A Review: China Chic: East Meets West

This weeks offering again comes from Valerie Steele as a collection of essays about fashion in China and how East and West have influenced each other sartorially over the centuries. And while I certainly like the concept and each other makes valid points regarding their individual areas, China Chic: East Meets West was not as easy a read as Pink was.

Part I was a quick run down of Chinese fashion from the Dragon Robes of the Song dynasty up through the Qing dynasty, and when they stopped being worn as part of the cultural revolutions in the early 20th Century. Part I discusses foot binding from a cultural perspective and provides possible means of how this came to be en vogue in China, as well as reasons it fell out of favor as a fashion. Interestingly, foot binding appears to have been a 1,000 year old tradition before China decided it had outlived it’s usefulness. Part I discusses the Maoist uniform and finally delves in to the various ways East and West have influenced each other in fashion over the last 100 years. Part I covers sumptuary laws in China and how they were as ineffective in the Orient as they were in the Occident (East/West).

One interesting quote from the 1590’s from Zhang Hou:

“People from all over favor Suzhou clothing, and so Suzhou artisan’s work even harder at making them….This drives the extravagance of Suzhou style to even greater extravagance, so how is it possible to lead those who follow the Suzhou fashion back to sensible economy?”

Apparently, Suzhou was to 16th Century China as Paris was to 20th Century Euro-America.

Part II is where the book delves in to individual essays, and these were rather weighty, and apparently geared toward academics. Still interesting, just not always easy to read. The first essay, written by Suzanne E Cahill, talks about fashion in the Tang dynasty 618 to 907 C.E. What is very interesting about this section is it dispels some commonly held beliefs in the West, among them that fashion in the East remained static for thousands of years, and that China was insulated from the world until West met East in the form of Portuguese traders in the 16th Century. Cahill titled her essay after a quote from Tang dynasty poet Yuan Zhen (779 to 831 C.E.) “Our Women are Acting Like Foreigner’s Wives!” Cahill’s essay is peppered with pictures of paintings and sculptures from the period all representative of what Tang dynasty women wore, all wearing “foreign” clothing brought in to China by way of the silk road. Each picture is described in detail, including which culture the fashion was borrowed from.

Chapter 6 by Antonia Finnane explores the evolution of military dress in China, primarily focusing on late 19th and early 20th century military uniforms, this chapter really explores when foot binding became passe as China decided they could not move in to the future with half their population hamstrung, literally and metaphorically, by tiny feet.

Chapter 7 by Martha Huang (sorry, was unable to find a link), talks about rapidly changing women’s fashion from 1900 to the cultural revolution, when fashion in China stopped.

In chapter 8, Dorothy Ko breaks down the role that feet have played in Chinese fashion. Ko drives home the point that imperial fashion crippled the nation so that China fell very far behind on both an economic and an industrial level. While this may have been true when the book was written in 1999, 20 years later China has become the fastest growing economy in the world, with techological advances that far outpace the West. Unbinding women’s feet led to some truly great innovators in China.

Chapter 9 has Hazel Clark exploring the evolution of the Cheung Sam (aka qipao or Cheongsam), explaining how this piece of Manchurian fashion evolved to become the defining style of a nation.

The book ends with Chapter 10 and Verity Wilson tracking the propaganda posters of the Cultural Revolution and how frugality was THE fashion choice for revolutionary China.

Now, I don’t dislike this book. Overall it was informative. But it was not easy reading. While I include a link to the Amazon page, if I didn’t already own it, I would probably see if there was a copy at the library before deciding to add it to my collection. But, having purchased and now read it, I don’t see myself getting rid of it either. While a little hard to get through, it held good information on Chinese fashion, which, other than the Cheung Sam, has been largely ignore in the West.