Fashion | Rihanna’s Harper’s Bazaar China Cover sparks questions of cultural appropriation

In one photo, Rihanna gazes down, a dainty Chinese fan in one hand and a bright red sash around her waist. In another, she poses in front of a traditional folding screen, the golden ornaments in her hair reminiscent of the royal fashions of ancient China.

These photos, posted by Harper’s Bazaar China on Tuesday, are set to appear on the cover and a feature of the magazine’s August issue. They were intended to show what happens “When western style icon meets eastern aesthetic”, the publication said on Instagram. But online reaction has been split. 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 was accused of cultural appropriation after 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.

Rihanna has previously come under fire herself – in October 2017, she was criticized for dressing like the ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti in a photo shoot for Vogue Arabia.

And yet, this time around, there is a contrast between audiences in mainland China, who have largely complimented the shoot, and audience overseas, who seem more conflicted.

On the Chinese micro-blogging platform Weibo, the majority of comments about Harper’s Bazaar cover appeared positive. “No wonder she is the Queen of Shadong (province)”, one user write, using a nickname Chinese fans have given Rihanna. “She is a foreigner that is most suitable to the Chinese style”.

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 become 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.

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