Remember how Bloomingdale's used rice paddy hats on mannequins recently? Well, Forever 21 at MainPlace Mall in Santa Ana is down with the trend. According to a visual merchandiser at the location, this was not an aesthetic choice made by the workers there but, instead, a corporate decision. They were just following orders. Hmm…
Given that Forever 21's record of controversial, ethnic-inspired clothing isn't exactly…stellar (see: "Navajo" underpants and Compton T-shirts), this isn't surprising. Many local experts who study Asian American representation, too, believe this is, unmistakably, cultural appropriation.
"This is another shorthand way of representing a cultural holiday without understanding its historical origins," Tu-Uyen N. Nguyen, Cal State Fullerton Asian American Studies professor, told the Weekly. In this case, there's no context to support the display, which is why it lacks authenticity. But what makes something authentic? For Professor Nguyen, that's specificity.
"When you see how traditional Asian dress is used to portray Asian cultures, there's often confusion about what culture you're talking about," she says. James Kyung-Jin Lee, Chair of UCI's Department of Asian American Studies, agrees.
"Given the fact that Forever 21 is a Korean American based company, but that rice paddy hats are generally not worn by Korean Americans or Koreans for that matter, the 'authenticity' of such head pieces depends on people not being able to distinguish this as principally a Vietnamese mode of wear," he explains.
So when is it ever okay to wear a rice paddy hat? More Professor Lee:
"Rice paddy hats would be OK in rice paddies."