Kacey Musgraves gave a “smooth” and “studio quality” performance on back-to-back rainy nights at Toyota Music Factory last week, and the internet is talking. Unfortunately it’s not her vocal skills they’re discussing.
On Thursday, the Golden, Texas, native took the stage wearing an áo dài, a traditional Vietnamese outfit that translates to “long dress.” However, it seems Musgraves took the description a bit too literally, as she went without the complementary trousers, instead pairing the high-cut tunic with sexy boy shorts.
Musgraves’ fashion statement immediately drew ire, placing the Grammy winner in the ranks of Gwen Stefani, Kim Kardashian and countless other celebrities who have been called out in recent years for cultural appropriation.
“I mean, you can wear áo dài, but at least wear it with some pants, or don’t wear it at all,” says Rachel Thy Tran, who did not attend the show. “Actually do some research before wearing a national custom that represents the whole nation.”
Tran, who was born and raised in Vietnam, posted the comment “#respectvietnamesetraditionaldress” on a photo by Observer photographer Mike Brooks. The Facebook photo also attracted comments like “What happened to the national dress of my country?” and “She forgot her pants that go with the Vietnamese áo dài!”
Tran says she was “pissed” and “triggered” when the photos of Musgraves emerged, explaining that in modern Vietnamese culture áo dài has an almost ceremonial significance. “We wear áo dài for special days only and some students wear áo dài to go to school,” she says.
The áo dài is derived from an 18th-century costume worn by the court in South Vietnam. The first modern version debuted at a Paris fashion show in the ‘20s, and the silhouette thought of as traditional today — a tight-fitting tunic worn over flowing pants — is a more form-fitting update from the ‘50s.
As Vietnamese newspaper VnExpress points out, Musgraves is not the first person to wear an áo dài without bottoms. Earlier this year, rapper Saweetie showed up to the Billboard Music Awards in a similar get-up.
Even within Vietnamese culture, the áo dài has occasionally been a source of controversy. In the 1960s, First Lady Tran Le Xuân debuted a version with a bateau neckline that was criticized for being too risqué before becoming popular.
Today, Vietnamese designers are still toying with the design and debating its parameters. Some embrace recent innovations like replacing the pants with jeans or a shorter skirt as conducive to a more active lifestyle, while others say these styles as aberrations and not áo dài at all.
It’s doubtful that Musgraves, who completed the outfit with an ambiguously Asian-looking headpiece, was trying to make a meaningful contribution to this cultural debate. And considering she’s a white woman from East Texas, that’s probably a good thing.
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But for Tran, it’s the thoughtlessness that makes Musgraves’ actions hurtful.
“I feel sad that people do not take culture seriously and they think they can just wear the whole culture without knowing the history of it,” she says.
The fact that Musgraves hasn’t issued an apology is just salt in the wound for Tran. “She did not even apologize to Vietnamese people, which makes me feel more angry,” she says.
While the singer hasn’t formally responded to the controversy, perhaps a video pinned to the top of her Twitter page says it all. It shows the singer rolling off a ledge and disappearing into a ball pit. The caption? “Can’t deal, bye.”