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Post-Colonial definition of Chinoiserie

Defining Post-Colonialism in modern fashion industry

With the acceleration of market globalization and the growing influence of social media, the acceptance of cultural diversity has gradually become the leading factor in the developmental strategy of the fashion industry. According to the report of The State of Fashion 2020, “Over the past 10 years, China accounted for 38 percent of global fashion industry growth across segments. Since 2012 it has been responsible for an impressive 70 percent of expansion in the luxury segment, and we expect this dominance to continue out to 2025.”[1] As the importance of the Chinese market has grown, luxury brands’ outreach strategies have undergone a transformation. Special Chinese editions and commercials are becoming the must-have promotional leverages. Dolce&Gabbana’s 2018 Chinese New Year commercial is a prime example of this. This brand posted three video clips on their social media cans with a Chinese female model was struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks, which sparked global fury with accusations of racism and cultural ignorance. Then the terrible Instagram PR response from one of the founders, Stefano Gabbana, exacerbated the outrage, eventually leading to the cancellation of the new collection show in Shanghai, and the termination of the brand’s sales cooperation on all Chinese e-commerce platforms. Here we are, two years later, this famed Western fashion brand has fallen into disuse from the Chinese market. This is an emblematic case of Western prejudice that led to disastrous consequences for the brand’s image.

“If colonialism was driven by a desire to accumulate the resources of other nations for the wealth and benefit of a few central sites of power, then it is fair to say that the world no longer has “colonies” in the historic sense of the world.” [2] If human or natural resources were the goals of the earlier colonization, it may now have entered an invisible later stage: it is a spiritual penetration from globalization, and a hegemonic behavior that suffocates the inherent cultural thinking. Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai explored the complexity of today’s globalization in his Essay “Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy.” He delved into the pluralism of globalization from five different perspectives, including ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finanscapes, ideoscapes.[3] All countries nowadays are more closely intertwined in this multi- dimensional environment.

东西 is Chinese ideogram for “East and West”, which can also be interpreted as the character of “Thing”. In this high globalized-concentration of society, the cultural hybrid or hybrid identities appear frequently at academic conversation. In retrospect, is this just a “thing” originated from the tide of times?

Why does the Cultural Post-Colonialism Happen?

For this topic, it is necessary to mention the 2015 Met Gala theme of “China through the looking glass.” The curator Andrew Bolton took this exhibition opportunity to both celebrate the centennial of the Met’s Asian art department, and reflect on Orientalism in the Western fashion history.
By juxtaposing the Chinese traditional handicrafts and Western garments, in this show, audiences can immerse themselves in how Western designers excavated Chinese elements to convert them into a complex artistic language of communication and miscommunication.

Essentially, the word “Chinoiserie” does not represent the traditional Chinese style, but an an imagined Chinese style that purely satisfies the aesthetic taste of the Western people. In his article, “Chinoiserie,” Ralph Edwards discusses the origins of the prevailing Chinese vogue in Europe. He points out that the revival of Chinese aesthetics in the mid- eighteenth century can be considered as a manifestation of rebellion against the long-established Western tradition of art and literature. In Edwards’s words, “an attempt, feeble perhaps and misguided, of the romantic spirit to blossom in aneroid and unsympathetic soil.”[4] This style is also a way for Westerners to use non-White cultural elements to satisfy an illusion of Orientalism and a yearning for ancient civilization. How ironic that until now, most Chinese citizens had no awareness of this manifestation or even of the racist clichés of cultural profanity. Instead, they drift into a sense of virtual superiority about their traditional artistic treasures being designed by the West. In addition to the exaggerated dialogue and rhetoric on social media, the stereotype of the “Oriental element” in Eurocentric culture is reversely injected into the thinking mode of Chinese people. From inside and out, as a country with a large population base, China’s self- cultural recognition has been stricken by the global spread of these stereotypes, and the Chinese people have internalized this racism.

“What is the modern cultural element in China?” one of the curators of this exhibition, Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai pointed out in an interview. He said: “ It is laborious to found the pop elements to present the contemporary Chinese culture. So what you see in this exhibition is the ubiquitous cultural symbols from ancient times, such as blue and white porcelain, calligraphy, silk.” This dialog reflects that Chinese popular culture, in the new century of globalization, is missing.

To excavate the root of this multi-dimensional situation, it is biased if we simply accuse the “Cultural Bullying” from the West. Accordingly, in the following article, I will deconstruct the reasons behind the post-colonial stereotype phenomenon in fashion industry from both Eastern and Western historical perspectives, and its impact on contemporary fashion territory. Besides, with the combination of the current creation from Chinese fashion workers, I will also explore the possibility of the Chinese domestic design power for shaking off the cultural banality.

The domestic factors

- Economic Factor

The rationing system implemented by the Chinese government since the 1960s has resulted in a scarcity of materials for people to embellish their daily dressing. In the 60s and 70s, many families had to exchange ration stamps
to obtain fabric, and most of the garments were made by themselves or in small individual workshops. The fabric market didn’t officially emerge until the economic reforms in the 1980s. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, Chinese actualization, in that particular period, had yet to manifest from basic safety and physiological needs. “In this environment of scarcity, especially in rural areas, people would often make or purchase new clothes only when their existing garments were beyond repair.” [5] Even though some youth want to pursue fashion or develop their exclusive stylish persona, in reality, the feasibility of this dream is low. “Fabric shortages and the rationing system still made fashion a luxury for many people.” [6] Thus, on a global scale, these limitations have consolidated people’s perception of the backward fashion image of China.

Until the mid-1980s, the largest share of China’s clothing market was owned by state-owned factories. State- owned products represented the quality assurance. “More sophisticated consumers sought brand names that were either imported or produced and labeled by state-owned factories. These labels gave no indication of the designer, either.” Forty years ago, the concept of fashion design in China is vague, which also led to the behindhand establishment of fashion-aware. All of these eventually materialized the weak-voice of Chinese fashion on the international stage from then to present.

- Educational Factor

Thousands of fashion students graduate in China every year. You can see different kinds of eye-catching creations are densely packed in the graduation exhibition hall. Nevertheless, it is a pity that the ultimate goal of these young designer-wannabes is a strong visual effect with a reckless deconstruction of the shape between fabric and the human body. “The human being, in the eyes of these designers, tends to be a prop for the expression of the garments.” [7] The Chinese fashion design educational system is over-conceptualized, and lacks the cultivation for students either the building process of the product line and the business knowledge of establishing a personal brand. As a result, many young designers more center on whimsical exaggerations, and cannot release them into the market, let alone be a new dominant force in global fashion.

- Psychological Factor

As a country with thousands of years of history, the traditional moral consciousness has curbed many youth’s enthusiasm to show their vogue audaciously. Young people’s aesthetic is often regarded as a bizarre style by their parents. The fashion comment from parents is a common topic in Chinese Social media, for instance, wearing overalls will be referred to as construction workers, having tattoos or ear piercings can be considered the gangsters or social misfits, and dressing outfits with large proportion of color will be deemed as circus performers, etc. Chinese parents rarely encourage their child to take risks, to rebel. Until now, from primary schools to high schools, many of them still have appearance standards, such as requiring girls to keep their hair short to enter the school gate. Accompanying the well-known and sharp “monitoring” from parents and the educational system, it would be an impossible mission that to born the next Leigh Bowery in China.

Meanwhile, China is a country with over fifty ethnic groups that have their own distinctive cultures and dress. “In China, the Han are comparable to Whites in the USA, the dominant ethnic group representing approximately 92 per- cent of China’s population.” [8] However, the Han, has no representative and traditional clothing of its own. When dressing up with Hanbok and Kimono (Korean and Japanese traditional costume) has become a must-be experienced hot item during traveling, the Chinese representative costume seems invisible. Since this giant place is a multi-ethnic country, forming a unified traditional costume to represent China is intractable.

Despite the booming economic development in China and luxury brands have been becoming affordable items for more and more people, to deep down, Chinese fashion brands are still shunned by domestic customers because they believe that wearing these designs will not make them look more “glamorous”. Same as logo-mania, in general, customers would rather spend money on the value of the brand’s name than the garment itself. As Juanjuan Wu posited in her article “Chinese Fashion, From Mao to Now” that, “What to wear? China, without its own recent history of fashion, looked outside its borders for inspiration. To be fashionable meant to wear foreign styles, not to step backwards into the China of the 1930s.” [9] China so far has not had a strong fashion voice, so, naturally, the domestic customers distrust the embryonic Chinese fashion brands. People will more open to purchasing the Western fashion brands that dominating the world, albeit the Chinese fashion brands providing the same level of material, with novel design structure, and parallel price range. Unfortunately, this internalized cultural inferiority and self-deprecation are gradually damaging the influence of Chinese culture as well.

The external factors

In the underdeveloped period of the cultural exchange between West and East, the Asian image on the movie screen has become the most straightforward window for the Western designers to borrow Oriental elements. The fear of Asian immigrants stoke by perceived threats to employment opportunities for white workers in the early 1900s, coupled with immigration laws, has inherited all the injustice and prejudice into the rule-making process of the film industry. In Hollywood, for example, the narrowness of the Eastern female role that can be written in the scripts had been coined by the same skin color principle for casting the lead actors and actresses. Asian women, on the screen, are continuously powerless to escape the amorous images of spies, waiters, prostitutes or playing a role in a transient foreign love story during the wartime. “Hollywood’s romance with Asia tends to be a flirtation with the exotic, rather than an attempt at any genuine intercultural understanding.” [10] This superficial Eastern symbolism has been transitioning in the fashion trends. From the 80s, through the prevalence of pop culture, such as TV shows and movies, these mistaken prejudices were perpetuated into the Chinese aesthetic oppositely.

How to break through the Post-Colonial Barrier

Behind the shadow of post-colonialism, the international luxury brands ceaselessly use resembling and crude ways to enter what they view as exotic markets with the reason of making profits. When the fashion industry “invades” uncharted territory, only having a templated marketing plan or a reckless cultural fusion is problematic. Nowadays, mutual respect for disability, body shape, and gender is becoming the mainstream value. However, when it comes to the cultural level, the tag or the stereotype of China should also not remain unchanged. As a Chinese designer, I can’t help but wondering whether only the color red and the zodiac are the most representative of “Chinese characteristics”? Is “opening the Chinese market” a new type of colonization, and how do fashion workers in China avoid and break this phenomenon?

Modern Chinese Nostalgia

Domestic fashion workers are gradually honing a new inimitable cultural identity to export the modern transformation of Chinese culture. I want to introduce Leslie Zhang, a hot new-star in the Chinese photography industry. i-D magazine describes him as “Blending east and west, the image-maker is a new talent defining Chinese fashion photography.”[11] In his work, you can absorb the sense of serenity from the old days. It’s the unexpected
but evident Chinese style, and a style from China’s post-90s generation that extracts the inspiration from his upbringing environment. In the 1990s, China’s high-speed development built a bridge between different countries through the path of trade, which also brought about an epiphenomenal influence on the cultural landscape at that time. Communism and capitalism, vintage and avant-garde, renaissance and post-modern, these intermixtures are the borderless vehicles, which imbues with Leslie’s aesthetic in each tiny piece of daily life. In his work, you can see all kinds of habitual and typical Chinese symbols like dragons or lanterns, which are scattered in every detail of the composition, but the overall impression he deliversed is both unique and antique. The models in his photos are often expressionless or unenthusiastic, looking eerie, aloof and distant. He did not use his works to outline the good memories of an era, but through nostalgia to convey the contemporary emptiness and loneliness. “What I can do is not to cater to foreign expectations of what China looks like, and to take pictures of what I have experienced and felt.”[12] Scrolling through Leslie’s creations, the viewers can incessantly perceive his intrinsic confidence in his cultural background as a Chinese creator.

The beauty of traditional and pop

Beauty Special is a cosmetic collection of Chinese Marie Claire magazine in September 2018, which is also a controversial photographic creation of Leslie. This collection invited a famous Chinese idol group, Rocket Girls 101, respectively representing the Chinese female makeup style from the 1920s to present, which unfolds a fashion aesthetic changing scroll.

Tracing to old photos of Chinese female celebrities as the source, everyone can touch the references of the pose, makeup and the angle of composition in this collection. With the combination of the latest garments and pieces of jewelry, it was shaping a new nostalgic style that full of the peculiar characteristics from Leslie and China. However, in the early issuing days, this adventurous attempt sparked a heated debate on social media, based on comments from the numerous fans of these idol girls and we-medias. The debate centered on beauty, the fashion expression of the idols, their age and identity, in which various adjectives are used to describe this collection that exploring the “beauty of China”. Surprisingly, “dated” is the most common word of it. What is the definition of beauty in contemporary Chinese youth consciousness? Perhaps, in the era of online globalization, the idols can only follow the established fantasy in fans’ minds, and the “appropriate” female celebrity’s image that the adolescent fans want to see, such as K-Pop Wave, Japan Craze, delicate makeup, slim, big-eyed doll, etc. As designers try to unearth more hidden Chinese expressions, sadly, they are bound by the pre-existing stereotype of fans. Traditional Chinese beauty is being bleached by popularization. Did modernization mean exoticism? The answer seemed to be yes. “It seemed that five thousand years of splendid sartorial culture got lost somewhere on the road to modernization.” [13] In the end, the authentic Chinese beauty gradually dissipates into the fog, and this aesthetic deviation is engraved with deeper scratches in the indigenous ideology.

In the new era, with the Internet developing beyond all our recognition, this post-colonial barrier is weaving a more intricate structure where the internal and external factors twining each other, which requires effort from both sides to thoroughly make a breakthrough instead of scratching the surface. China’s fashion industry must express more diversity to build consumer confidence, with the attitude of heritage to influence modern fashion.

How we future

In the cover page of Vogue China magazine in October 2019, photographer Man Chen created a tribute to an Italian Vogue classic illustration cover a century ago, as well as celebrated with a fashion gift to China’s National Day on October 1. The model Xiaowen Ju was acting the Chinese girl that pursues a dream bravely, with the red Dior dress sitting on a crescent moon. This is a wonderful collision between Chinese traditional aesthetic elements and contemporary western art. This group of works successfully integrated the typical Chinese symbols, red and poetic illusion into the Western aesthetic, allowed for a coexistence of mutual echoes. That Chinese traditional aesthetic components and contemporary Western art can be a wonderful collision is a clear signal.

When the COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping globally, when the virus is being contextualized in political rhetoric, the fashion industry is not immune to this current crisis. At this moment, the market is facing a savage blow accompanying the intangible anxiety and pessimism, which triggers my self- doubt that, is the fashion world reaching to the last-day? Is it necessary to explore the cultural contradiction between China and the West now?

But why do we not try to perceive this crisis as a catalyst? Crisis is the perfect opportunity to shatter the banal perception and stereotype for opening up a novel realm. Right now, we’ve seen a lot of brands and magazines save themselves by conducting live-streaming fashion shows, drawing illustration to show the latest collection and inviting models to take in-home fashion selfies, which can be successfully achieved is due to the development of online streaming media, a newborn fashion system in unforeseen dimension.

During Shanghai fashion week in 2020, Louis Vuitton’s China Marketing Department invited a famous movie stars to present their latest products in the format of live- stream. However, the audiences can not trace the brand’s characteristics through diving in the atmosphere they transmitted. The luxurious specialty is washed away by their grungy background setting. Even some comments on social media were saying that: are these the shoddy wholesale products or knock-offs from Alibaba(Taobao)? Yet, SHUSHU/ TONG, a young Chinese fashion brand tried to unveil the enchanting vintage office girls’ image on a live-stream show with limited time and space, and offered the boundless room for consumers to read the story behind the collection through a tiny phone-screen.

Live-streaming, the hottest form of telework now, to such a degree, is a massive test for designers and brands who had been relying on in-person fashion shows for a long time. Having a leg up on powerful e-commerce platform and online media in China, the infantile Chinese fashion designers have greatly improved their ability to deal with improvising issues in this dependable incubator.

Chinese designers are tackling the challenge optimistically and making a breakthrough on the bamboo ceiling in an unobtrusive way. Perhaps, modish Chinese elements are slowly materializing in an intangible shape. As a mirror that reflects the progressing history and social issue, fashion is manifesting an unimaginable future now. When the fashion industry is being gradually democratized with the development of science and technology, when fashion is being more approachable to everyone. Can China stand firmly in this drastic and momentous time and seize the reforming opportunity?

From where I am standing, being a creator, I couldn’t provide a solid answer. Nonetheless, I trust the future. Instead of sitting on your hands, how about trying to have a better grasp of what’s going on right now, and trying to wipe away all kinds of obsolete prejudices in your mind.

We are one. The crisis will pass and hope will return.


BOF Team and Mckinsey Company. “State of Fashion 2020.” The Business of Fashion, January 2, 2020 the-year-ahead-its-time-to-look-beyond-china

Segran, Elizabeth. “Why does luxury fashion hate Chinese consumers?” Fast Company, December 3, 2018 fashion-hate-chinese-consumers

Cotter, Holland. “Review: In ‘China: Through the Looking Glass,’ Eastern Culture Meets Western Fashion.” New York Times, May 7, 2015 in-china-through-the-looking-glass-eastern-culture-meets- western-fashion.html?_r=0

Edwards, Ralph.”Chinoiserie,” Country Life (Archive : 1901–2005); London Vol. 79, Iss. 2034, (Jan 11, 1936), page: 46–48.

Bolton,Andrew. Gallery Views of ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’, The Official Youtube Account of The MET, May 12, 2015

Appadurai, Arjun. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Theory Culture Society 1990. p. 295–310

Hemmings, J. “Post-Cultural Hybrid: Yinka Shonibare,” Surface Design Journal v. 32 no.1 (Fall 2007) p.34–37

Wu, Juanjuan. “Chinese Fashion, From Mao to Now.” THE EVOLUTION OF THE FASHION INDUSTRY: DESIGNERS AND MODELS, Pages: 127–162

Linda Welters & Arthur C. Mead (2012) The Future of Chinese Fashion, Fashion Practice, 4:1, 13–40, DOI: 10.2752/1756938 12X13239580431225, Page:19
Marchetti, Gina. “Romance and the Yellow Peril: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction” Berkeley : University of California Press , 1993, Page 1.

White, Ryan. “Photographer Leslie Zhang is Rejecting European Ideas in Fashion Photography.” i-D, Vice, August 16, 2019 leslie-zhang-interview

Soda. My Translation. “ 我们和张家诚聊了聊放学路上可以说的 秘密。” “We talked about the secret with Leslie Zhang on the way home from school.” Voicer, January 18, 2019

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