In 2007, Dior’s Haute Couture collection by John Galliano consisted of exaggerated Kimono styles and geisha makeup which simplified Japan to its most basic cultural symbols. It is of no surprise then, that this collection was omitted, while Maria Grazia Chiuri’s cascading cherry blossom ‘Look 64’ was the centrepiece in the most recent exhibit at the V&A. Chiuri’s use of the motif was sensitive, complementary, and clearly well informed. Similarly, Maison Margiela’s cult favourite Tabi boot is an ongoing study and re-interpretion of Japanese split-toe footwear, and brand ASAI has just come out with their “nunchuck bag” in an ingenious twist on tradition. High fashion brands like these are learning how to use Asian references to create innovative and nuanced pieces.
But can the same be said for Pretty Little Thing’s “Oriental Print Cut Out Bodycon Dress”? Or for I.AM.GIA, and their ‘Anna’ mini Dress available in colour “Black Oriental?” Or for Dollskill and their “Take A Bite” Chinese take-out costume complete with chopstick hair accessories? If fast fashion retailers continue to translate Chinese and Japanese influences into pure profit, we risk losing the cultural sensitivity exemplified by designers like Chiuri and Margiela.
Qipao/cheongsam style dresses, jacquard brocade fabrics and knot fastenings find their origins in Chinese wedding dresses and traditional Japanese kimonos. The characteristic attention to detail and intricate craftsmanship credits East Asian fashion with international popularity. However, as Asian clothing becomes a fashion trend in the West, we reach a dangerous point where the fetishized culture becomes peddled alongside its produce. More often than not, the kimonos and qipaos are tight fitting and low cut, and are marketed as sexy. This air of sex appeal is not entirely innocent, and even if unconsciously, capitalises on stereotypes.
There is a long history of Chinese and Japanese women being fetishized by Western men, often treated as colonial bounty. Objectifying language such as “China Doll”, “Lotus Flower” and “Vixen” are all common descriptors of Asian Women, along with an expectation of sexual willingness, vulnerability, and exotic bragging rights. This blanket association of ‘Asian’ with ‘sexy’ is alive and well today. Song lyrics such as “she’s an oriental rug cause I lay her where I please” by The Bloodhound Gang; tinder messages such as “never been with an Asian before so banging you would be a dream come true”, (highlighted by Brittany Wong for the Huffington post); and more serious cases like that in 2000 committed by Edmund Ball, who abducted two Japanese girls in Washington, and specified it was because he assumed their passivity, and believed they wouldn’t report it.
A crop-top cannot incite this type of aggressive fetishization, but it does profit from it. It’s a system that trusts we will implicitly exoticize Asian cultures, and therefore putting a dragon on a plain black top is enough to market it as sexy. It also trusts we will ignore the consequences of this.
Regardless of your views on this cultural philosophy, the exploitation goes beyond pirated imagery. H&M has 80% of its factories in Bangladesh & China, and in 2018 was named in reports for abusing female garment workers and has not delivered its promise to pay 850,000 workers a living wage. H&M, along with many others, reaps the profit of Koi Fish and Dragons on vest-tops, whilst exploiting the people to whom these motifs belong. I’m sure you’ve seen simple qipao dresses sold as new on depop, even if you have never looked for one. These are obviously not made by master craftsmen in China, they’re bought from sites like alliexpress for around £7, which are sourced from factories full of overworked and grossly underpaid young Asian women. Can we ever call that H&M kanji print jumper, or depoped Mandarin collar dress, an appreciation of Asian culture in the same way that we might for Maria Grazia Chiuri’s ‘Look 64’ or the Tabi boot?
This is by no means a call-to-arms, or an instruction to burn your PrettyLittleThing top. We are often too quick to dismiss “PC” arguments to mean “you’re not allowed” when really, they mean “take note and adjust”. I urge you to continue to be fascinated by Asian culture and by Asian fashion, for to be insular in fear of criticism is certainly not the future. This is not an attack, this is an appeal to a more conscious buyer, who stops and thinks about what they’re consuming, or for that matter, who.