With COVID restrictions loosening and safe hygiene habits ingrained (I hope), people are out at the museums and theaters and restaurants here in Manhattan. There are party and dinner invitations again and here is my report from the fashion front: we are dress-crazy. The long florals, chiffon-y tiers, ruffles and bows, body cons and strapless, silks and linens — everything’s on display. Some genius couture house did an elevated sneaker a few years back, maybe it was Balenciaga, and so, pairing dresses with sneakers is now stylish, a mercifully good trend. In NYC, there’s much walking to be done.
This year, I have four weddings (and yes, there was one funeral, but a you-know-what outbreak kept me away), so I’ve been dress-crazy, too. One of the weddings is my own daughter’s. In attendance will be her father — my ex — with his new wife, my ex-friend. That’s another “Sorry Not Sorry,” a good one, which I’m not going to write.
Anyway, I’m happy with my clothes options for my daughter’s wedding and its adjacent events — a fashion-forward jacket by one of the Belgians, a dress by Michelle Obama favorite Jason Wu, a sparkly this and a trendy that, and yep, real shoes. I don’t have to overthink the “mother-of-the-bride” thing because my impressive daughter and her equally impressive partner have no interest in traditional roles. They have strong ideas about how the day will unfold — city hall and a dance party — and there is very little that is bridal about it.
Who am I to judge? They are happy and healthy and paying for it themselves, and I want to tear down the patriarchy, too! Still, I didn’t come all this way not to seize this fashion moment. I am the mother of one of those two brides, and I’m going to have some fun with clothes.
This piece, though, is about another dress, bought a few months ago for one of the other weddings. I was in a funky neighborhood, West Coast, wandering in and out of vintage shops. A certain dress caught my eye, mostly because of its colorway, one I gravitate toward (and write about in my first novel, The Next): blues and greens and whites, or more accurately, sky blue and turquoise, grass green and sea glass, and ivory, in a slub silk dupioni fabric.
The dress is a sheath. It falls to mid-knee and has elbow length sleeves, features flattering to women of a certain age. It buttons all the way up. The buttons are important to me; I have scarring on my chest from surgeries, and I banished V-necks years ago. My other excellent daughter implores me to stop worrying about scars and wear what I like, and I do love a good, deep V, but, well, I can’t. I spend too much time tugging up the neckline and too little time feeling good about myself.
The dress is perfect. It fits as if it were custom-made. It is in non-smelly, non-yellowed vintage condition. It cost fifty-five bucks! Best of all, by buying vintage, I didn’t contribute to the massive cycle of unsustainability and waste perpetuated by fast fashion manufacturers of the world, sold in stores I’ve shopped and feel guilty about.
Little did I know that this dress would inspire worse guilt. I tried it on for my don’t-call-me-bride daughter. “Mama, you look beautiful.” Slight hesitation. She’s mine. I know when there’s an embedded “but” in there.
“Well…it’s gorgeous. But isn’t this cultural appropriation, kind of? I mean, it’s Chinese. Right?”
I’m a white lady trying to do better. I took a closer look. The high collar: Mandarin. The buttons: classic Chinese knot (also known as frog closures). The blues and greens on a field of ivory? I finally saw beyond the colors to the print: a Chinese warrior on a Chinese horse fighting off a Chinese dragon. There are different names for dresses of this style, and this one is not a strict cheongsam or qipao, it’s more contemporary, but I took a closer look at the label: MADE IN THE BRITISH CROWN COLONY OF HONG KONG.
I know what some of you are thinking. I’ve thought it, too. In fact, I think I even snapped back at dear daughter, something along the lines of, “Oh, come on! I’m not appropriating anything, I’m appreciating it!” But there it was on the label, one of the hallmarks of cultural appropriation, a power imbalance rooted in colonialism. Made in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong.
In 2020, Comme des Garçons sent white kids with cornrows down the runway, three years after Marc Jacobs was dragged for doing it. Isabel Marant charged four hundred dollars for a blouse copied from the indigenous Tlahuitoltepec, without involving Mexicans in the production of the item, or attributing it, or remuneration. Urban Outfitters lost a lawsuit brought by the Navajo Nation for their line of Navajo-branded merchandise. In 2019, white kids walked the Gucci runway in turbans, a Sikh sacred head covering.
Obviously, my clueless “appropriation” is not nearly as egregious. I’m just one woman trying to look good for less. I hung the dress in my closet in anticipation of the first of the four weddings. I thought about shoes, earrings, the right clutch. But my daughter’s comment got under my…gulp…white skin. At a time in New York City (and around the country) when violence against AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) people — old ladies being bashed on the head on the street, young women being shoved in front subway trains — is at an all-time high, can I just shrug off my own tiny but thoughtless incursion?
I’m watching my daughter stand up for who she is and how she wants to be seen on her big day (and for those of you following this column, bless you; my own excessive wedding day is the counterpoint to my daughter’s approach). Her opinion matters to me. Her comment woke me up. Yes, I do mean “woke,” and that word is not a sneering insult but a compliment. Woke means paying attention to people other than myself, people who’ve struggled, are struggling, and whom I may have not given enough thought to previously. For that, I am sorry, and I don’t want to repeat that mistake.
Especially with two daughters watching.
I did attend wedding #1. I shopped my own closet and wore an oversized jacket from the 90s, silk pants, a button-up blouse and real shoes. You can see it on my Instagram. I was seated across from a very handsome Chinese man. I cringed inside and then felt relief when we said hello, thinking about the “perfect” dress hanging in my closet, not perfect at all. I was not sorry about my choice.
Have you culturally appropriated some of your fashion choices in the past? Who woke you up to your mistakes? Share your story in the comments below.
About Stephanie Gangi
Stephanie Gangi is a poet, essayist and fiction writer. Carry the Dog is her second novel. Her acclaimed debut, The Next, was published by St. Martin’s Press. Gangi’s shorter work has appeared in Arts & Letters, Catapult, Dame, LitHub, Hippocrates Poetry Anthology, McSweeney’s, New Ohio Review, Next Tribe, The Woolfer. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on The Good Provider, her third novel.
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