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Organizer: Peter J. Carroll, New York University
Chair: Patricia Mears, Brooklyn Museum of Art
Discussant: Valerie Steele, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York
This panel explores the coding of clothing as a privileged and contested marker of modernity, gender power, and national identity within the shifting political and economic configurations of 20th-century China. Since the late Qing, politically mandated clothing reform and consumer driven fashion trends have refashioned dress along modernist lines and emphasized clothing as a substantive sign of difference or adherence to foreign modernism, the construction of an autonomous Chinese modernity, and configurations of power within Chinese society.
The panel is organized chronologically and geographically, moving from the Republic through the early PRC, and expanding from local Jiangsu studies to pan-national movements and finally ending with a trans-national focus. Martha Huang reads calendar girl images as idealized icons of modernist femininity and explores their circulation and social functions in Shanghai. Continuing the focus on market driven taste for normatively modern clothing, Peter Carroll analyzes the economic effects and social interpretations of fashion as a signifier of modernity and national culture in Republican Suzhou. Tina Chen highlights the role of early PRC attempts to impose strict standards of socialist dress within the broader attempt to construct a distinctive national community. Patricia Mears parses the symbiotic Chinese-European nature of the cheung-sam, reflecting on its dual status as symbol of modernism and Oriental decadence. Valerie Steele, editor of the journal Fashion Theory, will provide a comparative historical and theoretical framework. Grounded in history, art history, literature, and museum studies, this panel hopes to provoke cross-disciplinary explorations of fashions multi-layered political-economic fabric.
Calendar Girls: The Chinese Advertising Poster, 19141939
Martha E. Huang, Columbia University
Treaty-port businesses distributed calendar girl posters as advertisements from the 1910s through the 1930s. This paper suggests various ways to read these posters as expression of the interconnected dimension of fashion, temporality, and consumer culture.
The posters provide valuable information on ideals of material culture and notions of modernity. The women pictured in the advertisements were considered icons of modernity; their dress, home decoration, lifestyle, and leisure practices a "new time." Calendar girls embodied a China (re)dressed and made new. As women asked tailors to translate the art into personal dress, this new China took to the streets.
Calendar art, issued periodically, divided time into fixed increments and tied the viewer to international measurement standards necessitated by communication technologies. The fashion content of these posters, a "modern measure of time," produced relationships between subject and object arising from a culture of commodity production that posits a means for forgetting time by constantly superseding it. Read as capitalist propaganda, the posters manufactured desire, linked individual choice to consumption, progress to obsolescence, and investment to purchase.
The posters also redefined public and private space by creating a "semi-literates library." They provided an effective means to define and advertise an era, thereby expanding their utility beyond capitalist enterprises. In the post-1949 context, the CCP (inspired by Soviet experience) appropriated the structure of the calendar poster and some of the artists to sell its own version of modern China.
Refashioning Suzhou: Dress as a Marker of Local and National Civilization in Republican Suzhou
Peter J. Carroll, New York University
Threatened with a 1932 boycott of all "foreign" products, the Suzhou "Western" clothing makers guild publicly protested that their products were not foreign but integral components of Suzhous modern culture. The guild avoided a potentially crippling boycott, but the success hardly resolved the ambiguities surrounding the cultural identity and status of modern, new-style clothing in Suzhou society. Throughout the Republic, fashion provided a highly visible and ideologically charged indicator of sometimes troubling social change.
Using local newspapers, fashion journalism, biji, and archives, this paper focuses on fashion as a site for the contestation of Chineseness and examines conflicts over the local social and economic effects of new-style clothing as it was domesticated from "foreign" to modern "Chinese" dress. Given the citys role as a center of the "traditional" silk textile industry and the ostensible conservatism of local society, the advent of modern fashion in Suzhou was particularly problematic.
Ever since the early Republic craze for normatively moderni.e., Europeandress, local clothing trends had excited voluble and often times bitter debate. Many local commentators argued that foreign-inspired new style fashions threatened the economic and moral underpinnings of Suzhou as a distinctively Chinese city: taste for modern clothing harmed area textile industries and upset traditional moral propriety. Others, however, worried that the dearth of modern clothing on the streets and continuing popularity of ornate "traditional" dress among elite male gentry exposed a troubling lack of modernity.
Dressing for the Party: Model Workers, Clothing, and Socialist Modernity in Maos China
Tina Mai Chen, University of Manitoba
During the Cultural Revolution, vanity was considered an ideological crime. Tying ones braids with colorful strings instead of brown rubber bands challenged the rules of dress. Such boldness courted danger. The Chinese Communist Party eschewed displays of bourgeois femininity and individuality. A true communist believed that beauty derived from a socialist soul, not from a physical appearance. Fashioning of socialist spirit, however, could not rely upon disregard for ones clothing; it demanded continual vigilance by the entire population against even the slightest fashion transgression.
The Chinese Community Party provided normative standards of dress and appearance through propaganda materials about model citizensincluding posters, photographs in the national press, and cultural productions. Following the dress code of Chinas national models signified membership in the newly constructed socialist community; deviation from the norms produced charges of insufficient proletarian consciousness.
This paper analyses the norms of dress advanced by the CCP for their model citizens with respect to the class, gender, and ethnic dimensions of socialist modernity. Model attire constructed a national community defined through disjunctures from the fashions of Confucian China, Republican China, and the capitalist West. To be Chinese in Maos China required literally seeking re-dress for past oppressions. The Chinese population was encouraged to "dress for the Party" to forge new social relations. I argue that by analyzing fashion as a mode of governance in Maos China we gain insight into the disciplining of the body (politic) and its importance for national politics in the Peoples Republic of China.
The Myth of Suzie Wong: Chinese Fashion in the Western Mind
Patricia Mears, Brooklyn Museum of Art
The quintessential 20th century Chinese dressthe cheung-samhas long played the role of racial signifier for the Western audience. Despite its celebrity and the wealth of research on traditional Chinese costume, almost nothing has been written about this figure-revealing garment known in the Western world as the "Suzie Wong" dress, a nickname derived from the fictional prostitute of Richard Quines novel, The World of Suzie Wong.
Born in the glittering and sophisticated environment of colonial Shanghai, the cheung-sam is a true fashion hybrid that fused the elements of traditional Qing Dynasty (16441912) court dress with the modern European silhouette. Despite its respectable status in the Chinese diaspora, the cheung-sam came to represent in the Occidental mind a two-pronged, stereotypical view of Asian womensubservient, obedient, tradition on the one hand, and exotic, sexual, even menacing on the other. Films such as "Shanghai Express" (1932), "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" (1955) and "The World of Suzie Wong" (1960), are tales filled with textual excess whose narratives featuring Asian-Caucasian sexual liaisons that employ the cheung-sam to uphold and sometimes subvert culturally accepted notions of race.
This examination of the cheung-sam will culminate by looking at the work of contemporary fashion designers and their appropriation of Chinese-inspired dress, coined "China Chic" or "China Mania." The question is why does the cheung-sam have such a pronounced impact now and are underlying issues of ethnic identity still relevant today?