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A Culturally Appropriate Prom Gown

Qipao on display in a Chinese shop. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user N509FZ.

We are at the height of prom season, which makes this an excellent time to review some basic etiquette to answer the question: What should you say when you see a stranger’s son or daughter posing in their first tux or formal gown?

The best answer – one that works for all occasions – is to say nothing at all. If nobody sought your opinion, you can assume nobody needs it.

Should you feel impelled to say something, you may choose from options A or B. Option A is “I hope you have a fantastic time,” said with maximum sincerity. B is any nonsexualized version of “You look great/handsome/lovely.” For safety – since, again, you’re addressing a teenager you don’t know – this can be modified as “That [gown/tux/accessory] looks great on you.” This line is guaranteed to be honest, because there really is no such thing as an excited, dressed-up teenager who does not look terrific when anticipating an event that means so much at that particular moment in life.

Every other thing you can say would be some combination of creepy, callous or cruel. You are an adult. The person you are talking about is not. Remember your place, and folks like me will never have to blog about you. More importantly, you won’t discover that there are teenagers who actually are far more adult, in the sense of being fully formed human beings with mature judgment and critical thinking skills, than you are.

Keziah Daum is one such teenager.

Daum became the center of an international argument after she had the temerity to post prom pictures of herself and her friends on Twitter. The dress she selected was a qipao, or cheongsam: a Chinese style that, in its modern incarnation, gained popularity in the early 20th century. Daum later said she was drawn to the dress for its beauty and because it made her feel comfortable, with a more modest neckline than many of the other options she had considered. “I loved it a lot because it showed beauty in other ways than revealing your body,” she told Deseret News.

Unfortunately, the internet is full of people ready to cry “cultural appropriation” at the drop of a hat – or, in this case, the post of a photograph.

Some Twitter users took issue with Daum’s dress choice because she is not, herself, Chinese. Jeremy Lam tweeted her photos with a critical caption similar to a PSA series meant to discourage people from dressing as stereotypes for Halloween. Lam’s tweet was shared nearly 42,000 times.

Never mind that Daum was not treating the dress like a costume in any way. Never mind that she had taken the time to look up the style’s history and meaning, something many of her critics baselessly assumed she had not. Never mind that there was no hint of mockery in the photos. There were still plenty of bullies ready to judge a teenager they didn’t know based on a few pictures and nothing more.

While plenty of people came to Daum’s defense, including many who identified themselves as Chinese or Chinese American, the uproar spilled from Twitter into a variety of news outlets. Many supportive voices pointed out that a modern qipao is hardly fraught with religious or cultural significance; one commenter compared it to the tuxedo, which has European roots but is not tied to any specific cultural identity. Of course, many of the bullies then lashed out at those defending Daum.

Daum, with poise and courage, stood up to this bullying disguised as cultural sensitivity. She did it so well that still more people rallied to her defense and pushed back against this nonsense. Meanwhile, actual Chinese observers on the social media site Weibo overwhelmingly supported Daum, undercutting the argument that this vitriol was truly about defending a marginalized group.

Kelly Williams Brown, an author whose publications include a book on manners, posted a series of questions on her blog meant to trigger reflection in any pilers-on who might sincerely believe they are defending others by yelling at a stranger online. Without naming Daum specifically, Williams Brown pointed out that before calling out a stranger on the internet, commenters should consider who the person is – are they a high-profile celebrity or a formerly anonymous teen? –and whether their particular voice is really necessary in the conversation. These are good questions for Daum’s peers; adults should know better already.

Voices like Williams Brown’s are all too often drowned out in the rush to play holier-than-thou. That’s how we end up at nonsensical outcomes like banning yoga classes at a university, despite the fact Indians themselves worked to export yoga worldwide, or those claiming the recent Met Gala was appropriative for paying tribute to Catholicism’s influence on fashion, despite the religion’s centuries-long effort to export its trappings to every corner of the globe.

Last year, I wrote about the controversy surrounding the Festival of the Dead celebration in Missoula, Montana, which was originally inspired by the founders’ experiences with Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico. As I wrote then, “There is a huge difference between celebrating and sharing another culture and disrespecting it.” Are there disrespectful ways of parodying or profiting from someone else’s culture? Of course. But Daum did neither.

I hope Daum enjoyed her prom experience, and that she can rise above the ignorance of adults who think berating a teenager online is in any way appropriate. As for me, I can sincerely say: That dress looked great on her.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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