On the Other Side of the Glass: Chinese Fashion and the Western Gaze
A shot from "China Through the Looking Glass" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
For the past year I've been really engaged with fashion and China - I wrote my senior thesis as a sort of cultural defense of luxury consumption; my last semester I mentored under my favorite professor with an independent study that gave a historical analysis to the native industry. And so if it feels a little late to be writing about an exhibit that opened at month ago at the Met it doesn't feel quite that late for me. Like I still kind of want to/need to make a comment on this before we can all move on?
Why would it be a surprise that Rihanna wore a dress by a Chinese designer to an event celebrating the opening of an event celebrating the opening of an exhibit on Chinese design? The exhibit is a great one even if it admits fully that it's distinctly Western; the entire purpose is to showcase Chinese influence on Western design and it does so in a way that acknowledges orientalist exotification while suggesting a certain degree of cultural exchange and flexibility; no one is pardoned, nor is anyone victimized. But it's interesting to me that this is still where we are, that The Real Fashion Industry remains based in Paris or New York or Milan; that friends still react with surprise when you tell them you're writing a paper about Chinese design: because Paris designs, China produces - and, increasingly, consumes. What the media saw as the maturation of a nascent industry in fact signaled Western recognition of a phenomenon that has existed for centuries: Chinese dress by Chinese designers.
It would be misleading to suggest that China has always had globally popular fashion designers, or that modern fashion design as we consider it has always existed there. The fashion industry as defined by the powers that be is young and growing. But then there is the question of dress itself. It is equally misleading to interpret modern Chinese dress as a mere pastiche of Western dress, and it also smacks of reductionism, demanding that Chinese design be “authentic” and pure of foreign influence – particularly so at the opening of an exhibit celebrating the influence of Chinese design on the West.
Like the design – and for that matter, dress itself - of every other country, modern Chinese dress is a mélange of social and cultural influences stemming from its own history, Korea, Japan, and yes, “The West.” Chinese dress is nothing if not distinctly Chinese, in that its standards, norms, and dress is unique and particular in a way that often goes unrecognized by the eyes of the Western fashion world. The problem of industry development is a matter of cultivation and support – but the search for a distinct Chinese aesthetic is merely a question of recognition.
Ultimately, the problem of fashion in China is one of branding. As Antonia Finnane argues in her 2008 book Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation, China’s role in the fashion industry at large has long been tarnished by Western orientalism and exotification. Western texts and narratives going back to initial contact with China would suggest that there was no fashion in China, that there was a lack of the periodic changes in costume and accompanying social meaning – a myth we can now bebunk as patently false. But the prevalence of the myth allowed Western designers to reduce Chinese design to a series of recognizable and obvious symbols: red, dragons, gold. As a result, Chinese design became more cliché than nuance.
More currently, China suffers under the weight of its role as producer of the world’s fashion. The reasons for China’s rise to the top of garment production are simple and clear: the Four Modernizations created an explicit, government-sponsored support of the textile export industry as a key part of the growth plan. As the government of the country supported and invested in manufacturing and economic growth, Western companies were drawn to the market by low cost of labor.
For reasons both financial and social, garments intended for sale in China became simply re-labeled copies of patterns from manufacturers, ultimately saddling China with a reputation as a fast-fashion producer, and little else: “China, by definition, is fast fashion’ […] Since fast fashion is cheap, imitative, and utterly disposable, it cannot but pose an obstacle to the receipt of Chinese designs,” (Finnane). Its citizens, too, were then seen as simply wearing what was created for them by the West. The country also lacks a social history of intellectual property laws, leading to rampant counterfeiting of luxury goods. In matters of both design and dress, China became saddled by a reputation for copying – perhaps, on some levels, a deserved one.
Nowhere is this reputation more infamous than in the luxury industry. If China’s role in the fashion world at large has historically been that of producer, in the past decade it has gained a new infamy – consumer. China has risen to become the single largest consumer of luxury products in the world, a feat owed to an unprecedented boom in Gross Domestic Product coupled with an ever-widening income gap. In the eyes of luxury brands, China shifted as if overnight from a third-world economy to a country with incredible purchasing power – that is, for a lucky few. Luxury brands have taken note and invested in the country with abandon, opening grand behemoths of flagship stores that offer complete luxury lifestyle experiences.
A discussion of luxury consumption in China is interesting from a financial growth standpoint but also from a standpoint of dress – it is here that Chinese consumers are find themselves both desired and criticized, lauded for their contribution to the global economy but chided for a devotion to brand names and conspicuous consumption. In her 2007 book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster, Dana Thomas details the growth of luxury brands in China, quoting industry leaders who criticized the buying habits of Chinese consumers: “Most Chinese buy luxury as a status symbol rather than taste. They like logos. They want people to know they are carrying something expensive,” says one, another: “These people are rich economically but lacking in basic manners, and they are not very fond of their own reputation,” (Thomas).
All of this discourse – China as producer, China as luxury copycat, China as new to the world of design – has some degree of truth to it. But there’s something crucial missing- the distinctly Chinese spin on all of this. Viewed through a Western lens, it’s easy to see a sort of conflation of modernity and Westernization, of luxury goods and the wealthy nations that China has only somewhat recently found itself in direct competition with. This view underlies a misunderstanding of Chinese history and perspectives, which paint something of a different picture.
Take luxury, for example – the label driven patterns of consumption that are so criticized by condescending Western industry leaders are hardly a symptom of conspicuous consumption as it is traditionally understood. New social imbalances caused by capitalism have created a demand for identity in a country with a long history of relational values and strict importance on appearance and rank. Luxury goods are a new tool by which to participate in traditional cultural expectations and behaviors.
Likewise, day-to-day clothing has an international flavor that suggests a certain cosmopolitanism far more sophisticated than that granted by Western fashion media. Finnane suggests that in the post-reformation era, China has found itself somewhat sartorially lost, struggling to establish clothing norms that were culturally distinct, historically informed, and fit within a modern capitalist world. Finnane’s extensive study as well as an analysis of modern fashion blogs suggests that Chinese fashion has always been distinct in terms of its interpretations of international trends, while also seeking to participate and establish itself in international fashion norms. Clothing became an outward social symbol and expression of a new modernity in reform-era China.
Nor has the international component of Chinese dress been simply Western. Indeed, Finnane argues that China has been informed far more by other Asian countries than Western ones. Both South Korea and Japan have played enormous roles in Chinese fashion, most particularly through film and music, which have been hugely popular since the reformation and inspired large-scale trends. Japan in particular has also provided a model for couture and high-fashion design, having successfully nurtured and developed a distinct aesthetic that competes skillfully with Paris while remaining culturally loyal.
It is not a lack of “fashion” in China that has historically impeded the rise of a Chinese designers but rather the lack of an agreed upon cultural aesthetic. In her essay China on the Catwalk, Antonia Finnane again comes to battle on the side of Chinese fashion. She claims that the China is new to competing in the global fashion industry as established by Paris, Milan, and New York due to its economic and historical baggage. But there was also the problem of choosing a distinct aesthetic – of deciding what Chinese design was outside of the cliché cultural symbols co-opted by the West. China had to find an interpretation of its culture and its history from which to draw aesthetic inspiration, a task all-together muddled by a history of foreign influences in its garment industry.
In many ways, though, we can see that China has and has always had a distinct cultural and historical aesthetic – it is not necessary, then, to reach back into history to find some distinct “authentic” Chinese narrative or imagery from which to draw. The story of fashion in China is entirely unique to global history – from third world country to manufacturing juggernaut to the single largest luxury consumer in the world. If Chinese dress is informed by international ideas and aesthetics, they are reinterpreted in a distinctly Chinese way. Indeed, in many respects the act of being internationally influenced itself is a distinct part of Chinese history. Chinese designers needn’t look for a distinctly Chinese aesthetic, they must merely create.
And then, having said all of that, I don't know. Maybe we're in a post-modern era where none of this is really a question. At the end of the day when everyone is in jeans anyways, it can feel futile to discuss the search for a distinct aesthetic based on arbitrary national boundaries. Yet in a world in which the mainstream fashion media is still shocked and delighted to hear that a celebrity is wearing a Chinese designer to an event celebrating China, it still feels important to question the Western hegemony on the fashion industry. If the Western brands are allowed to be informed by Chinese designs to an extent that an exhibit at the Met can be created to highlight them; then China, too, can be informed and influenced by international design. Fashion in China is not new – it's been on the backs of its citizens since time immemorial.