Term Paper: Consider How National Identity and Culture Is Constructed Through Fashion in China and Japan

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¶ … national identity and culture is constructed through fashion in China and Japan

Fashion and Cultural Identity on China and Japan

Fashion, as it relates to culture, has initiated a relatively new and complex area of research into society and societal history. The concept of fashion has come to mean more than merely the history of dress and style for its own sake. Consequently, the study of fashion has developed into a multidisciplinary field that includes cultural, historical and sociological analyses of the role of fashion in societies.

The emerging field of fashion studies, sometimes known as the "new" fashion history, differs significantly from traditional dress history, which tended to focus on the stylistic analysis of elite fashions. By contrast, contemporary fashion studies asks new questions, approaches a much wider range of topics, and draws on the expertise of scholars across the disciplines.

This view, which refers to the analysis and understanding of fashion in terms cultural traits and constructions, is also evident in many modern interpretations of the concept of fashion. This is also related to the interrogation of the meaning of fashion outside a purely Western context. In modern analysis "full recognition is given to fashion-oriented cultures such as Tang dynasty China and Heian period Japan. "

Scholars have been concerned with the study the interaction and correlations between dress and fashion and the cultural construction of reality. Researchers and theorists have realized that the dress and fashion in a society was "...not only a part of daily life, but that the ways people choose, acquire, wear, and vary their dress can say a great deal about such issues as class, gender, sexual reference, ethnicity, group identity and behavior, and aesthetics."

Therefore the question of fashion has become a part of cultural studies, semiotics, sociology and history.

Concomitant with the above theoretical stance regarding the role of fashion in society is the realization that culture is socially constructed. The contemporary tendency in numerous disciplines is to view culture as a creation or construction and relative to historical and other factors within society. This view of culture has been increased by intercultural travel and the sharing of ideas and views; which has opened up the understanding of the importance of factors like fashion in the shaping and expression of social and cultural attitudes. Japanese culture, for example, has been changed and its boundaries enlarged due to travel and cultural exchanges. "Japan and its culture has been constructed through various types of travel interaction..."

These include the making of modern Japan through the encounters with 19th century travelers and the modern transformation of Japanese and Chinese society in the light of modern consumer economics and the information age.

All of the above aspects will be considered in this paper. The central focus will firstly be to establish the importance of relative nature of fashion and cultural patterns and expression. Secondly, the focus will be to highlight specific examples from Japan and China and to compare and contrast these examples in order to show how fashion relates to the cultural construction of reality.

2. Cultural construction

The most important aspect in understanding fashion as a social and cultural construct is understanding culture as a relative construct. Social constructions are not sacrosanct and "fixed" but are invented and created by the social milieu and context in which they occur. "By definition, cultural constructions are arbitrary in that they are created and maintained by each culture. As a result, cultural constructions are not fixed forever; rather they are dynamic and change over time and through space. "

The concept of fashion can be seen in broad context in terms of various fads and fashions that can add to or transform cultures and traditions; such as the penchant for technology in Japan. However in a more specific sense, fashion in terms of dress and apparel has also had a role to play in the construction of social reality and national identity.

Researchers emphasize that culture is not a stable part of society, but is fluid and dependent on various factors such as technology and historical circumstance. This sense of culture as a creation on construct which is often intentionally developed is also empathized in some studies.

Chinese merchant elite have long enriched their worldly business practices with the ability to buy cultural orthodoxy. By contributing to their real or imagined native places, to charity and in particular, to education, they sought legitimate places in the imperial order, and quickly joined the ranks of literati. In the late 20th century, as global citizens, Hong Kong business elite have extended these cultural priorities by generously contributing to education institutions in the West as well in a sense, culture is not a durable, enclosed system of rules for people to follow. Instead, it is an arena for dialogue and improvisation.

3. Fashion and culture in China and Japan

Possibly one of the most obvious examples of the connection of fashion and the cultural construction of reality is the fashion or dress code that was dominant during the Chinese Maoist Cultural Revolution. Studies and reports of China during the late years of Maoist influence between 1949 and 1976 remark on the congruity between the style and fashion in clothing of the time and the communist doctrine of equality for all.

Nearly everything I saw and experienced indicated that this was a poor, quite backward country that happened to have had a glorious past. Goods were scarce. Even the best hotels were dingy. Transportation was inefficient. And the Chinese people dressed in Maoist outfits so indistinguishable that it was often difficult to tell the men from the women. They acted the way you would expect subjects of a communist police state to act -- fearfully standoffish with Western visitors.

Later reports on Chinese culture however show a marked difference and change from the drab and uniform Maoist uniforms. While the Maoist fashion during the Cultural Revolution was symbolic of a certain sense of identity, later and more modern styles represent a new found freedom in social and political life. In the 1980's the Chinese cultural profile had changed dramatically. "The benefits of the market-oriented economic reforms initiated by Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, were quite visible. Accommodations in the larger cities were now up to Western standards. The quality and quantity of consumer goods had increased sharply." More importantly, "Dress was now individualized to the point where you could tell the men from the women, at least most of the time."

In both historical situations the fashion of the time presents a particular cultural construction of reality. The style of dress and the uniform attire of the Maoist period represents and provides evidence of the Communist cultural ideal of commonality and equality for all, as well as the cultural motivation for a reduction of status differences in the society.

However, the cultural context of Chinese society was very different in other periods and was not always interested in displaying rigid egalitarianism though fashion. The older Chinese Dynasties were dependent on a severe and strict status hierarchy in society; which was also represented in the style of dress and fashion.

A with the development of ceremonial control which goes along with elaboration of political structure, differences of quantity, quality, shape and colour are united to produce dresses distinctive of classes. This trait is most marked where the rule is most despotic; as in China where "between the highest mandarin or prime minister and the lowest constable, there are nine classes, each distinguished by a dress peculiar to itself;"

The cultural construction of social class structure and systems of status are revealed in the style of some traditional forms of fashion. For example in the attendants of the Mikado who are, clad after a particular fashion... And there is so much difference even among themselves, as to their habits, that thereby alone it is easily known what rank they are of, or what employment they have at Court; and as in European countries during times of unchecked personal government, when each class had its distinctive costume"

In this sense costume and fashion are means of social categorization and identity.

A similar example from Japanese history also reveals clothing and fashion which is highly representative of social class and status; for example, in the style of dress of the nobility in Japan during the Heian Period (794-1185 a.D.)

Twelve-layered ceremonial robe was worn by court lady and peeress. This ceremonial robe weigh about 44 lbs or more; therefore, those women had a hard time to walk. According to an instructor, who teaches how to wear the ceremonial robe, said those women often walked by knee when they move inside of a room and sat down on the floor with drawing their either side of knee. Men wore Sokutai as their formal clothes. Those clothes were based on clothes in Tang Dynasty... The color of those clothes were considered as important, so people select appropriate color for each occasion and in each season.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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