When I think of the defining expressions of culture, style of dress is an element that comes to the forefront of my mind along with other conventional cultural elements such as food, religion, language, etc. Of these four elements, I find that style of dress in Shanghai has succumbed the most to Western influence. This was quite surprising to me upon my arrival, as I was making comparisons between my experience living abroad in Kuwait and my experience living abroad in Shanghai. In Kuwait, and in the other Middle Eastern states that I have travelled to (Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Oman), cultural expression through dress is still very much alive, despite great Western influence. Men wear white ankle-length dresses (dishdasha) and checkered or white headscarves (schemagh), while women wear long black cloaks (abaya) and/or headscarves (hijab). Children and young people tend to wear Western clothing but in a very modest fashion. Skirts, dresses, and shorts always cover the knees while shirts cover the shoulders and upper chest.
I was disheartened to find that cultural dress in Shanghai had been swallowed up by globalization and replaced by business suits, H&M, hoodies, and Converse shoes. There is little left to be seen of the long traditional silk hanfu robes, the high-collared Chinese tunic (or Mao/Zhongshan suit), or the luxurious floral qipao gowns. What disturbed me further, was the sight of a traditional straw Chinese rice hat on display as an object of Orientalism in the esprit Dior exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I am sad to say that of the few times I have seen an article of traditional clothing in Shanghai, it was taken out of its original context and appropriated by Western culture to be enjoyed as a piece of art “designed” by the masterful Christian Dior. The dominance of Western dress, in combination with the objectification of Chinese dress, is truly a testament to the extent of globalization in Shanghai. In today’s Shanghai, Western modes of economics, architecture, music, technology, and dress are exalted for their modernity and sophistication, while Chinese modes are forgotten for being too backward and traditional. In this way, globalization is an extension of Edward Said’s Orientalism, a powerful discursive weapon that perpetuates global Western superiority by describing non-Western societies as inferior and in need of “civilizing”.
Umm hello racism.”The Bar” by Dior. Photo cred: http://awhitecarousel.com/tag/christian-dior/
A Historical Look at Orientalism
Edward Said began writing his classic work, Orientalism, as an investigation into the discrepancies between the way Arabic people were portrayed in Western media and art, and his real lived experience as an Arab-American man. In the 19th century, Europeans conjured up works of literature and art that portrayed an image of the Orient that was exotic, sensual, passive, barbaric, mysterious, and non-progressive (Jhally, 1999). In other words, an Orient that was hostile to development. Although these representations are completely false (great empirical powers such as the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Ottomans are certainly not what one would call “passive” or “undeveloped”), the average European did not have the wealth to travel abroad and experience the Orient for himself or herself, nor the critical thinking skills to question these dominant representations. This distorted production of knowledge provided Europeans with a mirror for which they could compare their Occidental “civility” to Oriental “inferiority”. By reducing the Orient to such terms, they could better master it, control it, and legitimize the exploitative colonialism of it as a “civilizing mission”. This perverted lens through which the West gazes upon the East, as a means of enhancing and maintaining colonial power, is what Said calls Orientalism (Paritosh, 2012; Jhally, 1999).
Photo cred: http://www.inbetweenreadings.nl/
As colonialism spread, the Orient evolved to include not just the Middle East but the Far East as well; all societies that are non-Western are non-modern. Orientalism continues to thrive today in the way that Arab people are vilified in mainstream news media, in the way that NGO’s consistently portray Africa as a continent populated by helpless victims, and in the way that China has been coerced to mimic the West in order to gain respect and acknowledgement on the world stage.
The West (Occident) and Orient . In today’s terms, the “The Developed” and the “Un-Developed” . Tomato, Tomahto.
Photo cred: http://www.dylanfox.net/?p=995
Globalization in Shanghai: An Outcome of Neocolonial Orientalism
In 1980’s China, the early stages of “catch up” to the West characterized by market-oriented economic reform, the central government promoted the following slogan: ‘bringing China into the world’s orbit’. The phrase ‘the world’ referring, of course, to Westernized developed countries. Developed countries became the criterion against which China could gage its “success” as a modern nation (Bao, 2008). The echoes of Orientalism here blatant, unless China can perform economically at a competitive global level, it remains in the dark ages. In the case of contemporary China, the Orientalist gaze comes not only from Western pressures to “develop”, but also from Chinese elites themselves who then direct the pressure to “develop” onto the masses. This is a kind of internalized Orientalism. I see both external and internal Orientalist forces at work in China. Those who are exploiting the country’s environment, cheap labour force, and cheap cost of production, in the name of Western style development and Western hegemony, are both Western and Chinese. They include both the Western and Chinese businessmen and politicians who manage these development schemes, and the Western and Chinese consumers who continue to demand Western products, services, and lifestyles. Conversely, those who are being exploited are exclusively Chinese. In this way, Orientalist discourse is still in use today as a means of capitalizing upon an “undeveloped” China in order to carryout a neocolonial economic agenda disguised as “globalization”.
esprit Dior: Consuming Orientalist Ideals
Western economies are not only able to produce a high level of lucrative goods and services, but are also able to consume a high level of lucrative goods and services. A new consumer class, or “petty bourgeoisie” class as they are known locally, has emerged in Shanghai as an offshoot of globalization. They consume a Westernized lifestyle comprised of Hollywood and French films, American-style steaks, British fashions, and highbrow cultural activities such as operas and art exhibitions (Bao, 2008).
The esprit Dior exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Shanghai, is an example of one such petty bourgeoisie event. From September 13 to November 20, the entire gallery space, including permanent exhibits, was cleared out to make way for this celebration of French haute couture, high culture, and privilege. Gowns embellished with gold, silk stilettos, diamond-encrusted jewelry, and luxury fragrances include some of the highlights of the display. The showcase included original mid-20th century works by Christian Dior and the works of his predecessors who have carried on the Dior label since his early death in 1957. It is clear that Western fashion has already brazenly invaded commercial space in Shanghai. With the coming of the esprit Dior exhibition, Western fashion has now exerted its power and dominance further through the shameless invasion of Shanghai’s highbrow artistic space, pushing local artists and fashion designers aside. The petty bourgeoisie are not interested in the works of Chinese fashion designers, they want to experience high fashion, they want Dior (Bao, 2008). Indeed, the exhibition described Parisian couture as “synonymous” with luxury and elegance. In fact, the idea of Dior is so luxurious that the word “esprit”, which precedes it in the exhibition title, esprit Dior, is unworthy of capitalization. This veneration of Western cultural goods and lifestyles extinguishes the legitimacy of Eastern cultural goods and lifestyles and promotes the consumptive and lifestyle habits of the West: modern day Orientalism in a nutshell.
The esprit Dior exhibition further contributes to modern day Orientalism in the way it portrays Eastern dress. The Dior brand has appropriated elements of cultural dress from all over the Orient. There are designs that involve a black hijab-like veil modeled on a pale-faced woman, Samburu influenced beadwork, a Chinese rice hat, Egyptian headdresses and chest plates, amongst countless others. These cultural reproductions, taken out of their authentic context, are objectifying. The Chinese rice hat is no longer associated with a rich history of traditional farming practices, but is now something worn by the Westernized consumer as an expression of his or her incredible “cosmopolitanism”, despite the fact that the consumer has quite likely never spent a single day of his or her life in a rice field. Cultural appropriation mocks Eastern traditions by bastardizing the original meaning embedded in cultural dress, which could ultimately end up in the complete loss of that cultural meaning unless those to whom it rightfully belongs maintain it. In the esprit Dior exhibit, and in numerous other instances of Western fashion, elements of Eastern cultural dress take on new meanings that suit the West, meanings that convey mastery over the East. What remains hidden from the consumer, are the power relations underlying this form of cultural appropriation. The Western fashion industry does not openly acknowledge that the reason it is in the position to manufacture new cultural meanings from Eastern cultural groups, is because those cultural groups have been, and continue to be, exploited, forgotten, and discarded.
Islamic Cultural Appropriation
Samburu Cultural Appropriation
Egyptian Cultural Appropriation
Photo cred: http://blogs.staradvertiser.com/aggregate/?cat=392
Anonymous. (No date). My culture is not a trend: a dialogue about cultural appropriation. On reverse cultural appropriation [Blog]. Retrieved from: http://mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com/post/781005138/on-reverse-cultural-appropriation
Bao Y. (2008). Shanghai Weekly: globalization, consumerism, and Shanghai popular culture. Inter-Asian Cultural Studies. 9 (4), pages 557-567.
Jhally S. (Producer). (1999) Edward Said – On Orientalism [Motion Picture]. United States of America:Media Education Foundation. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwCOSkXR_Cw
Paritosh K. (2012, January 24). Tools for Thinking About Development: Culture, Colonialism and Power [PowerPoint Slides]. Culture and Development – DEVS 240.