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Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Looking 'Chinese' in culture and fashion

Doris Day in 'Pillow Talk', 1959. Images via Clothes On Film.

The working title for my Masters thesis is: ‘Work to Pleasure: histories of the Chinese pyjama suit’. But dealing as it does with image-creation, representation and recognition of a ‘Chinese style’ and/or ‘Chinese identity’, it could just as easily be called ‘Being and Looking Chinese in the West’ (or should that be ‘Global North’?). My work researching the dress history of Chinese peoples in the diaspora is pointing more and more to a concrete fact: the image of unified Chinese identity is in fact a simplification; an amalgamation of multiple regional and ethnic groups with their own variations and differences. 

Chinese identities are hybrid: by region of origin in China (usually distinguished by the dialect spoken); by the geographic location of the Chinese diaspora, and the degree of local assimilations (think: food, climate, textiles, mixed-race marriages); by the class of the immigrants in the diaspora (were they gold miners, agricultural labourers, students or landowners?); and by their religious and political inclinations (Confucian, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Communist?) Globalisation is a concept that is becoming more and more proven each year; and so around the world, we must continue to acknowledge the complex and varied depths of non-European identities; not merely resting on stereotypes.

What has been promoted and recognised as being 'Chinese style' is a manufactured mix of patterns, motifs, shapes and silhouettes from a mix of classes. So-called 'pyjama suits' worn by the working class have been made fashionable and worn by the Euro-American elites. The Imperial Chinese motifs of dragons and phoenixes are distributed willy-nilly. The absorption of a style into a Westernised fashion system allows it to be democratised, reaching many; but also confines it, narrowing down its meaning and creating a specific narrative of representation. Seemingly 'Chinese' lounge pyjamas may have more in common with European modernity than Asian traditions. My study aims to trace the trajectory of the samfu suit, from ethnic workwear to fashionable leisure garment.

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