The Right Dress

by Luanne

For her 8th birthday party, Marisha wanted to dress up and act out a play with her friends.  I set up a clothes rack stuffed with dresses from the local thrift stores.  A plastic laundry basket held all the used heels I could find.  People loaned us waiting-to-be-loved costume jewelry and scarves.

That day, the other moms and I set the girls loose on the goodies, and they dove into the clothes with excitement.  When each girl had settled into her chosen costume, Marisha organized a play from the life of American Girl doll Samantha.  Next fall, she needed a dress for holiday parties as she had outgrown the green satin hand-me-down from a friend, so I bought her the real girl’s replica of Samantha’s dark red dress with lace collar.

Victorian Dress

Samantha’s Victorian Dress

Almost a year after the birthday party, I took Marisha to the first professional photographer she’d seen since her Sears baby portraits.  She chose to wear the Samantha dress, so the photographer arranged an old-fashioned setting around her to imply the Victorian era.  They framed it in a carved wood frame, and I hung it in the hallway.

Not long after, a friend of mine from grad school visited.  I’ll call her Sally to protect her privacy.  When she saw Marisha’s photograph, she said, “You didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?”

“I can’t believe you put that little Asian girl in that Victorian dress.”  She scowled at the picture.  She was scowling at my daughter’s image.

“What should I have put her in?”  I said, echoing Sally’s phrasing, although Marisha had asked to wear the dress.

“Something that reflects her heritage.”

“You mean, like a hanbok?”  Hanbok is the traditional South Korean outfit.  A woman’s hanbok is a dress with short jacket, often in bright colors like hot pink and bright green.

Sally nodded.  “You’re confusing her with this.”

I knew that Sally was well-educated.  She said Asian, and not the old-fashioned and demeaning term “Oriental.”  She didn’t want the white majority superpower hegemony to usurp Marisha’s own ethnic, national, or racial background.  I didn’t either.  So I stopped and thought.  Was I confusing Marisha by allowing her to experience play-acting at living in Samantha’s Victorian American world?  Samantha’s story takes place in 1904.  At that time only a few hundred Koreans lived in the United States, mainly in Hawaii.

Because Sally had given me something to think about, I chose not to continue debating an issue I needed to think more about it.  So I dropped it.  But I’m still thinking about it fifteen years later.

If Marisha shouldn’t have her portrait taken in a Victorian dress, was part of the culture she was being brought up in—the only culture she knows—off limits to her?  By allowing her to be pictured in the dress for posterity did I give her the wrong message—that it represented something that she was not?  And what would that something be?

Hanbok with Dance Fans

Hanbok with Dance Fans

A year later I ordered a hanbok and matching Korean dance fans for Marisha, and she had her portrait taken in that outfit.  We learned how to tie the bow on the jacket, and she took Korean dance at Heritage Camp the next summer.  Marisha only lived in Korea until she was 3 1/2 months old.  The outfit did not come naturally to her, but she looked lovely in those brilliant colors.

Was either of these pictures more or less true or authentic than the other?  I still don’t have an answer.


  1. Dottie Parker says:

    I’m sorry you have held this question in your head so long, Luanne! Why does authenticity enter into it at all? Marisha wanted to wear the Samantha dress, it reflected a lovely dream image she got from a book…when I saw the photo before I read the blog, I thought, “Oh, Marisha was like my girl, she went through a Samantha phase, too.” My Italian-Scottish-Irish kid has been photographed dressed as Samantha, as Kirsten (in her St. Lucia dress), as an Amish child, and as a Lenni-Lenape Indian. Those are just pretty pictures of my kid in dress-up clothes. Why over-complicate the issue?

    • Thanks so much for reading and responding! That’s how I saw it until, yes, my friend’s remark complicated it all for me. I really appreciate your clear-sighted view. And I’d love to see your beautiful daughter as Samantha (as well as in the other “roles”)!!!

  2. Lisa Ercolano says:

    Luanne, I love this essay because it so clearly illustrates the often confusing and almost always complex issues that international adoption brings with — both for our children and for us. Juliet once ordered a pizza with pepperoni and pineapple on it, and a friend innocently asked “Is that, like, a Chinese thing?” She really wondered, because she could “see” that my daughter was/is Asian, but she knows, too, that Juliet’s adopted family is Italian (well, J’s last name is Italian, as my husband’s family is from Italy in the recent past: just after WWII.) So in our country, where people see race as the first identifier (an easy way to make assumptions about people, their culture, etc.), a child dressing in the “costume” of another culture (even one she was adopted into) can lead to layers of questions, which is what sparked your friend to ask why you were dressing Marisha in the American Girl dress. All that said, in my view, Terez has the healthy idea: Marisha was playing dress up, pure and simple. It’s the adults and their wish to be “educated” and “enlightened” and not run roughshod over her culture of origin and cultural identity that made is so complex. (I will shut up now that I have confused y’all!)

    • I love this, Lisa. Yes, the pizza story is really apt. The layering of cultures is very complex and for some no doubt it can be terrifying, while for others it can be enriching. I’m going to guess that for many, it’s both. But this is just observation, as I can’t know myself. I see that there are adult adoptees who resent the whole concept of “transnational” or “transracial” adopting. They have a right to their opinion and they make some good points. But Marisha’s always been driven by her imagination and creativity (thus, her performing) and I couldn’t imagine telling her there were make-believe “roles” she couldn’t play as she grew up. Taking it the one step more and having a professional photo done is probably what Sally was complaining about, although 15 years later, I can’t say I’m sure about that. But I think so.

  3. Carla McGill says:

    Interesting thoughts, Luanne. What a sensitive mother you are, and how nice that you were open-minded about the whole thing and thought about the issue, later ordering the hanbok, which I’m sure is also special to Marisha. Perhaps no part of one’s culture, native or adopted, should be off limits?

    • Carla, I really really like that notion–that all of one’s cultures can be explored to the fullest extent, if one wants to do so. Very cool.

  4. Exploring a child’s culture (whether that child is adopted or not) and encouraging a child to explore her own imagination: One needn’t, and SHOULDN’T, exclude the other! My daughter, Nina, is Filipina; my husband and I are both Caucasian. Over the years, for Halloween and theatre and all sorts of other things, Nina has been costumed as Dorothy, a witch, a Chinese version of a munchkin, Princess Jasmine, a Russian peasant, a Scottish villager, a young woman of the French Revolution era, a 19th-century Londoner…I could go on and on. None of these confused her. They tapped and spurred her imagination, and they helped her grow in many ways. She loved embodying all her characters, but she didn’t think she WAS any of them. I’m sure that wouldn’t have changed if we’d had a professional photographer capture images of one of those Ninas…or if Nina had decided to dress like red-haired Molly — her American Girl of choice — and we’d photographed her in that costume. It would simply have been a fun, memorable thing to do.

    • Thanks, Lennie. You put that SO well. I love how you say these costumes “tapped and spurred [Nina’s] imagination.” That has got to be true for Marisha, as well. Was my friend worried more about Marisha growing up with “false expectations” or something? When I dressed up like a Lakota Sioux warrior (one of my personal favorites), did I really think this was a lifestyle I could aspire to as an adult? (And wouldn’t I love a pic of that today haha) Or was she worried that Marisha was being given a substitute culture and being denied of her birthright? Now I’m not sure what she even meant.

  5. I enjoyed your article and all the well-worded replies! If children adopted from Asia have to only dress up in costumes from their homelands, then Caucasian children should only be allowed to dress up in costumes from their ancestry (whether it be British, Russian, German, etc.). Your friend’s view defies logic! That said, it would be shameful if we did not allow our children the opportunity to explore dressing up in outfits from their native land culture. While my daughter enjoys dressing up in native Thai clothing, she is just as happy being Cinderella, Princess Jasmine, or Pocahontas. And, while she has had crushes on Jackie Chan and Damien and Tourie Escobar (of Nuttin but Stringz), her current crush is Justin Bieber.

    • Delana, I can just imagine your daughter happy being any of those characters or wearing a traditional Thai outfit. And the bit about her crushes is so cute! Thanks so much for your thoughts on this topic!!

  6. Thought provoking, and my thought is that Sally was wrong. First, the Victorian era is many decades in the past, so any child who wants to read about it or play pretend with its trappings is stepping into another culture. Second, Marisha was an American child growing up in the U.S., and she had been since she was a baby. I think she would have been confused had she been excluded from cultural experiences that her classmates enjoyed, especially if the exclusion were based on the fact that she had been adopted from Korea. Would a child born in the U.S. become confused–would it be wrong–if he or she played with items from the Korean culture, Dutch culture, French culture, etc.? Perhaps Sally was reacting emotionally, based on some unconscious biases; she was not being fair or logical. The question of whether Marisha looks right in Korean dress is another matter. Marisha is a photogenic person who looks right in all kinds of dress. But then again, another person–one who was born in the U.S. or Canada or France or China or India or Brazil or South Africa–might also look right in all sorts of dress. Beyond the question of looking right, there is the question of freedom–the freedom to explore and to choose.

  7. I just wanted to thank you for your post and to also express my gratitude for all the well worded replies. As a mom planning an international adoption, I’ve found this all very enlightening and helpful. 🙂

  8. Reblogged this on Don't We Look Alike?.

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