Little Mix’s ‘oriental’ PrettyLittleThing collection is outright offensive

Why has the qipao been made sexy and revealing?


PrettyLittleThing have produced a party wear collection in partnership with Little Mix. Amongst the sequins, faux fur, glitter and glam which comes hand-in-hand with the upcoming festive season, a few items just don’t seem right – in fact, they are outright offensive.

These items, branded ‘oriental’, closely resemble the traditional Chinese dress called a qipao (chee-pow), or cheongsam (chong-sam); however, they have been chopped and changed to be sexy and revealing.

Prior to the collection’s launch last Thursday, both PrettyLittleThing and Little Mix wore these items and posted teaser photos on their Instagram pages. Little Mix’s Instagram gained over 300,000 likes, and despite some backlash in the comments, the issues which this brings are greatly overshadowed by the huge support the collection has been getting from the fans and the consumers.

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It took me a LONG time to scroll and find comments like these

As a British Chinese myself, it takes a lot of courage to overcome the pressures of society to be ‘normal’ and ‘not stand out’ in order to dress in my cultural dress, but when other people wear the same dresses, it is seen to be ‘trendy’ and ‘exotic’.

Asian representation is still suffering as it is a community whose voices are very often drowned out. Stereotyping and fetishisation is still a rising problem, and when things like this happen, there is not so much as a nod of appreciation to the origins. Instead, the only reference made is a vague and disrespectful branding: “oriental”.

So why isn’t it getting the criticism it deserves?

Let’s talk about the O word

When you type the word ‘Oriental’ into PLT’s search bar, 164 results come up. This is not just a one-time thing. Branding a piece of clothing as ‘oriental’ just because it has a vague design aspect from a single Chinese piece of clothing, not only generalises all of Asia, but does not authentically appreciate or give credit to its source.

A word of ancient origins, the word ‘oriental’ is a historical term, traditionally defining everything which belongs to the Eastern world, in relation to Europe. Nowadays, it is a patronisation, lumping together 48 countries of the biggest continent in the world, and putting them all into one box.

Even President Obama signed a bill stopping the use of the term in all federal documents.

This is not the first time Little Mix have been called out for cultural appropriation either. It feels hypocritical, considering Little Mix member Leigh-Anne Pinnock recently spoke out about her long term struggle with racism and self-confidence due to her race. Someone remind me again why they’re called role models?

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Shootin’📸🎯 @dorsettcity

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The qipao bears a lot of historical weight, which isn’t being recognised

The truth is, the history of the qipao has not been smooth sailing.

It was created in the 20s in Shanghai, coinciding with the beginning of the women’s liberation, where they were allowed into the education system for the first time and the practice of feet binding ceased to a halt. This means wearing the qipao carried the symbol of the promotion of gender equality.

It was originally created for modesty, being loosely fitted and only showing the head and the tip of the toes.

From the 50s to the 70s, the cultural revolution banned the qipao, and wearing it was considered a political misdemeanour at the time. The streets of Shanghai, where the qipao was born, were patrolled to ensure nobody wore fashionable clothing.

By the end of the 60s the popularity of the qipao declined due to its stigma and was instead taken over by Western style clothing.

As a dress which once stood for gender equality, modesty, femininity, and then oppression and stigmatisation, it bears a lot of historical weight. It is careless for fast fashion brands such as PLT to use the design in this way.

Asian fetishisation is a major problem

The sexualisation of ‘The East’ has been a problem in the West for a long time, since the British Empire rendered it a land of mystery and wonders, making the items from the East fashionable and desirable.

However, the misuse of Asian culture and symbolism is still all over pop culture, social media, fashion, I could go on. A recent example being Ariana Grande’s tattoo of badly translated Japanese characters.

All of this, alongside the rising trend of ‘sexy oriental’ fast fashion, contributes to the historical fetishisation and objectification of Eastern women stemming from the Western male gaze, which is the stereotype of the ‘subservient Eastern woman’.

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Episode 88: Bond Girl Style, an interview with Dr. Monica Germanà⁠ ⁠ Many of the early Bond films are rife with problematic depictions of race. Costuming is frequently used to denote a character's race or ethnic group, as in the case of the casting for the role of the Chinese SPECTRE agent, Miss Tarot, in Dr. No (1963). Played by the British caucasian actress Zena Marshall, her traditional cheongsam and winged eyeliner were intended to convey her Chinese heritage. To 21st century audiences, the casting of a white actress to play the part of a Chinese villainess is appalling, but the practice of casting white actors as characters of color was very much standard industry practice at the time. Credit: Popperphoto/ Getty Images⁠ ⁠ #dressed #dressedpodcast #fashion #fashionhistory #jamesbond #bondgirls #zenamarshall #dr.no #misstarot #monicagermanà⁠

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People are upset by this, and fashion brands should listen

Me, like many others, are often made to feel guilty for speaking out about Eastern Asian issues, as they are often belittled. It is not fair for it be so casually and carelessly used in this way, when it is in fact a big deal to people like me, and the wider Chinese community.

The same goes for all other traditional dresses. Appropriation and appreciation are two very different things. There are definitely ways you can appreciate other cultures without being disrespectful. This is how the qipao should be worn:

The modification or re-imaginings of traditional dresses can be amazing, like this Cameroonian designer who worked alongside a Japanese kimono designer to blend traditional Japanese kimonos with West African prints.

Sharing this issue on my Instagram story, I got many responses from people of all backgrounds and ethnicities, which is very encouraging. The consensus from other people from a similar background as me were the same.

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Screenshots taken from IG @feiyapoop

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From @feiyapoop

When these sorts of things happen, it’s important to talk about them openly with everyone no matter what background they have or where they’re from. To think that such a large company and such a high profile collaboration made items which no doubt had to pass countless rounds of approval from many people, I am appalled at PrettyLittleThing and Little Mix for coming up with these creations, whilst also standing as positive role models for girls, and essentially saying things like this are okay in the society that we live in.

We need to talk about this hypocrisy, and ensure huge mistakes like this never happen again.

Little Mix’s management team and PrettyLittleThing did not respond to requests for comment.