The Beauty of Orientalism in European Clothing

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Clothing, as a necessity in daily life, is always changing with the progress of time. Modern clothes are much simpler than the haute couture from and complicated court wear ‘The Edwardian Era’ 200 years ago, but the little details on clothes can still be hints of reference to another culture. However, when a customer buys a piece of clothing, he may not know the origin of chrysanthemum embroidery on the sleeve, but he will definitely choose it because of this unique feature. Orientalism may no longer be particularly appealing in today's globalized world, but the ideas it represents and its problem have not changed on a large scale since 1800. When it comes to earliest orientalism in fashion, most people think of“figures in Middle Eastern dress appear in Renaissance and Baroque works. ” from either Rembrandt or Delacroix. Orientalism can be traced back to the 17th century when Europe traded with China and Turkey. But the grand rise of orientalism on a massive scale may begin with Paul Poriet's abandon on corset and borrow from The Thousand and One Nights.

Although European consumers accepted clothing with orientalism, it was not until 1930 that the first Asian Hollywood actress, Anna May Wong, appeared, proving the problems hidden under the popular orientalist fashion. In this photo, Anna May Wong was wearing a high-neck black stain gown with long sleeves. A silver and gold dragon embroidery that was made of sequins was coiling around the lower back half. Designed by Travis Banton at Paramount Pictures, this was Wong’s costume in the film Limehouse Blues. Although Wong was widely recognized as a Hollywood actress, she cannot escape being discriminated against and stereotyped as an Asian, especially a Chinese. Like other Oriental elements used in fashion, she was just a fresh beautiful subject. She was always “excessive, feminine, open for use ”, not a venerable history or uninhibited intellectual gathering. Wong represented the application of most orientalism in early Westerner fashion, beautiful but random, just to ensure the “aesthetic pleasure. ” Oriental elements from early 1900s are regarded by westerners as a new visual element, a kind of racial domination and a kind of cultural projection, but they do not really understand the essence and personality of Asian culture.

As a New York-raised designer, Travis worked for several famous fashion designers in his early years, including Lucile and Howard Greer. In 1924, he moved to Hollywood and became a costume designer. Banton’s design went on to become the favorite of many legendary actresses such as Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West. As one of the most important costume designer in the golden age Hollywood, Travis Banton was famous for his workmanship, understated elegance of his costumes, and originality. Because women could easily buy cheap replicas of the costumes in department stores, Banton's style and design were as widespread as Adrian's. In addition to designing costumes for films set in the United States, Banton has also contributed to a number of films with exotic stories. Like the look he did for Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra in 1934, and the dragon dress he designed for Wong in Limehouse Blues.

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Although the west had commercial exchanges with the east as early as the 17th century, Paul Poriet was actually the first who “rose to fame through his exotic garments and subversive fashion ideas. ” Since then, “orientalism as a system of representations, sometimes explicit, more, implicit, turned into western countries used to show the culture supremacy. ” From the era of Poriet all the way up to Banton, these haute couturiers, or movie costume designers, were using Oriental elements as a means of marketing themselves. Their desire to profit has turned those Eastern element, countries and cultures into an object, a fantastic and demonic thing. It was this simple decision that left the entire culture of a region enveloped in another culture that had little contact with. As a construct of the European psyche, Anna May Wong became the best example of the development and change of orientalism in the west in the 1930s.

In this 1934 photo, Wong's black luxurious satin gown may “evoke the ‘cheongsam’, the form-fitting traditional Chinese dress style. ” The dragon motif that was constructed by execution in gold and silver sequins added a sense of mysterious of the dress. It was this sense of mystery that made orientalism the selling point of the 1930s. From everyday home decorations to costumes and even movies. Ever since Wong starred in the famous Shanghai express with Marlene Dietrich in 1929, 'the Orient' has become a new selling point. However, scriptwriters who did not study Oriental culture in depth were more influenced by the Great Depression of 1929 and were eager to write scripts that would attract audiences quickly. Most movies or comics from the 1930s distorted the image of easterners, especially Asians, to some extent. Wong's image was fixed as dragon lady. Most of her costumes have dragon elements. For example, in the 1931 movie Daughter of the Dragon, her first costume was decorated by piled up gold tassels and beads. A lavish dragon princess was created. Even in Limehouse Blues, Wong played a jealous Chinese lover in her “sleek and mysterious standard costume: the cheongsam. ” Since then, the dragon and the Chinese elements have gone from initially mysterious to symbols of angry and aggressive.

Over and over again, western writers have led eastern elements in the wrong direction because of the influence of The Times. The “dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient ”. It not only distorted the image of the Oriental, but also disappointed Anna May Wong. Eventually, Hollywood's first Chinese-American actress left the us to pursue her dream in Europe. Anna May Wong's experience in the 1930s not only represented the west's unjust and arbitrary judgment of orientalism at that time, but also represented the west's sense of supremacy over the new culture and its desire to conquer when it first came into contact with orientalism ten, twenty, or even two hundred years ago. Even after all these years, stereotyped eastern elements still dominate western markets. When people talk about Anna May Wong and impression for the East in the 1930s, the first thing that comes to mind was still Wong's dragon lady character and Travis Benton's black gold dragon gown.

The image of the dragon as treacherous, jealous and dangerous is deeply rooted in western minds, just like Anna May Wong's beautiful black dress. Perhaps in the eyes of modern people, she has successfully brought her native culture to the United States and shown her timeless beauty and exotic grace to all audiences on screen. However, behind this beautiful dress is the unfair competition and oppression between cultures. The dominance and oppression of Asian culture by western designers and writers is always hidden under that beautiful “dragon gown”. While these cultural colonists indulged in the “sensuous, seductive, and full of the hot, spiritual aroma of the East, they can simultaneously be subjected to the barbarism of their own cultures. ” If they one day use similar methods to ignore, distort, or even self-modify their own culture, one day, “they” too will be objectified as “other”, and will be remembered by history but excluded by themselves.

Nowadays, more and more people are aware of the problems and injustices hidden under the beautiful Oriental clothing. This represents a gradual change in the use and motivation of Oriental elements. Fortunately, the Orientalist objective in Western dress will no longer be to “cull from the various Easts their spellbinding foreignness for the purpose of rendering Western dress richer and more exotic”. One day, a dragon dress embroidered with gold sequins will no longer represent the repressed 'other', but the old and beautiful culture from the other side of the world. Perchance in the future, when a westerner put on clothes with Oriental elements, he or she will be touched by the glamour of another culture, rather than the conquest felt as a unsurpassable figure.

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