It’s Hmong, not “Tribal”3 min read

For the designer, EPONINE LONDON to be inspired by Hmong fabric art and call it “tribal” is a deliberate act to own and erase a people of it’s history and art that is culturally significant.

It is easy to say it is ignorance but they knew enough to culturally appropriate Hmong into “tribal” for economic gains by selling dresses for tens of thousands when they paid pennies on the dollar for the labor of ethnic Hmong women and children in Thailand.

Michelle Xiong pointed out, “When I see this I question why is it that when a white person wears Hmong clothes, they are praised, congratulated and adored. Whereas if a Hmong person wears Hmong clothes, it goes entirely unnoticed, if not criticized, made laughable or get weird looks. It bothers me that this unknown white person is applauded for “appreciating” Hmong attire. I’m sure she has never heard of Hmong people. It’s just “tribal” to her.”

Jin Thao writes, “This is not a tribal dress. We are not tribe. We are Hmong. The language and history of our People has been sown into our outfits to preserve our culture. It was clandestine efforts during genocide by the Chinese ancestors. That you would use it to look pretty tears away the historical significance that our traditional outfits mean to us and to the world. Your inspiration also comes from a lost art. Hmong women like my late mother and my elderly aunt spent years making these Hmoob Leeg dresses. How many Hmong women did you credit? How many received royalties from your dress for the royal? Your right to make this dress continues the colonization of our people…”

Another point stated by Bao Lee, “their intention is to make money, not exposure for our arts or people. That’s cultural appropriation, not appreciation. They label us as “tribal”. What about that is to be proud about? People look down upon us being tribal, they think we’re still barbaric and backwards. Why do we praise the white people so much when they wear our clothes or arts? And we call it exposure, and we say “at least now people see our art”. No, they don’t see our art, they see tribal art, they see opportunities to profit off our art. They want our art but not our oppression.”

Calling it out for what it is is not “too insensitive” there is a difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. To respect and acknowledge the worth of a culture would be to have called it “Hmong” inspired not “tribal.” Fres Thao states it best, “Some folks want so bad to be accepted and loved by mainstream white folks that they’ll take appropriation as a sign of appreciation. That’s a shame (but quite scary) but I get it. We’re thirsty to have our culture/art be visible. Doesn’t mean I have to agree to this method. We all deserve better. That’s all.”


Here are some insightful discussions on social media the past two days:

Yesterday, at the Royal Wedding Prince Harry's ex-girlfriend wore a dress created by London "designer" #EPONINE. The…

Posted by Go Dee on Sunday, May 20, 2018

Something caught my eyes that many folks wouldn’t have noticed about the royal wedding today. I’ve seen a lot of…

Posted by Shoua KT on Saturday, May 19, 2018


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Seng Alex Vang

Seng Alex Vang

Seng Alex Vang is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at the University of California, Merced. He is also a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, Geography & Ethnic studies at California State University, Stanislaus where he teaches courses in Asian American studies.

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