Orientalism (part 1)

The Orient has been a source of inspiration for fashion designers since the seventeenth century, when goods of India, China, and Turkey were first widely seen in Western Europe. While the use of the term “Orientalism” has changed over time, it generally refers to the appropriation by western designers of exotic stylistic conventions from diverse cultures spanning the Asian continent.

Though luxury goods have been filtering into Europe from countries like China since ancient times, it was not until the great age of exploration that a wider array of merchandise from cultures throughout Asia found their way to the west. For example, the importation of Chinese ceramics exploded in the seventeenth century. Not only did these wares remain popular for centuries, they also inspired the creation of stellar ceramic companies like Sevres in France and Meissen in Germany. Even plants, like the legendary flower from Turkey that led to the “tulipmania” craze in Holland and the brewed leaf that became the status drink of the well-to-do and evolved into the ritualized “high tea,” fueled the love of all things from Asia.

It was in the realm of fashion that the impact of “Orientalism” could also be profoundly felt. Platform shoes from central Asia led to the creation of the Venetian chopine in the sixteenth century. Textiles from all over Asia, primarily China, India, and Turkey, inspired the creation of fashions like the robe a la turquerie in the eighteenth century. This was a more extraordinary phenomenon since the fear of Turkish Islamic invaders was a constant and imminent threat. Coupled with the threat of an invasion was a diametrically opposed view: the romantic notion of a far-distant land, such as Cathay (or China), filled with genteel philosophers and lovers of art. This idealized impression of China would continue until the rise of the industrial revolution and European colonialism in the early nineteenth century. The gritty reality of ever-increasing business transactions between East and West, as well as the ever-encroaching military dominance by European powers in Asia was firmly cemented by the middle 1800s.

As Queen Victoria ascended the throne of England 1837, then the most powerful empire in the world, she oversaw an eclectic art style that would come to dominate the remainder of the nineteenth century. The Victorian era brought together many historical European styles of the past, Gothic and Rococo for example, which were sometimes surprisingly combined with elements from cultures like Japan. The end result of one amalgamation, Gothic and Japanese, led to the creation of the Aesthetic Movement. Fashion gowns reflected this blend: smocked robes like medieval chemises were embroidered with asymmetrically placed floral motifs of chrysanthemums, two distinctly Japanese design elements.

The influence of Orientalism on fashion could be seen in many other ways, both frivolous and profound. For example, the fad for harem pants from Turkey appeared in the form of fancy dress costume at balls, just as the Zouave costume of North Africa found its way into the wardrobes of some Southern soldiers fighting in the American Civil War and the closets of European ladies. On the other hand, items of dress from Asia would become essential for women through the mid-nineteenth century. Kashmiri shawls, originally woven in India then exported to the west in the late eighteenth century, became a ubiquitous part of the neoclassical costume. The shawl was often paired with a white columnar dress made of diaphanous, finely woven Indian cotton. Its popularity inspired many weaving companies in Europe to create their version of this essential nineteenth-century wrap, later known as the paisley shawl.

The Orientalism trend reached an apex in the early twentieth century, and the sources for this mania for “all things oriental” ranged from nostalgia for the legends of Persia and Arabia, as popularized by “A Thousand and One Nights,” to the Paris debut of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1909. This burst of Orient-inspired creativity in the realm of fashion also had lesser-known sources, including the avant-garde art movement Fauvism and Japanese kimonos made expressly for the western market.

French couturiers, such as Paul Poiret and Jeanne Paquin, were inspired by the Ballet Russes’ performances of “Cleopatre,” “Scheherazade,” and “Le Dieu Bleu.” This Russian dance company took Paris by storm with their revolutionary choreography, music, and costume and set designs by the Russian artist Leon Bakst (1866–1924). In addition to these fantastic costume shapes and opulent decorative elements, couturiers incorporated the vibrant color palette of Fauve artists such as Henri Matisse. Not only did designers create garments with Orientalist influences, so did the modistes: turbans topped with aigrette or ostrich plumes and secured with jeweled ornaments were paired with either neoclassic columnar gowns or fantastical lampshade tunics.

Clothing created more in the realm of craft by artists such as Mariano Fortuny and Monica Monaci Gallenga also fused historical European and Asian styles into cohesive aesthetic statements. Using silk velvet as a base, both Fortuny and Gallenga precisely incorporated textile patterns from East Asia and the Islamic world for their creations. The importance of craft also fueled the European and American fad for batik cloth. Both the technique for making resist-dyed fabrics like batik and the motifs perfected in cultures like Indonesia were created by artisans on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in the 1920s.

Marie Callot Gerber (1895–1937), the venerable head of the leading couture house Callot Soeurs, was another innovator who readily embraced Orientalism. She was inspired by the kimono and created some of the earliest versions of harem pants. From 1910 to the outbreak of World War I, acclaimed beauty and woman of style, Rita de Acosta Lydig, worked with Gerber to create versions of Oriental costumes that were composed of vests made from seventeenth-century needle lace that topped trousers or one-pieced garments that were full and loose over the lower part of the torso before tapering over the calves. Often called the tango dress, after the dance craze imported from Argentina, this style was popularized by couturiers like Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon, 1863–1935) and by fashion illustrators. The house of Callot would go on to lead the 1920s trend for embellishing the columnar dresses of the era with rich embroideries that readily copied Persian and Chinese design elements.

Orientalism (part 2)

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