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The Return of the "Geisha": Are Asian Stereotypes Making a Comeback in Lingerie?


Marlies Dekkers' most recent fashion show

I wrote this article a week or so ago, but decided against publishing it. Then I thought about it more and decided this article needed to be published, but also that I should explain why I was so hesitant in the first place. And so here we are a with a blog post that's somewhat meta and rather inconclusive, but hopefully shines a light on what seems to be a returning (and disturbing) trend.

One thing I'm not the least bit hesitant about, however, is telling you how absurd the image at the top of this blog post is. Part of Marlies Dekkers' ongoing Feminine|Feminist campaign (where she discusses, with no irony whatsoever, "disarming stereotypes"), I find myself struggling to understand how this incredibly racist image was approved by someone who claims to be a feminist (And no, we're not going to debate if it is or isn't racist. It is. Here are some resources for anyone who's confused: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)


Marlies Dekkers, meet Victoria's Secret.

Not only does Marlies Dekker's "Couture Geisha" fashion show - complete with stark white face paint, terrible black wigs, and conspicious bowing - reinforce the classic, not-at-all-subtle stereotype of East Asian women being submissive, sexually available playthings, it also tips over into lurid, startling Yellowface. Painting white people to "look Asian" is unacceptable. It's not "cultural inspiration." It's cultural parody, as much a caricature as Mr. Yunioshi.

Marlies Dekkers, meet Mr. Yunioshi

Marlies Dekkers, meet Mr. Yunioshi

Much like mainstream fashion designers who are "inspired by" people of color, yet somehow manage to avoid using them in fashion shows, advertising, or marketing campaigns, Marlies Dekker's vision of East Asia is overwhelmingly Eurocentric in nature. It is an archaic, colonialist fantasy of Asia, informed and inspired by imperialism, not by the history of the culture it claims to portray.


Screenshot from the Couture Geisha Fashion Show


Screenshot from the Couture Geisha Fashion Show


Screenshot from the Couture Geisha Fashion Show

While putting together this post, I asked a couple of my fellow lingerie bloggers - marionettemew and girlandlingerie - what they thought of Marlies Dekkers newest collection. They gave TLA permission to share what they had to say below.

There are so many brands that I want to love. But so many of them have, at some point, released an "oriental" themed collection. Sometimes it's not a big thing, just cherry blossom prints and a Japanese name - how original! Sometimes it's a lot worse...drawing on orientalist stereotypes, using yellowface in an ad Marlies Dekkers has just done. I've loved the look of her Dame de Paris bra since I first saw a photo of it, and if it came in my size I would have bought one. It makes me sad that I would have supported a company that seems to think so little of me.

Lingerie is sexualized, and so are Asian women, so maybe it's not surprising that brands try to combine the two. But they're selling a fetish along with their satin and lace. When they send their models down the runway, in heavy wigs and painted faces, palms pressed together, what are they trying to do? What feelings do they want to evoke?

When people incorporate their own cultures into their work, they're sharing something of themselves. It has meaning. When it's done by someone with no connection to the culture, though, they can only use the most superficial, visible aspects of the cultures they claim to be inspired by. When this happens in a society where there is a long history of stereotypes against "foreign" cultures, all these visual cues evoke and reinforce those racist stereotypes: in this case, that of the sexualized "Geisha," the silent, foreign, "exotic" woman.

These stereotypes are harmful. As I was writing this, I tried to search for the names of brands that have done this before, and couldn't find anything because the search results were flooded with "Asian" themed porn. Is that to be the only form of media in which I am to be widely represented?

I'm tired of this. I'm not your lotus blossom or dragon lady, your Miss Saigon or Madam Butterfly. I'm not your geisha, uniformed schoolgirl, Chinese concubine, comfort woman or war bride, and my heritage doesn't exist for you to colonize it (again). I'm not here to be exotified, Othered, eroticised, commodified. I'm not here for your orientalism. You don't get to use cultures that you can't even tell apart. You can't "combine East and West", not when my own blood is disregarded for that very combination. You can't do all that, not just to sell yet another cherry blossom print bra. ~ Girl and Lingerie

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 8.11.03 AM

A screenshot from Marlies Dekkers' Twitter account.

As a woman of color who has to deal with despicable men who think I'm submissive because of stereotypes and constantly fetishize and sexualize me, I can't even express my rage. I am foaming at the mouth when I still see this racist stereotype bullshit perpetuated by companies who should know better. - Marionette Mew


Guerilla Geisha


Guerilla Geisha


Guerilla Geisha

More distressing, however, is the fact that Marlies Dekkers is far from the only company looking towards the past. The newish label Guerilla Geisha traded heavily in this sort of imagery for their first season (although their second collection seems to be noticeably lacking this sort of styling...did they perhaps receive negative feedback?).

In addition, Bordelle's most recent collection is named "Japonisme" and is meant to explore the "influences of Japanese art, fashion, and aesthetic on Western culture." Like Marlies Dekkers, Bordelle claims to be inspired by Geisha. But how? The label has been doing open cup bras, strappy garter belts, and leg harnesses for years. How does Swiss embroidery and chopsticks in the hair evoke the art and legacy of geishas?

Of course, it's worth noting that neither brands "inspiration" extends to actually using East Asian models. The subtext is that the models chosen are better at "being" Asian than an Asian model could ever be...or at least that they're better at appealing to the orientalist fantasies of whoever these collections are supposed to entice.


Bordelle Japonisme


Bordelle Japonisme


Bordelle Japonisme

Obviously, Marlies Dekkers, Bordelle, and Guerilla Geisha aren't the first companies to look for "exotic inspiration." But what's interesting is how this trope has made a concerted reappearance in the past year.

I'm inclined to believe the resurgence of this particular stereotype is connected to the lingerie industry's overall conservatism. Many lingerie brands are terrified of the future of intimate apparel, which seems to point towards more savvy consumers who are better-informed regarding their choices, more comfortable with shopping online (or special-ordering from brick-and-mortar boutiques they trust, even if they're far away), and who want to see themselves represented in brand imagery.

My hypothesis is that this fear of the future (combined with more than a little bit of laziness) has led to brands doubling on things they think will work now because they worked in the past. But that sort of behavior is exactly why so many brands and boutiques are falling to pieces. The key to longevity isn't in relying on the past; it's looking towards the future.

Modern Japanese lingerie from La Vie a Deux

Modern Japanese lingerie from La Vie a Deux

And now we get to the reason why I was reluctant to publish this piece at first.

I've been thinking about a lot of things in this weird, post-burnout, semi-hiatus TLA's been lingering in for awhile (also, hi and thank you for still being here!), and one topic I keep circling is how difficult it is for a business - any business really, but especially a fashion business - to be both socially conscious and profitable.

Yes, the founders of said businesses can be socially aware. But the actual business? Especially when we're talking about an industry that aggressively defines acceptable personhood and bases it on a narrow standard of physical beauty? I don't know. I'm just not sure it's possible.

Modern Japanese lingerie from Wacoal

Modern Japanese lingerie from Wacoal

But also, I wanted to talk about the weird internal negotiation a piece like this requires.

As you've likely noticed, TLA is a business. The site makes money, most typically through advertising. And even though I'm dedicated to posting this article (there's been 25 revisions so far; I think it's time to hit the publish button), I can't help but think of the saying, "Those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

No, TLA isn't putting on runway shows of people in bad geisha makeup or styling photoshoots of models with chopsticks in their hair, but I also know that we're not doing everything perfectly. And as the site grows, I'm acutely aware of how difficult it is to navigate what's popular versus what's right. And what's popular is almost always more profitable than what's right.

Advertisers, especially in lingerie, get antsy when you don't fit into the industry's ideals or parrot industry chatter. Just looking the way I do (dark skin, kinky hair, visible scars, etc.), is a disadvantage in my niche. I'm already starting out in the "negative," so to speak, and so I'm constantly feeling like I'm walking a tightrope. How far do I go? What do I say? Am I okay with the consequences of going against the tide?

Modern Japanese lingerie from Ravijour

Modern Japanese lingerie from Ravijour

I'm not saying all this to evoke sympathy. My self-chosen career is awesome, and I love it. And I feel like TLA is in a unique position to discuss issues and topics and points of view that would otherwise never make an appearance in the larger lingerie conversation. But ironically, that's also what makes things difficult. In the larger fashion and beauty blogging worlds (which I see the lingerie blogosphere as being adjacent to, if not a part of), there are more people talking about these concepts, offering a range of opinions and experiences. But lingerie blogging hasn't made it there yet. I hope it does one day.

I almost feel like I'm leaving this article unconcluded. I wish there was some strong, decisive statement I could make at the end here, but I don't have one. I'm distressed that "geisha" archetypes seem to be having a revival in intimate apparel. I'm worried that other brands will see Marlies Dekkers' and Bordelle's latest campaigns as a good thing, and begin including East Asian stereotypes in their own collections. I'm concerned this article will put me even more on the fringes of intimate apparel, but that's also an outcome I'm prepared to accept. And I'm bothered at the notion, which I'm still working through, that there's no way to have a fashion business that is also a feminist business.

I think this is a good spot to stop. What do you think of things I've covered here? And why do you believe lingerie brands are returning to the geisha stereotype?

Cora Harrington

Founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict. Author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that everyone who wants it deserves gorgeous lingerie.

56 Comments on this post

  1. michelle says:

    Wacaol is a Japanese-owned brand.

  2. Estelle X says:

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. It speaks volumes this kind of bullshit is just accepted. I’m a queer Chinese-American woman and I run a queer smut photo project of photos of myself in my lingerie collection to combat PRECISELY the problem illustrated here: that Asian-Americans are underrepresented in media, and when we are represented, it’s by white people who need to add some “oriental” spice to their boring-ass content. But not by employing any actual Asians in the process, of course. Incredibly damaging stereotypes live on because practically the only way non-Asian Americans see us AND the only way we see ourselves (until we discover small independent Asian-American media creators) is through this exoticizing, dehumanizing colonial lens.

  3. Gemma Alexander says:

    Thank you for refusing to accept the notion that ethics are incompatible with sexiness. I subscribed to this blog for product reviews; I stay for the thoughtful intersectional feminist essays – and pretty bras. I truly appreciate the work you do on this site.

  4. Apologies for posting this a bit late but I had to think hard on how to reduce everything I want to say in just one post. I think this debate deserves more and I agree with Cora that it might be elusively inconclusive as it touches so many people and emotions.

    I’m the designer of the abovementioned brand Guerrilla Geisha.

    Firstly I would like to point out a few things that people might or might not know, but I think they are worth a mentioning. I think it’s quite important to remember the true origins of Geisha; that the word Geisha literally translates as “artist” or “person of the arts”, and that they were in fact originally men. It was only later that women took the reign of the profession for which they were highly viewed and appreciated, as men were in the beginning.

    I think it is true that the vision of Geishas has been distorted and reduced to that of prostitution by the West, and largely by men. When looking at the bigger picture of how women are sexualized in every culture I can see many similarities between the Geisha and the Beauty Pageant or Miss Universe worlds for example. After all, it is a harsh reality to be flawless for personal gratification or other’s pleasures/fantasies from a young age. Yet, we use images of women in lingerie in provocative poses, every day, everywhere; we allow young girls to go on a stage to be judged about their looks; we reinforce this stereotype daily. Controversial!

    Going back to our Geisha debate I think that we need to pay attention on how it is used, by whom and for what purpose.

    When I look at these images from a designer/artist and business point of view, I personally find the 3 collections beautiful. Yes, it has been done before, but I think there’s a very simple reason for this: Oriental aesthetic and designs are simply stunningly beautiful, refreshing, uplifting and most importantly timeless. And this is surely the reason it will be done again.

    When I look at these images from the point of view of a woman and mother of two boys, I have to agree that the extreme bowing thing does not go down very well, and does reinforce in some ways the stereotypes of the sexualized Geisha. However, it doesn’t mean that if designers take inspiration from Oriental aesthetics and use it in a tasteful and respectful way, that they are on the racist bandwagon or are out in force to ridicule, sexualize and stereotype Asian women. My skin is white, and I have been the subject of racist laughter for my Italian accent or looks, yet somehow I feel that this debate is leaning towards the “people of colour” exercise. We are one species, one woman shall I dare say.

    I’m glad this debate came out, as I knew it would when I chose the name for my label.
    My main mission with Guerrilla Geisha is to empower women (the clue is in the name), to create lingerie that makes them feel beautiful, confident, and yes sexy – because after all, being sexy is a female trait and as women we should embrace it. I truly believe that it is up to us to fight those stereotypes by re-appropriation of the very fundamental notion that we are sexual beings, not sexual objects! I think, in the lingerie industry, we are already doing this by designing lingerie that compliments our inner and outer beauty.

    So the problem here is that some people feel it is somehow racist, or even sexist, to use said stereotypes if you don’t belong to that “culture”, in this case the Orient. Personally I see cultures, not nationalities, and I want to embrace them all, I want to love what every culture has to offer. When I design a Cherry blossom knicker I’m not trying to colonize, I’m trying to evoke one of the most suggestive images of Japan. When I put the cherry blossom knickers on a non- Asian model with a wig and ask her to have a bit of attitude I’m not trying to portray a submissive exotic woman but a strong enchanting one. I wonder if it would have been different if instead of Cherry blossom flowers I used a dragon?

    One thing I can’t help asking myself is: had I used an Asian model, wouldn’t that reinforce the stereotype even more? So out of curiosity I just asked God Google for “Asian lingerie designers”, and this is the second link that came up:

    It’s interesting that out of 12 Japanese brands only 4 uses Asian models and most of the lingerie is, I would consider, western in style. As I see it, bows and flowers are not a Japanese invention after all. Further more, the Japanese brand Bradelis who also trades in USA, has a huge emphasis on boobs; if their images of “blond bombshell” does not reinforce the western stereotype I’m not sure what does! So are they trying to colonialize, ridicule and sexualize western women? I don’t think so. Also, to be fair with the opposite sex, perhaps it is true that Asian men are not sexualized as Asian women, but western men are…

    I think there’s enough food for thought here, so I will leave it to that. I guess my final point is resumed in two words: tasteful and respectful.

    I would like to take this opportunity to ask for feedback on my images. Do people consider them racist, sexist or portraying a submissive woman? If so I do apologize in advance but, as inconclusive as this debate might be, I feel that I have explained my reasons for choosing to design and style an oriental themed collection.

    • Tricky says:

      I suppose you said it best yourself: “I’m not trying to colonize”.
      Unfortunately, you colonized.

      • Exactly who and what I’m supposed to have colonised? If you had bothered articulating more on the subject, you might have had other answers from me. As it stands I’m afraid this will be the only one. It more of a question for yourself really.

    • Ellen says:

      Yeah. As an Asian person, nothing about what you did was remotely tasteful or respectful, and I certainly don’t feel empowered looking at it.

      • Ellen I’m sorry you feel that way. Not long ago, we did a photo shoot for my second collection and also did some re-take of the Oriental Dream collection, if you could perhaps have a look at those images I would like to know if they make you feel the same or not? I decided to start fasing out the originals partly because I wanted fresh imagery and partly because I felt ( being my first photo shoot ) that they didn’t fully represent Guerrilla Geisha. Nonetheless, I’m aware that the imagery in question here are the originals. I feel the new images are still quite Oriental in the general feel of them, and would like to have your opinion.

        • Ellen says:

          Stop referring to Asian people as “Oriental” would be a start.

          Stop trying to give your stuff an “Oriental” feel especially seeing as you have no knowledge or familiarity with the culture (which by the way isn’t a monolith). Why is it so important for you to have “oriental” influences in the first place?

          • Julia says:

            Why are you being so aggressive? Not once does she refer to Asian people as “oriental”, she merely uses it as an adjective. What is wrong with being inspired by traditional cultural markers? You’re acting like it’s some kind of mortal sin, to include cherry blossoms and lacquer parasols in the promotional pictures of a brand that wants to “empower” women.

            Stereotyping is not always the cancer that you make it out to be. Japanese people are proud of being known by these specifics, because it’s part of their history. Did you even stop to think that they could represent something else for us and for them, than what you deem to be an offensive geisha cliché? It is so much more than that, and it’s lovely for a country to be associated with these picturesque objects. It’s gratifying that others feel so inspired and uplifted by these things, that they choose to revolve their brand around them. It’s not always a correct representation, but what does it matter? As long as it’s not a caricature, it’s basically free publicity. Japan is not some small player on the international scene, left outside to be used and abused by “colonial overlords”. It’s an economic and cultural powerhouse in its own right.

    • Katie White says:

      Well, this wins what might be my all time top award for “totally missing the point”.

      Could you possibly educate yourself on structural racism, and come back when you’ve reached even the basic level required to discuss this sensibly?

      If you think sexiness is a value that only women have, I can only imagine you’re either only interested in women or have a terribly disappointing sex life. I’m not sure you fully throught through the implications of that statement before posting it.

    • Amaryllis says:

      Unfortunately, despite not meaning to portray a harmful image, you have done so. Intent doesn’t actually matter so much when you are sending out a signal that is harmful to others.
      As a white British woman, I find your images uncomfortable, sexist and a tad racist. It leaves me with a momentary unease, which I can flip past without any further concern. But I’m not being directly represented in those images, and they don’t re-enforce messages received from childhood about how my femininity is supposed to be. I imagine that this would be far more than the cause for unease if that was the case.
      In addition, although I don’t have the time to craft a point by point response to your post – I would like to point out that a big part of the reason that this imagery is damaging is that it comes off the back of colonialism. Women of Asian heritage have been (and continue to be) horribly exploited as a commodity of the exotic and exciting ‘Orient’. With colonial history comes an unequal power balance, with all of the benefits on the colonising side, and that makes continued use particularly damaging. In your example of what you found on Google I would ask you to consider a couple of things: 1) Presumably you searched in English or Italian? Therefore, do you think that the lingerie firms you found catered primarily to people speaking those languages and their images were tailored to a market that either comprised of many Western and Westernised customers? 2) There is not a history of continuous, systematic and ongoing racism with an overarching narrative of colonialism and Western dominance, from Asian countries towards white American/European peoples. Which is why the images of blonde bombshell types may be distasteful, and sexist, but they are not racist and they don’t have the same problem of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is when a DOMINANT culture picks and chooses and uses bits of another culture, and in the process weakens symbols of meaning for those people, or turns national identity and belief into mere fashion props and baubles.

      • Hi Amaryllis, Yes I searched in English ( I very rarely think in Italian any more). To me it seems like those Japanese brands are heavily geared towards oriental customers. On the other hand, I think the brand Bradelis has developed a more western approach; for example they have Bradelis NY, where sizes amongst other things, are changed for specific western measurements and shapes. I think this is a really positive approach to have, but when I mentioned them I was specifically thinking about their images. RE: Colonialism, I will post a more detailed comment below, as my time is also limited and I feel that I would be repeating my self.

        • Tess Kim says:

          Their customers are not Oriental. People. Are. Not. Oriental. Period. Never ever ever refer to a person as oriental. It is racist and offensive.

          • michelle says:

            To be fair in Italian, the word orientale is in common use and not considered inappropriate, so I think this is just an english-as-a-second language mistake.

            Asians notoriously only use predominantly western models (and only very white models) in their ads. Aimer is like the Victorias Secret of China :

            The whiteness of the models she found has nothing to do with language she googled in.

            Also isnt the bra an american invention, so does that mean, by these arguments, that only Americans should use bras?

      • Julia says:

        As a “hafu”, I don’t care. I’ve seen stuff like this since I was a child, and it always, without exception, intrigued me and piqued my interest in my “oriental” heritage. It didn’t reinforce any stereotype about how I was supposed to be or look. I just cared if it was pretty or interesting. So far, I have never seen anything Japanese-inspired which I would classify as offensive. All of the above images (expect of course Mr. Yunioshi) still only strikes me as celebratory. To me, this is innocent, flirtatious and culturally respectful. Using the geisha figure in a lingerie context, thus makes perfect sense.

        Remember, we’re talking about Japan here, an economic and cultural powerhouse. This is not some demure indigenous tribe, to be conquered and tossed about. Their cultural markers are something which fills them with pride, not something they take offense at, when other nations seemingly “appropriates” them. And as much as I see talk here of the damages of colonialism, nobody seems to care that Japan, which happens to be the country of interest in this context, has never been colonised by any European nation. In fact, it has been a colonial empire in and of itself (Korea, the Philippines and China), and has been a major power player in the region for centuries. So not exactly a “victim” of the horrible, horrible West.

        This “horrible exploitation” you speak of, can you expand on that? Are you thinking, for instance, of Thai prostitution? Or are you merely alluding to the fact that a sexually passive sort of woman, is what is considered attractive in many Asian countries, and as an extent, is also considered so by some men of European descent?

        • michelle says:

          I feel the same way of my Italian heritage. If people want to put pineapple on what passes off as pizza in the States, i find it interesting and creative. Not something I would eat but I have no need to feel outrage. If every movie made about Italians have them involved in the mob or dumb as stumps with fake tans and Jersey accents, whatever. Also I dont get the chopsticks thing, it is cute and it works. Chopsticks are not ceremonial items. If an Asian person wanted to make a necklace out of a fork, I wouldn’t seethe in anger.

          And before people tell me that Italians are privileged, etc , etc, please tell that to the Italian Americans who were put into internment camps in the USA during WW2, just like the Japanese.

    • Lin tong says:

      You wasted your time making such cheap and campy pieces. Please stick to what you know, creating without even baseline understanding of cultural context or the symbolism of aesthetics is an affront to your audience and Japanese women. Keep your dignity when you design.

      • Lin I don’t feel like I wasted my time, and believe me, those pieces where not cheap in terms of creativity, time, effort and costs. Although you think I don’t, I do have knowledge of the symbolism of aesthetics, but I also feel that your comment is one of the more constructive so far. So thank you.

    • Amanda says:

      Since you are asking for feedback on your collection I figured I’d offer mine.

      As someone who has studied fashion design I find your collection to be lazy. The topics that you site for inspiration offer so much to pull from. Burlesque, punk, pinup (which incidentally is basically absent from your collection), tattoos, and according to your original statement, oriental. Your collection is designed and presented in such a boxy way that each bit of inspiration neatly fits into one piece. “Punk” pistol embroidery, “oriental” silky cherry blossom and orchid fabric, and sparkling “burlesque” pasties all offer unsurprising translations on bra and knicker designs that are so generic they can be found just about anywhere.

      I’d also like a moment to bring up the Tokyo Nights collection. I’m curious to know what the reason behind naming the more overtly sexy piece in your collection this way is. All of the other pieces are basically named after the fabric choice, with the slightest flare here and there. Why name a lace back knicker Tokyo nights? The knickers are made of simple plain fabric, which doesn’t evoke the colors you’d expect to see in a city night scape. A quick google search for “Tokyo nights” brings up a British nightlife experience, an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown (which heavily features sex and fetish components) and a song by the BeeGees which is literally about sex. It’s hard not to see a connection between the over sexualization of Asian women and this title.

      I appreciate that you’ve at least taken the time to change your look book images however fighting back on an argument that clearly states why what your doing is problematic is not the best way to endear yourself to potential consumers. Constant use of the outdated term oriental only brings to mind orientalism, which IS embodying colonialism. Do you think Asian individuals call themselves oriental? They don’t, if you want to honor the cultures you’re referencing refer to them specifically, and use them in a more positive way. Furthermore, don’t blame your look book on the everyday sexualization of women. There are plenty of ways to create looks that embody empowered women in lingerie!

      I could go on, but I’ll end with this. I know it’s hard to take criticism but your fierce determination that you can not improve, nor that you did nothing wrong certainly means that you’ve lost many potential customers, and that is enough for the time being.

    • Yeon-soo says:

      You’re racist and fetishized Asian women and Japanese culture. No one needs to hear your long winded argument as to why your racist lingerie “isn’t ACTUALLY that bad”. No one needs to hear about how your white feelings are hurt. And equating fetishizing and racism with people being nasty to you due to your (WHITE) ethnicity is an attempt at downplaying actually angry Asian women like myself.

      “It’s interesting that out of 12 Japanese brands only 4 uses Asian models and most of the lingerie is, I would consider, western in style.” aka “well THEY don’t use Asian models and THEY’RE Asian!! So I can be racist because they’re using western prints!!!” Can’t culturally appropriate a privileged culture, namely western culture.

      Your entire collection is gimmicky and tacky. Like every other western lingerie creator with an obsession with this One Very Specific element of Japanese culture, you have tainted it and twisted it into a deplorable instance of appropriation. Your lingerie isn’t beautiful, it’s racist and disgusting. Your low-key yellowface is unacceptable. You messed up.

    • michelle says:

      too many academics, too few artists.

  5. May Takahashi says:

    Being an Asian American woman and having felt the psychological, physical, spiritual and collective damages of racist sexualization and its polar opposite – invisibility – I can’t express how much I appreciate this post. Yes, you are writing from the platform of lingerie (like, it’s just lingerie, right?), but you draw the connections to the much larger and invasive contexts at play. You get it and I’ve seen you get it in so many ways. How you strive to push for radical notions (freedom!) within a conservative industry – I applaud you hard and want you to know, as someone who works within the industry, you’ve got an ally and kindred spirit in me. I also believe that your visibility and boundary pushing will help in drawing out a new generation of lingerie creators and those of us who have been waiting for them. It’s already happening.

  6. Brooke says:

    Even though it can be risky, i think it is imperative that you continue to post what may be unpopular opinions. The depth and breadth of the lingerie posting on this blog is what sets it apart. The diversity and thoughtfulness of Lingerie Addict posts serves to dismantle the idea that lingerie is only about sex. This blog is a window into the world through lingerie. I have learned so much through this blog, not just about lingerie, but about business, economics, and many communities that i don’t belong to. What i have learned has become valuable in my life. Please keep posting, and keep posting pieces like this. It is important work, and you’re making a difference . Thank you.

  7. Ae says:

    I’m glad you decided to publish the article. I find cultural appropriation a tricky topic because at what point is it admiration and at what point is it appropriation? However, I’m talking about actions like incorporating a print that evokes another culture to make a fusion creation which is marketed without stereotypical references to the ‘foreign’ culture. What you’ve highlighted is so obviously wrong, I’m inclined to ask, in the words of John Oliver talking about Hollywood use of white actors for Native American roles: “How is this still a thing?”

    I’d love a follow-up of brands that are able to use cross-cultural inspiration appropriately.

  8. Sarah says:

    Cora, you are a wonderful, sensitive person. The fact that you spend so much time thinking about what you post, to me at least, is so important. I think most readers would agree that we’re all better off for hearing the voices of the TLA team. You remind us to slow down and notice what’s going on around us, be it negative marketing, lack of diversity, limited sizes, etc.

    I think everyone else here has chastised the companies you mentioned quite soundly; I hope the brands see this post and rethink their future marketing. I did see the Bordelle campaign and was a little taken aback, but couldn’t place why at the time. Aside from the racism, it’s tastefully shot and polished-looking. That may be why I couldn’t put my finger on what was bothering me, unlike the Marlies Dekkers images which slap you in the face.

    To Girl and Lingerie- your comments in the article connected to the frustration I feel in this situation as a woman of Asian descent. I was reading your quote aloud to a friend and my voice broke near the end. I’ll definitely be following your blogging. The fact that we’re even having this conversation is reassuring to me, and a step in the right direction. Keep being awesome and maybe, together, we can all be a force for positive change.

  9. Diana says:

    Cora, what do you think of the Olivia Von Halle collection that drew inspiration from early 20th century China and used Chinese models?

    As a consumer, I find the images from Marlies Dekkers very campy and cheap. I’m not inspired by it. However, I found the OVH campaign to be more well done, beautiful and inspiring to the consumer eye. I would love to hear your opinion comparing the two and whether or not there are political undertones in the OVH campaign.

  10. Iris Sabrina says:

    I don’t know why stereotyping and appropriation are such a big thing in the fashion world. If designers find that it’s so beautiful, why can’t these brands at the very least use models from the same country/culture that they’re “inspired” by? I recently saw a lingerie line that was very obviously inspired by Frida Kahlo’s style/artwork…and yet I don’t think any of the models were actually Mexican. It implies that we and our taste in colors and our patterns and our art are simply a costume that can be put on when convenient and taken off when not. I get the appreciation of it, just as I appreciate the style of other cultures, but as Diane Q mentioned in this thread, there’s a right way to show it and there’s a wrong way.

    • michelle says:

      I think a part of the problem in Europe, is it is not as easy in some countries to get models of various ethnicities. In MIlan, outside of fashion weeks, it can be next to impossible unless you fly people in. I have a friend who is Asian American in Milan, and she gets a lot of work in commercials and ads, and she isnt even a model, it is just there arent any, and she is there. Also if Itailans exoticize foreign cultures, it is because to them it is exotic. It is a monoculture, not everywhere is diverse like the USA or UK.

  11. Paulette says:

    Do they even know what a “Geisha” is?
    I think they don’t and I agree with Saffron, this is almost racist, a joke, not an inspiration.
    Shame on them!

    • Robin says:

      I agree with you, that the brands are hijacking a recognizable word and using it to suggest “entertainment” that is not Geisha tradition. From my limited knowledge of history, I’ve never seen Geisha showing skin in strappy anything, The top 2 photos at top on this page are highly American- with the huge focus on big boobs.
      I certainly hope they are not selling headpieces and white face makeup with the weird lingerie… just creepy & so costume-y that I dont see it mainstream unless an at-home Halloween campaign.

  12. Kawai says:

    Thank you so much for bringing up this issue, Cora.

    I agree with Girl and Lingerie in that racial stereotypes are tied to classism – I think there is a lot that could be written about different colonial relationships and geopolitics today (e.g., China’s economic growth and growing political power) but I would add that gender is an important dimension too. You don’t see E Asian men being fetishized as desirable sexual objects like this by white people.

    Why this might be happening now? I don’t think the “geisha” stereotype ever went away in pop culture to be honest. E Asian women are heavily fetishized sexually in a way other ethnicities are not. On OK Cupid, Asian women became the most desirable race in 2014, even more than white women ( Because lingerie is related to sexual attraction, I’m not the least bit surprized that E. Asian culture is appropriated from heavily. Also, when it comes to sexuality, I do think people feel like they have more of a license to be racist. What Dekkers did would NEVER fly in the fashion industry today. But interrogation into sexual desire, especially when it comes to race, is something many people would rather resist.

    • What you say about gender seems (to me) to tie into Edward Said’s theory of orientalism (ie. the”Orient” as being a mirror image of the West, in which the West is masculine, rational, and progressive, and the “Orient” is feminine, irrational and backwards, and something to be conquered/possessed).
      I’m not sure, but I think that that (and also the events of WW2 and Vietnam and the american military) would certainly play a role in the differences between how Asian men and women are perceived!
      (Although the more recent trends in Korean pop culture has cause some cringe-worthy fetichization of Korean men…)

      And yeah I totally agree about how mixing sexual attraction in makes things complicated. Just trying to articulate “sexualizing Asian women is bad” with “there’s nothing wrong with being sexual” is complicated enough! It’s hard to articulate how I believe lingerie isn’t inherently sexual, and yet claim that Marlies Dekkers collection sexualizes Asian women… If you add people’s fantasies and “personal preferences” into that… it gets messy!

      • Kawai says:

        History, colonialism and past wars have exerted a huge influence over racialized gender stereotypes and I definitely think Vietnam is a part of that, e.g., Miss Saigon. And I agree, lingerie isn’t inherently sexual. Maybe we could say the lingerie itself isn’t necessary sexual, but the marketing is using sexual stereotypes.

        As for resistance toward examining sexual attraction – I think a part of that resistance is simply a fear of being accused of racism. Some people also wish to believe that sex is purely instinctual and “natural” and acknowledging historical/social contexts play a significant role in sexual expression could upend some deeply held beliefs about human sexuality. The “natural” argument afterall, has been used to justify any number of spurious claims about sexuality including the idea that women are naturally monogamous/men are naturally philanderers.

  13. Rebecca says:

    A: Thanks for actually publishing this, and saying what needed to be said! B: It’s interesting, in a twisted sort of way, to compare Bordelle with Marlies Dekkers here. Bordelle put out what looks like a fairly standard collection, combining a nice lace with strappy details. Nothing about this collection screams “Japanese” to me, but for some reason Bordelle decided to slap some “geisha-inspired” marketing on it. This is the same trick they pulled last season with their “Frida Kahlo-inspired” campaign, and the season before with their “Oriental” campaign.
    Marlies Dekkers, on the other hand, went for all-out borderline-cartoon-y “geisha” design and styling. As is frequently the case with this type of cultural appropriation/racism, the end result looks costume-y and just plain tacky. I cannot imagine any fashion-forward consumer buying into something that basic, even if they WERE OK with the racism.
    Bottom line: I understand what Bordelle is doing here. It’s quite disturbing, but it’s sadly also something that might work for them as a brand. Marlies Dekkers, on the other hand, has gone off the deep end. I hope this goes as badly for them as I think it will.

  14. When I first reacted to this, I came from a “I’m personally hurt by this” viewpoint, but stepping back I wonder if there isn’t more. I’m unsure and probably not good at articulating this, my thoughts are not so clear yet. But I have been wondering about how this trend ties to anti-blackness?
    In that (and I’m not knowledgeable enough to be sure) but it seems to me that high-end, luxury brands tend to appropriate a lot from East Asian cultures, then South Asian, then maybe Middle Eastern, or Latinx… As though there were a hierarchy. Cultural appropriation is never good, but who they chose to appropriate from may be telling.

    I wonder if it’s because the stereotypes against East Asian women and Black women, especially in America, are depicted as being opposites. I wonder if high-end brands chose to commodify Asian women because their “exotism” is painted as less threatening, (model minority rather than yellow peril), more restrained/refined, a more palatable “flavor of the day” for the rich to upper middle class they are marketing towards. It reminds me of the way the model minority myth is used to fuel anti-blackness, by creating division and contrast?

    I was just thinking about this because in the country I live in, I can see many “tribal” inspired collections, printed words in AAV style, models with braided hair, and so on, in brands marketed towards younger people, in fast fashion, H&M or VS style brands, but the more expensive it gets, the more it limits the variety of cultures it steals from, to the ones that are most evocative of upper class white orientalism

    But I would not want to talk over anyone by saying this!

    • Robin says:

      1 side thought, to an overall very valuable discussion. As we are referring to “higher end” brands (vs a V’s S, Macys, Target, etc)… there is a very large financial stereotype at play, layered on top of the color & heritage. I see it playing on what you said, “high-end brands chose to commodify Asian women” but also pertaining to PERCEIVED disposable income to spend in the luxury fashion market. ALL news re: the LUX fashion business is centered on China, and now recently Japan. I can’t think of the last time island nations, Africa, Spain, or dozens of other countries were portrayed in such a glamorous time of wealth. I’m not saying these “designs” are meant for the Asian audience, but rather they are meant for mis-informed American audience that hears all about Asian wealth (so high apparently the gov’t has to tone down conspicuous consumption) and therefore sees the horrible stereotypes as aspirational.

      I too still find it odd that no moral lesson was learned by the cheap fast fashion campaign of V’sS. Sad, as I love lingerie, to now wonder if the brands I do support will head that direction- and disappoint me.
      Appreciate the honesty of this rational discussion, and to hear from all viewpoints.

      • Alison says:

        Interesting angle. Especially when you consider how historic it is. As soon as trade routes opened up with the East, items from and influenced by the culture became a mark of wealth and (superficial) cultural awareness throughout Europe. So for a lux brand that’s a long background association with affluence.

  15. lia says:

    I’m so glad you published this! I’m confused and disappointed in that company- was there no one questioning this at all? No one spoke up and said, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t fetishize, stereotype, and participate in yellowface?” Just because it’s a “positive” stereotype (Asian women are sexy and exotic) doesn’t mean it’s not as bad or damaging as a negative stereotype.

    Diane Q, Lee Rivers, and Manoela all had great examples or ideas of how other cultures can be respectfully incorporated without being racist. I don’t have much to say on this because it’s so mind boggling to me that it’s still happening.

  16. Saffron says:

    It’s just pathetic to me that these designers claim to be “inspired” by japan when in fact they are only inspired by racist, sexist imperialism. When will western culture let go of madame butterfly and memoirs of a geisha?

    If they were so interested in japanese textile culture, they could have executed it in a 1000 different interesting and respectful ways. they could have used kyoto silks, shibori dye techniques, zakka-style embroidery… but no. same old creepy, cliché “geisha” nonsense.

  17. Diane Q says:

    As a white person who is heavily interested both in lingerie and Japanese textiles, this sort of thing pains me so much. I know my opinion here isn’t particularly valid compared to the folks this is directly impacting, but it’s so frustrating to see an intersection of two things I love that could have had so much potential be yet again reduced to tacky, fetishistic, racist claptrap.

    I’ve been studying kimono and Japanese textiles for well over a decade, and even now when I mention it in certain circles, I get the (pardon the hideously racist quote that’s about to show up) “sexy geesha me so horny” bullshit. I can’t imagine how hurtful and demeaning that must be to Japanese women, and other Asian women who those sorts of people tend to view as “all the same thing anyway.”

    There are so many ways to do a Geisha-influenced collection that don’t rely on yellowface and racist tropes, and yet time and time again we see these companies who claim to be forward-thinking and mold-breaking doing the exact same crap.

    From working with actual Asian designers and models to incorporating simple silhouettes using fabric inspired by real vintage textiles and traditional embroidery methods; luxurious robes that cover up but feel decadent; interesting finishes and fabrics; there are so many things I’d love to see… Instead we get chopsticks and bad wigs. Again.

    And if I’ve said anything inadvertently offensive here, please do let me know. Like I said, I’m a privileged white blob sticking my toes where some folks feel they don’t belong, but I’ve been doing my damnedest to do it respectfully.

  18. D says:

    Thank god. Very good article.
    I was speechless at the Bordelle collection. I love Bordelle, I love their collection but there was 0 justification for that lookbook.
    Same with Marlies…there is no justification for that makeup and hair.
    Plus after the blacklash on VS….they should know better.

  19. Lee Rivers says:

    I think what you can do and have done for issues like this is highlight brands and things that do good things about Asian lingerie, too. See your pictures of Ravijour and Wacoal, and previously highlighting Pillowbook. I’d suggest talking to Irene at Pillowbook, too, for why she thinks these trends may have come up again.

    • Cora says:

      That’s a great suggestion. We’ve spoken on Twitter about this topic, but not formally in the context of a blog post. Thanks for bringing it up.

  20. Rebecca says:

    Articles like these are much appreciated and always interesting precisely because they go against the tide; few people are discussing it.

    The snaps you’ve provided seem to indicate the brands are going for an amalgamation of the strappy-cutout-harness trends and geisha. I’m white and American, so stereotypes about Asian women from my perspective are something along the lines of: delicate, ultra-femme, light, floral, secretive, exotic, etc. Perhaps the geisha theme is their way of marketing a product as all of those things, somewhat lessening the aesthetic harshness of recent designs and trends that create a more aggressive and independent-minded atmosphere.

    Plus when big names are putting out rehashed exotic garbage, I haven’t noticed a lot of drawing from Latin America or Africa (too brown and a load of other myopic reasons they don’t fit their ‘criteria’ for beauty and fashion), so I figure Asia is kind of their default if they really want to scream “THIS IS FEMININE AND SEDUCTIVE!”

    • Cora says:

      This is an excellent point regarding the cultural shorthand that’s part and parcel of these depictions, and I’m glad you made that relationship so explicit here. And also a great point regarding how proximity to the ideal aesthetic (which yes, involves light skin) is wrapped up in these decisions as well.

  21. c l bigelow says:

    cora i disagree with your last bit of leaving the post unmoored.
    in the contrary .
    you stated your position quite well – as a person taking offense and as a business owner-
    you do have to walk a tight rope at times because you are so visible- but that also gives you the power of allowing everyone to see your strength and integrity in both roles.
    the world is far from perfect, if we do not call out the fools nothing will get better. for the business owner using the stolen touchstones putting that cultural appropriation out in the light and calling it what it is the best way to effect change, as hopefully the images will not elicit the projected sales.

    • Lynn L says:

      Thank you for this article. As someone who is Asian and loves Asian cultures, I found Dekker’s advertising tacky and offensive. Dekker is a Dutch designer and part of me thinks that Europe is not as advanced as America is with calling out cultural appropriation. I lived in the Netherlands in 80’s as a child and faced so much racism there, that part of me is not surprised Dekkers would think offensive geisha imagery is okay. I just hope she gets some poor sales but the pessimistic, child in the 80’s side of me still thinks that most Europeans, not all, are okay with this grotesque imagery. I hope I’m wrong.

  22. Manoela says:

    I love this article. Love it, even if you think it’s not complete (I know the feeling).

    I am not Asian but Latin, and know how bad it is when my culture is sexualized, so I felt that although this was not directly to my culture, I can relate to it.

    One brand that I think did a nice job on using the culture as just an inspiration was Karolina Laskowska with her kimono fabrics and Asian models. Really good and a prove that you can get inspiration without being disrespectful.

    • Cora says:

      Right, the sexualization and exotification of the “other” is definitely something many post-colonial cultures have in common, and I’m glad you mentioned it here.

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