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Chinoiserie etc.

February 1, 2011

Style Bubble’s Susie Bubble writes about the Rodarte and Louis Vuitton Chinoiserie issue on her blog. I like her post and I agree with her. I do not think this collection was some play for Chinese consumers since one, those consumers in China who are wealthy enough to afford Louis Vuitton are already devotees of the brand and two, contemporary Chinese women do not necessarily want to dress like this collection. If playing towards Chinese consumers or presenting a Chinese image was the goal, the ad campaign would have Chinese models like the new Louis Vuitton men’s ads with Godfrey Gao. In his list of inspirations for the collection, Marc Jacobs did not mention China at all but instead said he took influence from Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and other Euro-American styles that very openly reconfigure and remake “Asian” motifs. Of course any time you play with supposedly ethnic motifs or stereotypes things get messy and complicated and I am glad that people are talking about this collection at length. I think similar debates should be had about the recent Givenchy couture collection which cast Korean, Chinese, and Japanese models in a collection that was based on a Japanese Butoh performer. While Tisci should be applauded for his nod to diversity, something seems off to me about regarding these models as if they are all ethnically and culturally the same (“Asian.”)

But what no one seems to be talking about regarding Louis Vuitton is that NONE of the styles or motifs within the LV collection are “traditional” (Imperial) Chinese styles at all. The qipao/cheongsam, as we know it, was invented in the Republican period (1911-1949) as the dress for the “new woman” in China. This period, the one I am currently researching, was the center of huge debates about what it meant to be Chinese, modern, a woman, etc. and the thoroughly 20th century qipao is a material symbol of these debates. Traditional (Han) Chinese women in the Ming Dynasty wore jackets, skirts, and pants while women in the Qing Dynasty (a Manchu dynasty, where Manchu clothing was enforced) wore long, loose robes that were called sometimes called a qipao but they bear very little resemblance to what we call a qipao today. So what people are seeing as traditionally Chinese is actually an image of Chineseness and Chinese femininity that was created in the early 20th century, one that was influenced by Western culture and a redefinition of traditional culture and national identity. The Republican period qipao was sleeker and tighter, showing off the body (reinforcing gender norms) and leading to debates about what a woman’s body should look like and what constituted a beautiful body, which is something that comes up a lot in my own research. If you want to read a great book about Chinese fashion history, I highly recommend Antonia Finnane’s Changing Clothes in China (here.) Finnane’s discussion of the qipao is much better than anything I can put on this blog about it.

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