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East Meets West | Jia Xizeng: How does "Chinese style" affect the history of Western fashion clothing?
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East Meets West | Jia Xizeng: How does "Chinese style" affect the history of Western fashion clothing?

East Meets West | Jia Xizeng: How does "Chinese style" affect the history of Western fashion clothing? 

Jia Xizeng is a professor at The Academy of Fine Arts at Tsinghua University. He is a member of the Academic Committee of China Fashion Association; he is also a member of the Education Committee of China Fashion & Color Association. Jia Xizeng is an editor of the magazine Fashion China and has published more than 50 academic papers in publications.

The Chinese style can be discovered everywhere from the silk costumes worn by the Priestess of Bacchus in the Naples Museum in ancient Rome, to the modern costumes in the international fashion trend of the 21st century. Nowadays, after years of development in China's fashion industry, the Chinese style formed by Hanfu, Chinese national fashion has surmounted the fashion barriers in the Western culture, and gradually built the subject content of Chinese fashion style.

Speaking of "Chinese style", it cannot be considered separately from Chinese silk civilization going abroad. As a unique fabric in China, silk has a high reputation around the globe. The exportation and usage of silk had won a permanent world reputation for Chinese civilization. As early as the Western Han Dynasty, Chinese silk had spread throughout the Roman Empire along the Silk Road. Since then, the gorgeous silk produced in China has been continuously transported to the West through the "Silk Road", which has greatly enriched the Western clothing culture.

Silk products. Credit: China News Agency, Li Jiaxian

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle mentioned “silk” in past History. The Greeks had long known that there was a silk-producing country in the Far East, and they called it "Seres" according to the Chinese pronunciation of "si" or "qi".

Like the Greeks, the Romans also used the word "Seris" to refer to China. There was no cotton in ancient Rome which meant wool and linen were generally used for clothing materials. Once the thin and soft Chinese silk was imported to Rome, it was favoured and pursued by the Romans immediately. The Romans regarded wearing silk as an honour, people rushed to purchase it as a symbol of wealth and power. Ancient Westerners also highly respected Chinese silk and used it as the clothing of the gods. Whether it is the Statue of the Priestess of Bacchus in the Naples Museum or the Statue of the Goddess of the Parthenon, they are all wearing silk costumes.

In addition to the silk production in China, there are also Chinese made looms that have brought important changes to the Western civilization. British scholar Joseph Needham once said in Science and Civilisation in China that "Jacquard machine" is China's most important contribution to the world's science and technology. During the Spring and Autumn Period, China's weaving machine and silk weaving technology was quite mature. However, the vertical weaving machine technology of the ancient West could not weave fabrics with such gorgeous and complex patterns. It was not until the sixth and seventh centuries that the Chinese weaving machines were introduced to Europe, so that the Western community understood the construction principle of the machines, and began to change the weaving method from vertical to horizontal, to create more complex patterns. Inspired by this, Westerners invented the French Jacquard machine, which eventually led to the emergence of the faucet machines for countries all over the world.

Whether it is Chinese silk or weaving technology, it has a profound impact on the exchange of Eastern and Western culture and technology. This has improved and enriched the material and spiritual life of Eastern and Western communities.

In the 18th century, continental Europe set off a Chinese craze, and with it, the Rococo style (an Art Deco style in France) was born. Westerners combined Chinese style with local Rococo style, forming a "Chinese style" that reflected Europeans' understanding of Chinese art and their imagination of Chinese customs.

American models show off Chinese elements in Chinese silk clothing. Credit: China News Agency, Lu Wei.

Although the name was "Chinese style", it was derived from French Chinoiserie that was produced in Europe between the 17th and 18th centuries. It was incredibly popular in almost all daily necessities such as gardens, furniture, porcelain, textiles, etc, with gorgeous and complex oriental and Chinese characteristic Art Deco style. Its essence was a European style created by Europeans in the development of the local culture, with imagination and impersonations of Chinese culture and styles.

Why would Europeans envision China? The reason is that there is a long distance between Europe and China and there is a greater difference in customs. The circumstances reflected from this information are often obtained from rumours or just the imagination of designers. Therefore, the "Chinese style" became popular in Europe in the 18th century and often has traces of blending, patchwork and even fabrication. To be precise, "Chinese style" at that time was neither purely Chinese taste nor an absolute European tradition. It mixed various creative elements, blended the characteristics of the East and the West, and even blured the classification and boundaries of culture and art. They were the products of the collision of Eastern and Western cultural exchanges.

This "Chinese style" also has the meaning of " Sinomania". In the Rococo era, the most fashionable French prided themselves on imitating the Chinese lifestyles.  Those who did not understand Chinese etiquette would feel ashamed. This led to a surge in demand for Chinese products in Europe. In the 1730s and 1740s, Europe imported more than 75,000 pieces of silk from China every year. Driven by interests, many local European silk manufacturers would draw traditional Chinese patterns such as dragons, phoenixes, flowers and birds on silk products, and mark "Made in China" to imitate China's original imports.

In the late 18th century, the neoclassical art style was popular, with dignified and elegant characteristics of the times. Its simplification and the use of modern new materials had abandoned the cumbersome decoration of the Rococo art style, coupled with the acceleration of the Pace of life brought about by the rise of the first industrial revolution, the "Chinese style" inevitably declined.

How does "Chinese style" affect the historical development process of modern western clothing and contemporary western high fashion? This is from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

At that time, European and American tourists and entrepreneurs travelled and attended business in China, which made Chinese art and clothing flow into the West tremendously. In 1935, the first international exhibition of Chinese art was held in London, marking a new stage for the Europeans to understand Chinese art.

Under the influence of the oriental style and the Art Deco movement, well-known fashion designers such as Gabrielle Chanel, Christian Dior, Ilsa Schippelly had used Chinese elements like silhouettes, patterns, fabrics, craftsmanship, etc. And incorporated it in their designs. For example, French designer Ms. Chanel transformed a dragon robe into a modern women's jacket in 1930, and designed a white calligraphy print dress in 1956. French designer Schipperly designed a Ming Dynasty paddy coat in 1939.

In the 1950s and 1960s, with the popularity of "Orientalism" in Europe and the United States, the cheongsam, which represents the fashion of Chinese women's clothing, had also become an undercurrent in the Western world. Hollywood actresses such as Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly had all dressed in cheongsam. The style of the cheongsam in the West is more fitted due to the Western-style cutting design. The sleeves and the skirt length were shortened, so that the figure of a woman’s body was highlighted. The French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, who was fascinated by Chinese culture, designed the 1977 "Chinese style" autumn and winter haute couture collection he got his ideas from Chinese literature, films and artworks.

The short-sleeved cheongsam displayed at the Suzhou Silk Culture and Skills Exhibition. Credit: China News Agency, Li Jiaxian.

Since the 21st century, with the continuous improvement of China's comprehensive national strength, the cultural and fashion industries have achieved rapid development. Chinese market has become one of the most important and promising consumer markets in international fashion industry. Especially under the influence of the COVID-19 in 2020, the Chinese market has "risen against the trend" and has become one of the few markets in the world that has achieved "positive growth" in luxury sales.

2021 China Chongqing International Fashion Week. Credit: China News Agency, Chen Chao.

Relying on the huge market demand and strong economic strength, after more than 40 years of development, the Chinese fashion industry has broken the fashion barriers in the Western culture with the Chinese style formed by Hanfu, Guochao and Guofeng fashion. It got rid of the influence of Hollywood, Japanese and Korean waves, and stepped out of the “others” in the western international fashion world, and gradually built the subject content of Chinese local style and fashion.

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