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Who Gets to Wear a Cheongsam?

Time: 2016-11-10 21:12cheongsam dress Click:

We were both volunteering at a high school luncheon for the Chinese Parents' Association, and a few people turned to look and listen. I was wearing my favorite cheongsam: a sheer black dress covered in colorful embroidery layered over a simple black slip. Normally, the garment made me feel powerful, but suddenly, I felt self-conscious.

The girl continued to berate me, asking why I would lie about my ethnicity when I was so obviously Latina. I tried to explain that, contrary to her opinion, I was half Chinese and half mostly Italian.

"Well, either you're adopted or someone's been lying to you, because you're definitely not Chinese," she said.

I haven't worn a cheongsam since.

While it wasn't the first time someone doubted my ethnicity, before then, it hadn't occurred to me I might not be considered "authentic" enough to be Chinese. I began to bargain with myself. At the time, I was reasonably fluent in Mandarin and had been to China multiple times. My mom had sent me to Saturday school as a kid and to language immersion classes as a teenager. Was I not entitled to wear a cheongsam because I was "diluted" by my whiteness?

A classmate once asked why I would lie about my ethnicity. I tried to explain that, contrary to her opinion, I was half-Chinese.

Aesthetically, few things feel as representative of Chinese culture: Also known as a qipao, the cheongsam is a traditional garment that dates to the Qing Dynasty, but some argue that its roots extend back even further. Made of silk or cotton, it was originally just the female version of the changshan, a long shirt worn by men around the same time. As a recent exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America on Shanghai style explains, women chose to wear the cheongsam "because they wanted to look more like men." It was symbolic of the move toward gender equality in China.

A more slender fit became popular in the 1920s, with the long, form-fitting dress rising to prominence for its implications of wealth, eventually permeating other social classes and becoming China's national dress in 1929. At the height of its popularity, the cheongsam was worn for both casual and formal occasions, and beloved by celebrities and socialites alike.

Nowadays, the cheongsam is more a nod to tradition than an everyday outfit. When I asked my mom about her experience with the dress, she explained that its only real value lies in what it symbolizes.

"It's not that comfortable, so obviously with the rise of Western influence in China, people stopped wearing it," she told me. "But on certain occasions, the older generations would wear it for more formal and respectable reasons. And the younger generations would wear it because they liked the idea that it's traditional."

"I made you wear it for the same reason: It's important to get the younger generations to take part," she said. "You do it to show you're proud of your culture. I wore my mom's to honor her, and it tickled me that I could fit into it — even though the neck was so tight it was choking me."

Asphyxiation aside, it's also not particularly easy to procure one. As my mom explained, it's incredibly difficult to make a cheongsam because of its shape and the way it tapers at the waist. The garment is restrictive and near impossible to move in —€” but it takes a lot of skill to make something so beautifully constricting. While you can technically buy a cheongsam off the rack, an authentic one is tailor-made. It's designed to fit the wearer perfectly at the waist, using darts to seamlessly hold its form.

Because they are difficult to make, hand-me-down cheongsams have become precious. But mine gathers dust in the back of my closet.

Today, the few remaining expert tailors tend to work in-house for the mega-rich families that can afford them. Because of this, hand-me-down cheongsams have become extra precious. Meanwhile, mine continues to gather dust in the back of my closet. Rather than fight the notion that I must fulfill certain requirements in order to be "authentically" Chinese, I've instead found myself believing it. The prospect of wearing a cheongsam has become a source of anxiety and shame: Simply put, I don't feel worthy.

I'm not alone in feeling this. And luckily, my fellow mixed-race compatriots are actually fighting back. Last month, modelGigi Hadid posted a photo to Instagram of herself with a few friends, showing off their henna-covered hands after a girls' night in. At the end of the photo's caption, she wrote, "[Before] you go all ‘cultural appropriation' in the comments, check out the last name. Hadid. Half Palestinian & proud of it."

The tone of her words was defiant and haughty —€” the language of someone used to defending her identity. Less than a week later,Chrissy Teigen began posting images from her cover shoot with Vogue Thailand, captioning the first, "So proud and honored to have shot the cover of Vogue Thailand! Special to me for so many reasons... one being I am SO PROUD to be Thai." While not quite as defiant, her words felt just as familiar: Both chose to fight the authenticity trap by wholeheartedly embracing their "otherness."

A major part of being mixed is the feeling that you must always announce what you are before someone else does it for you. It's partly an exercise in self-preservation, and partly one of survival: If I can establish what I am in a stranger's mind before they've had the chance to do it for me, I can finally take ownership of who I am.

Of course, clothing is an essential part of self-expression —€” and for mixed-race people, it can be a means of connecting with an identity often denied to us. But choosing to wear a culturally significant garment when you aren't "passing" can also feel like a radical act of defiance.

A major part of being mixed-race is the feeling that you must always announce what you are before someone else does it for you.

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