obstacles. For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology."

Mr Lam and other critics sparked a debate on whether it was "culturally appropriate" for the US teen to wear the dress.

Others came out in support of Keziah and her decision to wear the dress representing another culture.

Keziah responded to the criticism online, saying: "To everyone causing so much negativity: I mean no disrespect to the Chinese culture. I’m simply showing my appreciation to their culture. I’m not deleting my post because I’ve done nothing but show my love for the culture. It’s a f*****g dress. And it’s beautiful."

A Hong Kong-based cultural commentator, Zhou Yijun, told the New York Times that it was "ridiculous" to view Keziah wearing the qipao as cultural appropriation.

“It’s ridiculous to criticise this as cultural appropriation,” Zhou Yijun said in a telephone interview.

“From the perspective of a Chinese person, if a foreign woman wears a qipao and thinks she looks pretty, then why shouldn’t she wear it?”

Fashion blogger and Beijing-based writer Huan Huan said the garment is no longer that meaningful to the Chinese.

“To Chinese, it’s not sacred and it’s not that meaningful,” said Hung Huang in an interview. “Nowadays, if you see a woman wearing a qipao, she’s probably a waitress in a restaurant or a bride.”

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