Many Vietnamese Americans are criticizing the country singer Kacey Musgraves for wearing just the top part of a traditional two-piece Vietnamese garment at a show in Dallas last week, saying she was not only culturally appropriating the clothing, but also sexualizing it.
Musgraves, who is white, wore an áo dài during her set Thursday, but just the tunic and not the pants that normally go with the outfit, according to photos posted on Instagram.
“The sexualization of it was disgusting,” Thuy Pham, executive director of the New York City-based nonprofit Vietnam Heritage Center, told NBC News. “It was for shock value, it was annoying, and it was a misappropriation of Vietnamese culture.”
Pham explained to NBC News that the áo dài typically consists of two long panels that can come above or below the knee. Further variations of the tunic may include a scoop neck rather than a high neckline, or sleeves of varying lengths. All versions, she underscores, are worn with pants and are not meant to appear sexual in nature.
Pham also noted that the áo dài has traditionally been worn by students or teachers in the classroom as a school uniform. Today, people wear the garment during special holidays like Lunar New Year or the Mid-Autumn Festival. Some Vietnamese couples wear special áo dàis during their wedding ceremonies.
Pham called Musgraves’ showcasing of the garment on stage “reprehensible.”
“If you were performing any piece in the traditional áo dài, it would be either to sing or to play a traditional instrument,” she told NBC News. “Even with modern singers and dancers and modern Vietnamese music, you might wear skin tight pants or modern clothes, but never just out with your underwear and a long top like that. That’s disrespectful of the culture.”
Prominent beauty blogger Michelle Phan wrote on Instagram that the Asian community was particularly alarmed by Musgraves’ sexualization of the garb as “people are just tired of narratives that perpetuate the fetishism of Asian women.”
The fetishization of Asian women in Western culture has roots dating to at least the early 1800s, when Victorian men became captivated by geishas while visiting port cities in Japan. The idea of Asian women as purely sexual objects was further bolstered in stories like the 1887 French novel “Madame Chrysanthème,” known for its adaptation into popular opera “Madame Butterfly.”
And though Chinese women resisted early Chinese immigration to the U.S. during the construction of the transcontinental railroad, due in part to economic barriers, the few women who did immigrate to the states were from poor families who made a living as prostitutes to earn money for their loved ones, scholar Robin Zheng told HuffPost. Those factors fueled negative stereotypes surrounding Asian women.
Several on social media also called Musgraves out for wearing jewelry on her forehead that closely resembled maang tikka, a traditional Indian wedding headpiece. The mismatch of traditional garb, many wrote, further perpetuated the exoticism of Asian cultures.
Phan explained she felt compelled to bring attention to the issue because of Musgraves’ high profile and influence.
“Imagine seeing your national traditional dress being disrespected on stage,” Phan wrote on Instagram. “Since she’s a public figure, she might influence more people to think it’s trendy.”
Musgraves did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.