Sharp Edits #Five

...chinoiserie: Obsessed with China

by Mariel Reed
In the 18th century, before the French Revolution and the dawn of neoclassicism, the aristocracy was booming with conceit and decadence. Its existence resulted in the procurement of the fruits of foreign cultures as emblems of the advantages and privileges held only by those who could afford such delicacies.

This obsession with the Far East and the exotic things it had to offer represented the power and increase of trade, which through taxation, the aristocracy had full control over. Little trinkets and decorations from foreign lands were used to represent wealth and privilege. As the rich collected objects, fashions and fabrics from The Orient displaying their superiority, the gap between them and the poor widened. Therefore, for the rich, it was a time of prosperity, opulence and abundance.

Because of their status as symbols of luxury and fortune, imported items from the East were copied by European artisans. Furniture, wallpaper, laquerware porcelain and paintings were imitated and produced to meet the demand. These high fashion, luxury items termed chinoiserie were popular because they were exotic. They represented the future and the excitement of far away lands.

The European aristocracy thrived in a little world of its own. Unbeknownst to members of the upper classes, poverty had taken over. The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. But as a moment, frozen in time, the height of French gluttony is beautiful in its un-disturbed shelter from reality. The magnificence, the fantasy and lusciousness of the useless objects that decorated daily life were so flamboyantly ornate it was practically offensive to anyone outside that particular society.

The past few seasons have been heavily influenced by Asian design just like in the 18th century with orientalism and chinoiserie. Tour De Force’s latest collection shows Samurai inspired leather on richly dyed silks. Eleanor Amoroso’s intricate macramé pieces are like carved ivory sculptures. Myrza De Muynck’s Poverty De Luxe collection references delicate embroidery influenced by Asian patterns and techniques.

So what is this obsession with Asia anyway? In fashion we reference what we see and aspire to. For a decade, the Western world has been trying to fight the quicksand that has brought our economy to a shocking low. Many designers have used fashion to dictate society’s response to socio-economic happenings as well as its wants and wishes.

As our economic downturn worsens and we see the beginnings of what could be another revolution with riots in London and protests on Wall Street in New York. I think we need to face the facts that fashion already has. China and the rest of East Asia (hopefully excluding North Korea) are going to take over the world. Unless you have been living under a rock, reports that the booming Chinese and Japanese economies are fast replacing the Occidental dominance in this world are inescapable.

There is no point trying to resist it. Our children’s children will all be taught Chinese (Mandarin and/or Cantonese) in school. English will no longer be the universal language. And with a population of 1.3 billion people, China can hardly be expected to continue to adapt to our Western ways. One can hardly expect the people of a country that contains 1/6 of the world’s population not to emerge as the most powerful consumers. Ever.

Some people may not be happy, or may attempt to turn a blind eye, but if these people were as smart as the fashion industry, they would welcome this swarm of consumers with open arms. East Asia holds the key to dragging us out of this so-called “slump,” which seems more like severe scoliosis to me. To the luxury industries, Asia is a goldmine. Fashion is preparing itself for the “Buy! Buy! Buy!” attitude that we are seeing flood Western Europe.

In fact, fashion is so smart, it has been advising the East Asian market on how to buy, buy, buy. Many of the major fashion houses referenced the 1950s and 60s, a time Americans will forever remember as their prime. The post-World War II period marked America’s climb to be the most powerful country in the world. How? By consumerism; by buy, buy, buying. Fashion is using this as an instruction manual for East Asia.

Fashion’s dictation of socio-economic crises has a remarkable way of making these issues visible to the general public. Perhaps the chinoiserie trend was a way of saying “we know were in the deep, now here’s how we get out of it!”