But some critics say the six-time Grammy Award winner went too far last week during a concert in Dallas, where she wore only the top part of an ao dai — a traditional two-piece Vietnamese outfit that includes both a tunic and pants — without other clothing underneath.
The wardrobe choice has drawn swift criticism in recent days, from media outlets in Vietnam as well as Vietnamese Americans in the United States, who have called out Musgraves for disrespecting and degrading their culture. Not only does the singer’s skimpy look reek of cultural appropriation, they say, but it also sexualizes an outfit that’s meant to be serious and dignified.
“When people do things like this, all it does is contribute to the dangerous notion of Southeast Asian femininity as inherently sexual,” Mai Nguyen Do, a poet and PhD student, wrote on Twitter, adding, “Please don’t further degrade this key part of Vietnamese culture and put on some pants like everyone else that wears áo dài.”
Musgraves’s publicist did not respond to a request for comment late Tuesday.
A two-panel tunic that drapes down to the knees or lower, the ao dai traditionally includes pants underneath. As with other aspects of Vietnamese culture, the outfit represents a fusion of French, American and Chinese influences, according to Kieu-Linh Caroline Valverde, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California at Davis.
Where the garment was traditionally worn as a school uniform, people in Vietnam now wear it on holidays, at pageants or on their wedding days.
But other social media users pointed out that Musgraves was also wearing a headpiece that looked a lot like a maang tikka, a form of Indian bridal jewelry. This mixing of cultures, they said, only made her clothing choice more tone-deaf and propelled her deeper into the discussion on cultural appropriation.
Indeed, Musgraves’s ao dai, first shown off on her Instagram, seems to be the latest episode in an ongoing controversy over how — or whether — someone can wear clothing from another culture. It’s a question that has carried through to prom dresses, frat party themes, Halloween costumes and music festival garb, with some examples more widely condemned than others.
The music world in particular has been no stranger to this story, especially when white artists have worn clothing, jewelry or makeup from nonwhite cultures. Pop singer Katy Perry was slammed in 2013 for performing at an awards show dressed as a geisha. Selena Gomez and Iggy Azalea have drawn heat for wearing bindis. Miley Cyrus has apologized for being “insensitive” in the past, probably referring to when she twerked and wore grills, though the same could not be said of Justin Bieber getting cornrows.
But perhaps the most egregious example came from Lady Gaga, whose since-altered lyrics in the leaked 2013 demo “Burqa” asked: “Do you wanna see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?”
As in that case, critics accused the pop star of imposing an overtly sexual narrative on a fashion that does not — and should not — hold such a connotation.
In the case of the ao dai, it carries “a sense of elegance and modesty” that Musgraves had ignored, one critic said. “Personally, I don’t mind you wearing áo dài but please show my culture respect by wearing it correctly,” the man wrote on Twitter.
It’s for that reason that some, like YouTube personality and beauty blogger Michelle Phan, were upset that Musgraves had snapped backstage photos of herself wearing little else but the garment, noting that Western culture has long fetishized Asian women and seen them as submissive.
“Imagine seeing your national traditional dress being disrespected on stage,” Phan wrote on her Instagram account. “Since she’s a public figure, she might influence more people to think it’s trendy.”