Victoria’s Secret is no stranger to controversy. Sometimes, it’s for racy outfits and other times, for a slightly more unpleasant issue. The clothing brand came under fire in 2012 when model Karlie Kloss donned a Native American headdress in the company’s representation of November (see: Thanksgiving) during the annual VS Fashion Show.
Using the headdress for aesthetic purposes undermines the spiritual and cultural significance of the headdresses and adds to the stereotype of Native American culture that Native American people still have to battle everyday. The attempt resulted in a lazy, unpleasant outfit that left the public enraged and offended, prompting them to remove the outfit from the televised broadcast and issue rightful apologies from the company and the model.
However, with the release of pictures for this year’s VS Fashion Show, it has become plainly obvious that the brand has not truly learned their lesson. Despite the increased diversity among models this year, the company still has a long ways to go on learning the importance of respecting and acknowledging aspects of another culture that holds deep meaning and history, as opposed to using it as a decoration on lingerie and rubbing people the wrong way.
In a segment called ‘The Road Ahead,’ designers incorporated looks inspired by multiple cultures around the world, prompting the display of an outfit where VS model Elsa Hosk dons a Chinese dragon around her body. Compared to other outfits with ‘Asian influences,’ there is no doubt this one stands out due to the obviousness of it’s origins, but it makes one question the message the designer is trying to send.
Putting aside the obvious attempt to cater towards a Chinese audience, the Chinese dragon donned by Elsa Hosk is actually a symbol of power, strength, and good luck. The Chinese dragon is a member of the twelve Zodiacs and a recurring character throughout legends, calligraphy, and art. They are believed to control the weather and thus the outcome of agriculture and business. The Dragons were embroidered onto clothes and used to decorate ancient buildings and relics. They were so significantly important that they were recognised as the symbol of the Emperor of China, who sat on a Dragon throne.
Chinese dragons are so widely recognised for their cultural significance as well that even in multi-cultural communities such as Malaysia and Singapore, children learn about them from a young age. During Chinese New Year celebrations, a dragon dance is often performed among other traditions such as fireworks or lion dances — each with their own histories and backstories as well. Later in the year, the Dragon Boat Festival is held in places like China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore in remembrance of the great poet Qu Yuan. It is said that when he committed suicide by drowning himself, the locals raced in boats to retrieve his body, only to discover that it could not be found. This is said to be the origin of the dragon boat races, where teams race one another in Chinese dragon-shaped boats along rivers during the festival.
Unfortunately, this colourful history and tradition may not be what comes to light when models parade on runways attached to remakes of the creature.
Whether or not this outfit is to be branded as cultural appropriation remains to be debated upon, but there is no doubt that the Chinese dragon carries meaningful historical roots and that reducing it to the same simplified and stereotypical imagery already associated with Asian culture would be distasteful and a waste. Only what the audience takes and understands from the outfit displayed tonight will tell.