04 December 2016

We Need to Talk about Orientalism

Originally posted 4th December 2016 here.
Yves Saint Laurent F/W 2004 
Following the days of the annual Victoria’s Secret (VS) fashion show held in Paris on the 30th of November, pictures of the lingerie pieces and the accompanying clothing pieces/accessories surfaced that caught the attention of far and few.

Articles also came out captioned, VS being ‘accused of designing racist lingerie’ and ‘accused of cultural appropriation’ – interesting choice of word – accused, when it was clearly outright what the directors, designers and producers of the brand did in this year’s so-called sub theme of celebrating culture.  Creative director Sophia Neophitou literally described the season’s collection as taking something that’s naïve and homespun and turning it into something luxurious.

Break that statement down into something that’s traditional and historical (naïve), who have built a culture and identity (homespun) and elevating it from what it is, considerably primitive (in the context of the director’s intention), to make it more… well, luxurious.

Victoria's Secret Show 2016 
This coming from a business that, in the past has already had several cultural appropriation controversies with placing a model in a Native American headdress and sending her down the runway in lingerie, having waited years before allowing a model of colour to have her natural hair for an annual show and having to remove an extremely sexualised garment that was offensive to Japanese historical culture of Geisha tradition – one ponders just how many times a business can make the same mistake over and over without considering an ethical implication that extends far beyond consumerism and the industry itself.

This year, the show decided to go down the oriental theme – or rather the Western representation of an ideal Chinese fashion, market and culture. Simply watered down to be used as nimble accessories to hide the cultural appropriation that was being showcased through sexualisation and demeaning ‘homage’ to the culture.

Victoria's Secret Show 2016 
VS showcased their lack of understanding for China’s rich and important culture, with some suggesting that they were trying to play it off as little play costumes for models to strut down the runway in while trying to appeal to their new market. The dragon, that symbolises auspicious fate and luck, which was wrapped around the body of a model, or the tardy-done embroidery stuck onto the boots of another, which was an, and still remains, a historical art developed through the rise of the Chinese Silk Road some 5000 years ago. An honourable mention to the use of the colour red, which plays a huge role in cultural means of good fortune, luck and joy and a symbolic colour of all auspicious life (as reflection of blood being red).

To add insult to injury, VS also casted four Chinese models, along with a handful of other POC models, which, in a sense is great for the modelling industry to open up more opportunities for newcomers, but the question hangs of whether or not these models were used as scapegoats for the backlash that VS may have seen coming for their use of such theme. Though, it was fantastic to see them getting the limelight.

Dolce & Gabbana S/S 2015 
It’s disappointing to see over and over, not just at the VS brand, but the industry overall, that especially within the growing Asian (not just Chinese) market keeping the industry afloat, that there is a cinematic stereotype of a dragon lady with her hair sleeked back in a tight red sheath with a fan in hand. This ideal image is made with the false representation of a fantasy, created largely for Western consumption without making an effort to understand the historical ties to such cultures. It seems to be a repeat of the 2015 Met Gala where the theme was a very vague and dismissive try at understanding the traditions, symbolism and history behind China’s artistic past.

It seems that targeting the Asian market, with China and Japan being the two main countries with the most consumers in luxury purchases, is a key focus for any kind of business expansion. However many designers, VS and other, are not inspired by the real consumers within the region, but rather the infatuation and fantasy of what has been created by the West to gentrify the East – oriental.

Olympia Le-Tan S/S 2016 
Postcolonial sociologist (literary theorist, cultural critic and political activist) Edward Saïd states that this idea of ‘orientalism’ comes from the Western perception of the East, through the development of colonialism and power between political and social differences of Western civilisation and all that, that was not Western. His publication, Orientalism (1978) states that the problematic side of works of art and literature (and in this case, fashion) is relied on the racial stereotypes of what is deemed exotic, mystical or simply non-Western. This backward portrayal puts the very ideal of what is considered orientalism out of touch with what is reality in Asian and Middle-Eastern countries.

Take that into consideration of the industry now, where majority of big houses are under Western management. With the addition of 1920s-40s Asian film culture still being used in cinema as a norm, or the bare minimal of trying to understand what culture is – given examples of Asian women being watered down to the ‘innocent female doll’ or ‘supreme dragon lady’ in a sexualised qipao or kimono, it’s no wonder no one seems to understand why this false stereotype is such a big deal.

The use of cultural symbolism merely for aesthetic and to sell is certainly not going to resonate with the Asian, and especially Chinese market if it shows a lack of understanding for elaborately rich cultures with complex histories. As Asia becomes a growing market for the industry to stay afloat, the industry can no longer rely on their Western fantasy of what they want their consumers to be. The misinterpretation and perception of a garment being anything but tone-deaf would mean implications beyond just economic downfall, but also political and social discourse.