Celebrities clad in designers’ creations will crowd Monday’s Met Gala red carpet to celebrate the Costume Institute’s annual fashion exhibit. China: Through the Looking Glass, examines the “impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion” and showcases “how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries.” The exhibition runs from May 7th to August 16th and sets Western fashion to the backdrop of Chinese art, showcasing the concepts carried-over.
Comparing high-society’s products will surely set a pretty scene. But the plot of this exhibition is more important than it’s picture. A growing body of authors have acknowledged cultural appropriation issues in asking (predominantly Western) designers to translate Chinese aesthetics for red-carpet wear. By majority, their concern is the Gala will fail to separate Western adaptations of Chinese design, which writer Kara Brown calls “culturally insensitive or downright racist,” from actual Chinese fashion. Furthermore, that the events’ celebrity solidifies Westerner’s misguided interpretations as appropriate to appropriate.
Their concerns are as valid as their calls for research-before-adoption. The exhibition addresses how “east-looking Westerners have understood and misunderstood Chinese culture.” But, the red carpet imagery is what’s mass-watched, disseminated, and discussed apart from the exhibition’s contextualization. Even so, the idea all appropriation offense is mitigated in explaining exchange inaccuracies demonstrates and proliferates the fashion industry’s misunderstanding of cultural appropriation. Ironically, the Gala makes a costume party grounds for discussing playing “dress-up” with another’s culture, which Westerners have reduced Chinese styles to since their first exchanges.
The first issue is the exhibition’s description presents the West’s apparel relationship with China as a one-sided steal. This suggests separating Western additions from “Chinese fashion,” and crediting the Chinese as authors, will show how “China has fueled the fashionable imagination,” when the “fuel” is not Chinese fashion, nor was it purely Chinese created.
Second, the exhibition’s description does not address the how West’s use of Chinese elements for exoticism (whether accurate or not) without experiencing their cultural meanings is offensive in itself. The Met’s press release states the event explores “romance, nostalgia, and make-believe” Chinese aesthetics have added to Western fashion. Therefore, the Met must qualify this presentation of culture as a dress-up tactic is not ideal. It authenticates Westerner’s use of Chinese aesthetics to fulfill their need for exoticism, rather than adoption of aesthetics because of a shared spirit. Even more detrimental, it causes Western customers to expect the traditional elements they associate with exoticism from Chinese designers, when Chinese designers are trying to define their own, modern style. The fashion industry should consider how their celebration of Chinese culture impacts China’s contemporary design industry.
To the first point, separating “Chinese Fashion,” or a prevailing look adopted by their masses, from Western influence to reveal what’s authentically Chinese is a difficult duty. As Paul Poiret was introducing Paris Couture to Eastern aesthetics between 1910 and 1920, the Chinese adopted western design tactics like darts, set-in sleeves, and shoulder pads that changed their two-dimensional cutting tradition to a three-dimensional silhouette. (Wu, 2009 B)
This became the base for more form-hugging fashions China adopted in the 1930s. During the Republic period, 1912-1949, male Western dress was also popularized as Lifu, or formal attire, to which structural elements seeped into traditional daywear. (Zhao, 2013) The Chinese contributed to the mix of Eastern and Western imagery as much as the West. By 1927 the Chinese named the qipao, a style of banner gown from the Quing dynasty, as their national costume . (Wu, 2009 C) However, this quipao was different from the old gown. It was made with materials and matching accessories influenced by Western fashion due to the trend towards dress assimilation. The new qipao symbolized “Westernized images of Chinese women in the twentieth century,” and is also portrayed in Western films. (Wu, 2009 D)
The way Western and Chinese styles have trended into fashion are markedly different, for Chinese fashion has never linearly trended at all. Where Western design details swing in a pendulum as they shift from the previous time to sit with the new, Chinese fashion change was always a product of political upheaval. (Zhao, 2013). Being these styles were either directly or indirectly politically forced, the Chinese never evolved them to their changing state. Rather, to change they had to shed them completely. (Zhao, 2013)
When The People’s Republic of China made a joint fashion possible under a new unity, the Mao’s rule simultaneously made Chinese Fashions stall until the late 1970s. The only modern interpretation of Chinese fashion was imagined by the West.
And the West imagined it by not imagining it at all.
The West adopted traditional Chinese aesthetics to satisfy a trend towards differentiation. Because just the aesthetics, never the intellect behind these styles were carried over, the West associated Chinese design with mystery, magic, and unknown. The West’s trend still swings towards wanting what’s different, so the desire is to amplify, not analyze and revise the associations tied to these aesthetics. If Westerners researched and revealed their real meaning, they would no longer be exotic, and no longer serve the need.
This is partially why China has remained an exporter, instead of inventor of styles, despite their desires to change. From the start China was always the Western fashion’s raw material (in both fabrics like silk and their traditional styles) of fashion play while the Chinese had no power to innovate.
Once the Mao’s control had ceased, and the Chinese could find their fashion, the only trend still swinging was the adoption of Western dress, which came to be associated in Chinese fashion with modernization. They fulfilled their need to modernize with Western styles.
And so In the 1980s and 90s, when China finally sought to become a fashion force, they faced a dilemma. It takes international acceptance of a place’s distinct style of dress to become a design center. Internationally, the West did not want to accept anything not appearing “traditional Chinese” as Chinese. Nationally, the Chinese were developing their own aesthetic that greatly differed from the traditional constructs. The West has yet to authenticate these elements as Chinese, but rather applaudes the designers that repeat traditional details simply to compete in the market. Chinese designer Hu Xiaodan debuted his “Moving Forbidden City,” inspired by traditional Chinese architecture in 1995. Although “domestic fashion critics and fellow designers faulted Hu’s collection for its irrelevance to contemporary fashion” his designs “were welcomed at many international exhibitions such as the Dusseldorf International Fashion Exhibition, where a Chinese national flag was raised for the first time.” (Wu, 2009 B) The Chinese media’s sentiment at the time was “the more national, the more international”. (Wu, 2009 B)
China still is, by majority, an exporter. They pump out thousands of qipao inspired tops, in deplorable conditions, which Westerners design to satisfy their own need to be “exotically” Chinese, though the designs don’t represent Chinese fashions.
Style comes from the Greek Word Stylus, meaning writing tool. As text takes both an appearance and meaning, fashion aesthetics also make a statement. When the fashion industry chooses to ignore the full issue of cultural appropriation on the basis it curbs creativity, they fail to consider they are curbing creativity of the culture they appropriate to be anything but costume.
*It should be noted that like many journalists, I have at times reduced clothing descriptions to “exotic” in order to textually express a style. This demonstrates why appropriation is such an important issue for the fashion industry; it has become a natural part of our descriptive language.
*For full disclosure, I’ve had the pleasure of studying under Juanjuan Wu, who is referenced in this post. To mitigate bias, only sources of peer-reviewed research are referenced,
Wu, Juanjuan. 2009. Fashion in Print. In Chinese Fashion: From Mao to Now. Retrieved 4 May. 2015, from http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com.ezp3.lib.umn.edu/view/CHFASHION/CHFASHION0005.xml
Wu, Juanjuan. (B) 2009. The Evolution of the Fashion Industry: Designers and Models. In Chinese Fashion: From Mao to Now. Retrieved 4 May. 2015, from http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com.ezp3.lib.umn.edu/view/CHFASHION/CHFASHION0008.xml
Wu, Juanjuan. (C) 2009. The Post-Mao Fashion Revival. In Chinese Fashion: From Mao to Now. Retrieved 22 Aug. 2012, from http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com.ezp1.lib.umn.edu/view/CHFASHION/CHFASHION0002.xml
Wu, Juanjuan. (D) 2009. Reinvented Identity: The Qipao and Tang-Style Jacket. In Chinese Fashion: From Mao to Now. Retrieved 22 Aug. 2012, from http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com.ezp1.lib.umn.edu/view/CHFASHION/CHFASHION0007.xml
Zhao, Jianhua (2013). What Do Changing Chinese Fashions Really Tell Us?. In The Chinese Fashion Industry. Retrieved 4 May. 2015, from http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com.ezp3.lib.umn.edu/view/Zhao/Zhao0005.xml