Orientalism (part 2)

Also influential were exhibitions and expositions geared specifically to exhibit products of France’s colonies. One of the first was a major exhibition of Moroccan art installed at the Pavillion de Marsan in March, 1917. The exhibition also forecasted far larger things to come: the Exposition Coloniales, held in Marseilles in 1922 and in Paris nine years later. These shows not only generated public interest in non-Western cultures, but also projected France’s commitment to imperialism. According to art historian Kenneth Silver in his publication Esprit de Corps, the exposition of 1922 expressed a “less than covert sense of racism.” The French were still recovering from the devastating effects of World War I as late as 1925, and there is little doubt that these exhibitions and expositions allowed them to publicly display not only their high position in the modern world, but also their dominance over a vast array of Third World cultures.

Many of the centuries most noted couturiers in France were readily absorbing the influences of the Colonial Expositions of 1922 and 1931. It was the first time that many had direct access to art from such remote countries. This exposure to ethnic dress gave them a far more profound understanding of non-Western dress, primarily objects from Asia. This understanding would enable a few enlightened couturiers to create both new fashion silhouettes as well as imbue their designs with a fundamentally different construction that emphasized the textile rather than complex tailoring.

Marcel Rochas, for example, was directly inspired by dance costumes from the Balinese court, as seen in his broad-shouldered garments of the season immediately following the 1931 Exposition. His “robe Bali,” a black silk dress with a broad and square collar trimmed in white pique, is interesting in that it follows the silhouette of a non-Western garment but uses typical European colors and fabrics. Madame Alix Gres also created her version of a Balinese costume in 1937. Jacques Heim designed a sarong-style bathing suit inspired by the Tahitian exhibits in the 1931 Exposition. These sarong suits, in a radical departure from contemporary bathing-suit construction, were made not of knitted wool but with draped woven cotton. Harper’s Bazaar made mention of these sarongs and his pareos from later collections. By the mid-1930s, Hollywood costumer Edith Head designed a version of the sarong for actress Dorothy Lamour in a series of comedic films starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. As noted earlier, all these designers’ ethnic-inspired work of this period was not based on non-Western construction techniques, but rather their inspirations came from overall cultural impressions.

The output of “ethnic” garments by fashion designers was to drop off significantly during the 1940s and 1950s as the influence of exotic cultures on fashion had already begun to diminish around 1934. Inspired by the play “The Barrets of Wimpole Street” and the Hollywood film version, couturiers like Madeleine Vionnet, to cite but one of many examples, began to create modern versions of nineteenth-century Western dress. This trend dominated fashion from the late 1930s through the 1950s. The revival of historical styles offered an escape from the pressures of the Great Depression of the 1930s and helped assert the growing sense of nationalism in Europe at that time. Also a factor in the United States was strong anti-Japanese sentiment during and after World War II.

Fashion periodicals of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s seem to indicate only a minimal interest in foreign dress for most designers, as compared with earlier decades. However, a strong revival of ethnic influences arose during the mid-1960s, as the fashion world responded to the purposeful rejection of standard, massproduced fashion by young people. The young people known as “hippies” ushered in a style noted for its freeform mix of fashion elements from around the world, particularly the Middle East, India, and Native American cultures. Coupled with this renewed interest in non- Western cultures was the emergence of Asian designers. For the first time, Japanese creators like Hanae Mori not only made fashion, they began to influence the work of western designers.

After World War II, other Asian garments began to find their way into the fashion mainstream. One example is the quintessential twentieth-century Chinese dress—the qipao or cheongsam. This figure-revealing garment worn by a range of urban Chinese women since the mid-1920s has become known in the Western world as the “Suzie Wong” dress, deriving its nickname from the infamous, fictional prostitute in Richard Mason’s novel, The World of Suzie Wong, published in 1959. Born in the tumultuous years of early Republic China, the qipao (meaning “banner gown” in Mandarin) or cheongsam (meaning “long dress” in Cantonese) is a true fashion hybrid that fused the elements of traditional Qing Dynasty court dress, Han Chinese costume, and the modern European silhouette. Despite its respectable status in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the qipao came to represent in the Occidental mind a two-pronged, stereotypical view of Asian women—subservient, obedient, traditional, on the one hand, and exotic, sexual, even menacing, on the other. Films such as Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (1955) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960) are tales filled with textual excess whose narratives featuring Asian- Caucasian sexual liaisons use the qipao to uphold and sometimes subvert culturally accepted notions of race.

Perhaps it is those provocative elements of the qipao that have made contemporary reinterpretations of it so prevalent in the early twenty-first century. European or American designers, along with Chinese transplants like the New York–based Hong Kong native Vivienne Tam, have been creating their popular versions of Chinese-inspired fashions since the late 1990s. Examples range from the lavishly embroidered Neo-Chinoiserie gowns by John Galliano for Dior, Miuccia Prada’s minimalist remake of the Mao jacket, and the body-revealing corseted mini qipaos by Roberto Cavalli. It is clear that the continued fascination with Orientalism continues into the twenty-first century.

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