Written by Tina Mai Chen and Paola Zamperini.
In June 2015, the runways for Moda Uomo in Italy celebrated China in more ways than anyone could have expected even in 2007, when Jean Paul Gaultier wove his dystopian haute couture gowns inspired by a delirious conflation of Japanese and Chinese motifs in his Spring collection for Christian Dior. On this occasion, fashion designers like Ji Wenbo and Zeng Fengfei travelled to Milan, and joined Carlo Capasa, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Italian Fashion (Camera Nazionale Moda Italiana), who met with his counterpart from mainland China, Li Dangqi, head of the China Fashion Association. With their usual contrarian attitude, Dolce and Gabbana snubbed Milan and Paris and held their show in Palermo, Sicily. But they certainly were not turning away from China: rather they went to Sicily to hold their show in the Palazzina Cinese (the Chinese Palace), a Baroque masterpiece of Chinoiserie to showcase their ‘Chinese’ turn as they flooded the catwalks with handsome male Chinese models.
These events should not surprise anyone. For over two decades, Vivienne Tam has seamlessly woven Asian inspiration, partners, and social issues into her fashion design. Moreover, since the turn of the 21st century, Chinese fashion designers have moved from looking longingly to the European capitals to establishing themselves as fashion revolutionaries who now have standing invitations to major fashion events all over the world. Perhaps even more importantly, fashion buyers from Hong Kong, the P.R.C., and Taiwan who converge on the Western fashion capitals for these occasions are quickly outnumbering those from Japan and even South Korea. Fashion, in other words, has not only discovered ‘China’ (whatever that means, a point to which we will return below); ‘China’ has discovered and in many ways taken over ‘Fashion’. But what does this mean for scholars, students, and critical thinkers following these trends? And what can we make of the surprising similarities between fashion trends involving China, and cycles of discovery of fashion in China within academia?
The publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1977 initiated decades of impassioned and critically astute scholarship that eschewed Eurocentric knowledge systems and interrogated the ways in which the Orient is seen and known. In 1997, the launching of Fashion Theory, under the editorship of Valerie Steele, pushed academic studies of fashion to be fully engaged in the critical investigations that animated cultural studies more generally. Fashion Theory integrated scholarly work on Asia, while exhibits curated by Steele and her publications including China Chic (1999) and Japan Fashion Now (2010) placed Asia firmly within an understanding of fashion as a site of production of embodied identities, power, and social relations. The rich possibilities of placing historical and contemporary bodies and clothing at the centre of inquiries into the meaning of Asia and gender generated considerable excitement in 1999 amongst a small group of emerging scholars, us included. With perhaps more ambition than experience, Peter Caroll and Tina Chen convinced Valerie Steele (Director and Chief Curator, Fashion Institute of Technology) and Patricia Mears (then Brooklyn Museum of Art, now Deputy Director for the Museum at FIT) to join them on a panel at the 1999 Association of Asian Studies, which was then followed by a workshop organized by Paola Zamperini at University of California-Berkeley, and a special issue we edited in 2003 of Positions: Asia critique entitled Fabrications.
This, we hoped, was the beginning of a more prominent place for fashion studies within Chinese studies in particular and East Asian studies in general. Drawing on Western canonical sources and a broad range of primary sources from our respective areas and periods of expertise and specialization in Asian Studies, we began a dialogue about clothing and fashion that moved from the propaganda images produced in the People’s Republic of China, to late imperial representations and practices, to feature films, to advertising and trade publications, to actual manufacturing of textiles. We examined multiple Chinas, through lenses at once sartorial and analytical, and in ways that made clear that these Chinas needed to be situated regionally and globally. Fabrications thus looked at East Asia and explicitly refuted interpretations of a monolithic, monochromatic ‘China’ that came into fashion only when recognized by EuroAmerican authorities, or when those fashions allowed discovery of what we already believed was there. Following in Valerie Steele’s steps, we wanted to tear open the fabrications of narratives that relegated Chinese clothing of interest to the imperial court, and fabric to the competence of museum curators and auction houses.
So where are we now? In the week leading up to the Moda Uomo shows and these important groundbreaking meetings, in one of Italy’s most respected universities, the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milano, Modacult, the Center for Fashion and Cultural Production, held an important international conference entitled ‘Fashion Tales: Feeding the Imaginary’ from 18 to 20 June 2015 targeting scholars from a variety of disciplines. One would have expected – especially in the year in which Milan is hosting the World Expo, with accompanying bias towards celebrating the rise of East Asian countries’ soft power from food to clothing – a recognition of the importance of thinking critically about that which is considered Chinese (or more generally non-Western). Strikingly, however, only four of more than one hundred and fifty scholars at the conference worked on China and its fashion system, and only a handful of scholars working on non-European fields. None of the fourteen keynote speakers and discussants discussed Asia, except tangentially as the site of sweatshops and unfair labour practices, and only one of them spoke about a non-European country.
Even more troubling, panels dedicated to non-Western fashion systems were relegated to the last day of the conference at 9AM, ensuring that only the panel presenters and few hyper dedicated scholars already committed to the study of non-Western fashion systems would find the energy to attend. The Europeanists did not attend; apparently not compelled to, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has advocated, provincialize Europe. In this recent conference, the global interactions – economic, cultural, and social – that make local fashion were placed on the margins rather than rendered constitutive of a larger intellectual project of theorizing fashion at the contemporary moment. Regardless of why and how this occurred at this specific conference, we need to think about how the fashion world and academic discussions of fashion create hierarchies of space through modes of inclusion, exclusion, sampling, accessorizing, discovery and reinvention. Fashion – and how we study it — is a creative system that can reproduce social orders or challenge normative frameworks. Is the marginalization of non-Western fashion at an academic conference an oversight due to a long history of Eurocentricism?; or can it be read as indicative of broader efforts globally to contain precisely those soft power initiatives that bring China more directly into the intimate spaces of the everyday lives of the fashion conscious global citizen?
When approached from within the field of Asian Studies, we may ask if discovery, reinvention, and sampling function differently when fashion and clothing become the material of scholarly analysis for those firmly focused on Asia? Thematic conferences, volumes, and panels at the Association of Asian Studies’ annual meetings have taken place regularly since 2000. Yet, despite work by scholars like Sean Metzger that examines how clothing and fashion unsettles categories of gender, nation, place, race, and ethnicity at key moments in US-China relations, the trend in fashion studies in the China field is to place analysis of fashion a priori within comfortable narratives of nation, gender, capitalist development, and global engagement. For example, references to the monochrome nature of everyday life under Mao Zedong abound, even though previous scholarship has challenged precisely this convention. Moreover, current scholarship on clothing and body within China seems reluctant to interrogate the body and its accouterments, even though scholars regularly cite the work of Tani Barlow, Sarah Dauncey, Gail Hershatter, Lisa Rofel, Angela Zito, and others. Perhaps this is because even as scholarship on a vast range of cultural aspects of pre-modern, modern, socialist and post-socialist China flourishes, there is little interest in pushing beyond sub-specializations and the scholarly equivalent of collection, display, and catalogue in ways that make sense according to the norms and expectations of peers. While we currently know much more about clothing and fashion in China as a scholarly community, whither immanent critique? Rather than present sources on clothing and fashion as discovery, celebration, or illustration, we still believe it is more productive to begin from a position that recognizes fashion in ‘China’ at various historical moments as a site of production of historical, theoretical, cultural knowledge – and, yes, theories and practices of fashion.
At the end of the 2015 Fashion Tales conference, Tim Lingdren, an Australian designer and cutting edge scholar of the 21st century P.R.C. fashion system, and one of the handful of scholars in attendance working on fashion in China, past and present, offered similar thoughts when he reflected that the only place it makes sense to host other future conferences on Chinese fashion is Shanghai. That is where the clothes are designed, made, worn, and where fashion studies beyond the Eurocentre are encouraged and promulgated. And what, if in doing so, the language of communication also changed, perhaps to Chinese? This provocative thought is a reminder that the language of discovery requires translation, based upon presumptions of legitimate audience and what can be understood. As sinologists in the Anglophone world interested in fashion, perhaps the translation of our work and ideas into English, rather than Chinese, has done us all a disservice. There is not one language, place, or body of fashion (nor even primary ones); and the work of locating China in Fashion Studies and fashion in China Studies requires that the centring and de-centring impulses of both be held in tension, rather than conflated. What this will look like – and how it will be clothed – is the question we ask ourselves and that we put forward to all of you.
Tina Mai Chen is Department Head of History, Faculty of Arts, University of Manitoba. Paola Zamperini is the founding chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at Northwestern University. Image Credit: CC by Max Talbot-Minkin/Flickr.