Some social media users have heaped praise on the images, while others expressed concern about whether it’s acceptable for a non-Chinese person to adorn themselves with items from the country’s history and culture. “She snapped but…isn’t….that…cultural appropriation?!?!” wrote one Twitter user, with “snapped” being a term for high praise. “Love Rihanna but we can’t accept everything she does cause it’s her,” wrote another.
The debate on cultural appropriation — who can wear what, and under which circumstances — has existed for years, though it has become increasingly high-profile.
Just last month, Kim Kardashian West was accused of cultural appropriationafter she launched a lingerie brand called Kimono– also the name of a centuries-old Japanese garment. Several other models and designers have been called out for cultural appropriation in recent years — Karlie Kloss for dressing like a Japanese geisha in the pages of Vogue, Gigi Hadid for being styled with an afro (also in Vogue) and Kylie Jenner for wearing cornrows.
On the other end of the spectrum — and the world — users on Instagram and Twitter, which are both blocked in China, were not as enthused. “If you wanted to create an Asian look why didn’t you invite Asian artists?” one Instagram user commented on Harper’s Bazaar’s post. “This is a total smack in the face to the Asian culture,” reads another comment. Some have pointed to the fact that the magazine is based in China, and can therefore be expected to reflect Chinese themes and styles. Others argue that it’s not the fashion, but the choice of Rihanna as a model, that makes the cover problematic.
It’s a debate we’ve seen play out countless times — so when does appreciation become appropriation?
Is there a ‘right’ way?
Cultural appropriation in fashion is as old as the industry itself, according to Tommy Tse, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Hong Kong. “It has always been happening, but it has become more visible because of the rise of social and digital media,” Tse said in a phone interview, pointing to the use of Chinese motifs in 19th century Parisian and Italian fashion. “Everything is online, everyone can see it. So the idea has been magnified, there are more and more debates, and there are more conflicts about how aesthetic values can be appropriated in fashion.” Ultimately, he said, there isn’t a singular “right” way to pay homage to another culture’s fashion — but there are things that help. For one, it’s important to take context into consideration. For example, when Rihanna attended the 2015 Met Gala, which was themed “China: Through the Looking Glass,” she wore a dramatic yellow dress with Chinese-style embroidery, by Chinese designer Guo Pei.