Fashion and orientalism: a history of cross-pollination

11 April 2013

The 'Orient' has always been more of a place of imagination than a geographic place, argues Adam Geczy in his new book.
The 'Orient' has always been more of a place of imagination than a geographic place, argues Adam Geczy in his new book.

A new book by Adam Geczy, an artist and a lecturer at the Sydney College of the Arts, is the first comprehensive survey of Orientalism in fashion. Titled Fashion and Orientalism, Geczy's book sees fashion as a history of cross-pollination, exchange - and sometimes outright stealing - between the East and the West.

The book begins with the startling fact that almost every name for pre-synthetic textiles now taken for granted in the West - including cotton, satin, damask, muslin, chintz and jute - derives from Middle Eastern or Asiatic roots. It goes on to trace the evolution of fashion in the (always fluid) spheres of 'East' and 'West'. Geczy shows readers how fashion - and the associated trade in materials and goods - rather than being a peripheral frippery of history, has often played a central role in the rise and fall of markets, cities, courts and even empires.

For example, while cotton, silks and other materials were coveted luxuries in the West from as early as the 13th century, by the 1840s exports from an industrialising England to China and Africa eclipsed those of India. In response to this imbalance of trade, "the competitive rallying point for the Orient was quality," writes Geczy.

He goes on to note that "since the late-20th century these fortunes have reversed, with fashion producers such as Italy and France using the cachet of quality as the only way to compete against the productive might of India and China".

Geczy's book also looks at how the notion of the 'Orient' in the West has always been less of a geographic place than a place of imagination. And as a place of imagination, the 'Orient' has been able to encapsulate many different, and sometimes contradictory, meanings. For example, while members of seventeenth century French courts adopted oriental affectations such as the turban and Persian vest to symbolise power, status and rank, 19th century bohemians and 20th century hippies embraced oriental styles and motifs to symbolise their free-thinking and anti-establishment views.

More recently, Indians in the 1970s who wore Western fashion such as bell bottom jeans could be seen as expressing Western notions of development, progress and wealth. Geczy says he hopes his book "shows how the West exists in the East as much as East in the West. They 'live' in one another and their 'own' identity is created by acts of constant slippage and renewal."

He writes that while today the West might be aghast at the way South East Asian manufacturers think nothing of ripping off Western prestige brands, the practice of cultural plundering also reached a high point in the West in the 17th and 18th centuries. French designers, for example, stole freely from an eastern "visual lexicon", flooding markets with their interpretations of "generic Chinese figures, effulgent floral arrangements, distorted animals, birds with wavy, feathery tendrils and gauntly angular trees."

He also writes about how the East "has orientalised itself, or re-orientalised" itself. One of his most intriguing pieces of research, he says, was his discovery that the kimono's elevation to the status of Japan's national dress was largely a conceit for the benefit of the West when Japan opened its doors in 1868. Similarly in 1920s China the long, body hugging one-piece dress sometimes known as the cheongsam became associated with the Chinese national dress - even as it was accessorised with western stockings, high heels, side-slits and western-style make-up.

Geczy's initial training was as a visual artist, then he continued his studies in art history and French literature, completing a PhD on the topic of the visual in Marcel Proust. But as he notes "art is essentially the history of style up to a certain point". But he adds that fashion diverges from art in one important way: fashion - worn on the body and both more disposable and accessible than art - is where "things that are symptomatic of culture are far more explicit. This doesn't make fashion better, but it makes it an amendable diagnostic tool to understanding the broader spectrum of culture and cultural changes and aspirations."

Melissa Chiu, the director of the Asia Society Museum in New York, has already lavished praise on his book: "Geczy opens our eyes to an understanding of fashion as an exchange of values between Asia and the West for the past 500 years," she says. "This timely, patiently researched, brilliantly written book will become the standard reference for the field and a must-read for anyone interested in the intersections of cultural studies, art history and philosophy."

Fashion and Orientalism: Dress, Textiles and Culture from the 17th to the 21st Century, by Adam Geczy is published by Bloomsbury.

Follow University of Sydney Media on Twitter

Media enquiries: Kath Kenny, 0478 303 173, 02 9351 1584,