Dissertation: East Meets West: Oriental Influence on Western

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East Meets West: Oriental Influence on Western Fashion

Clothing is rarely recognized as a political force, yet fashion and design may be one of the most internationally regarded forms of trade, communication, and influence among countries worldwide. Perhaps more than any other form of shared knowledge, fashion permeates the boundaries of nations to influence the styles of people everywhere. According to an official defitnion, "fashion consists of a current (constantly changing) trend, favoured for frivolous rather than practical, logical, or intellectual reasons." (Kobres et al.) However accurate this statement may be in some ways, it does not at all encompass the vast array of cultural and social implications that a mere mention of the word "fashion" will entail. "So pervasive has the role of the imagined and real East been in Western culture that Orientalism in fashion is inescapable. The subject raises provocative issues, including many of gender, class, colonialism, and racism that seem to be more political than sartorial. But there is never a means of separating the issues of politics and dress." (Martin) The phenomena of fashion is a social aspect of clothing, aesthetics, art, and attitude, occurring in the intersections of a diverse range of cultural existence. Fashion is an expression of personal style; it is an expression of the individual's emotions, beliefs, and personality. In addition to identifying one's separateness, it can also create community and interpersonal bonds. Fashion can identify members of a social or economic group, and can draw those with similar personalities to one another.

Fashion within a particular region identifies the culture of that area. The life experiences that each person has within a geographically enclosed area are connected in a way that outsiders may never grasp. The climate, the social structure, and all other elements of life create elements in fashion. Fashion is life reflecting art to the highest degree, for it is the art that each person takes into his or her identity, it is the art that becomes the self and the self that becomes art. Those people with status in a particular culture have the ability to start and end fashion trends and styles as those who respect them will model their own aesthetic style after said people. Peers within each culture share a special bond through fashions that are popular among those of the same age group, social class, or special interest groups. Those who stray outside of the predefined fashion circles may be labeled a "slave to fashion" (Kobres et al.) as they try to identify with a dissimilar group of people. However, there is another possible outcome. Perhaps straying from fashion norms can start new styles; perhaps grabbing ideas for clothing, accessories, and personal appearance can spread the influence of a region to other areas in a positive growth cycle.

Fashion evolves as quickly as any other fast-paced element of society, never becoming stagnant. Some people are critical of the movement and growth of the industry, claiming it encourages people to become materialistic, rushing at every opportunity to spend more and more money on unnecessary items. However, this change and growth is precisely what makes fashion a true form of human expression. Diversity, experimentation, expression, and metamorphosis are what define human culture and fashion culture. As cultures touch, fashions exchange and spread. The in-look for the young rebels are eventually passed on to the older generations. The styles of one region are sent to another. "Young people, enjoy the diversity that changing fashion can apparently provide, seeing the constant change as a way to satisfy their desire to experience 'new' and 'interesting' things. Note too though that fashion can change to enforce uniformity, as in the case where so-called Mao suits became the national uniform of Mainland China." (Kobres et al.)

This is just one example of a common thread in world designs. The Orient has been a wellspring of fashion influence for both the Eastern and Western world since ancient times. "In the past, new discoveries and lesser-known parts of the world could provide an impetus to change fashions based on the exotic: Europe in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, for example, might favour things Turkish at one time, things Chinese at another, and things Japanese at a third."

Kobres et al.) The eighteenth century is not unique for having Oriental trends underlying fashion chic throughout the world. This was just one time period in a long history of Eastern fashions influencing the designs of the West.

Orientalism is the study of the East (the Orient) by Westerners. This study inevitably becomes an absorption of cultural elements.

The adoption of foreign styles has deep-running effects on both the culture of origin and the culture which absorbs the fashion. The East and Oriental design elements are striking to Westerners, representing the exotic and strange. Yet once these elements are accepted as part of the fashions of the West, it opens up an entirely new level of understanding between cultures. "These attractive visions of Non-western world reduces the "traditional" from being frightening "Other" to a mere fashion statement within the contemporary Orientalist discourse." (Solen) There are some objections to this trend, of course, from those who find the incorporation of traditional design elements from Asia, many of which have sacred or religious origins, into a culture which has no knowledge of the significance or importance of these images to be offensive or denigrating to the Orient. However, appreciating the beauty of a design, and bringing elements of ancient traditions into modern living might be a deep enough appreciation in and of itself to avoid being disrespectful. Asian styles which are an integrated part of Western fashions become removed from their origins and may be seen as an oddity or exotic specialty. Originally, these elements would have been natural, but upon reinterpretation they may be anything from natural to supernatural, prehistoric to futuristic. Fashion elements which are imported from the Orient into Western culture become something very different then they are when evaluated within the original context. A kimono worn by an American simply does not have the same artistic message as a kimono worn by a Japanese woman, yet both can appreciate and promote the beauty of this style. True fashion is not bound by any definition; boundaryless fashion benefits the world.

The professional Fashion designers that create Japanese styles for the world work for the culturally elite and socially advanced patrons that crave new styles and cutting edge status symbols. In ancient times, the most elegant of fashions were designed only for royalty and members of the court, not only in the Orient, but also across the world. However, designs for less-than-royalty wear have also made their way into the most fashionable and fancy designs of later time periods. Peasant or layman clothing styles from past centuries are an exotic commodity in fashion today, especially those styles worn by the "exotic" peoples of different cultures. Likewise, oriental fashions which were once reserved for only the mot elite of society are now designed for and marketed toward the common person that buys clothing at the mall or department store. Clothing based on the designs of that which was once used for hard-labor wear is now incorporated into elegant formal wear; what was once formal is now a part of everyday clothing. Time passing and cultural boundary crossing can completely transform the purpose and message of a clothing piece

Let us take a look at some of the historical fashion designs of Japan, one of the oriental countries with the most influence on Western styles throughout many time periods, including today. Everyday, ceremonial, and elite historical designs all influence today's fashion.

Everyday" Japanese dress for males and females, 4th-6th centuries:

Clothing was revolutionized in Japan when designs first emerged that utilized sewn fabrics, as opposed to simple garments without stitching of any kind. This was during the days of the Yamato court political structure emergence, in the fourth century Japan. The sewing of garments is of course an incredibly monumental moment in fashion history, and without the historical occurrence of such an idea, fashion today would certainly have little resemblance to the reality we know. The styles for both men and women were similar, but distinctive, assuring a sense of belonging throughout the community while defining the sex role differences. The top of the ensemble was designed rather androgynously with only slight variation between the male and female counterparts; the sleeves were tight and straight, and the hem of the shirt extended below the waist in a form-fittingly simple manner. The men wore "hakama" ("Japanese Dress in Former Times...") trousers, which fit loosely and had ties to bind them to the legs below the knees. The pleated simple skirts worn by Japanese women during this era were known as "mo" ("Japanese Dress in Former Times...") and extended to the ground. The floor-length pleated skirt has emerged throughout time as both a conservative and stylish alternative to straight-pressed fabric, and can be found among oriental-inspired professional Western styles… [END OF PREVIEW]

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