Fashioning Empire: Chinese Chic

Apr 29, 2021

Hello and welcome back to Fashioning Empire! Today, we’re having our final overview of clothes, and then we’re plunging into analysis! Let’s take a look at our most special case – China, which, if you remember your history lessons, spent the time period in question under spheres of influence.

First, let’s look at how Chinese styles influenced deshabille. Throughout the early 1900s, Vogue encouraged shopping in Chinatowns; original Chinese garments – made of high quality silk and stunningly embroidered – were being sold as cheap curiosities in America. Many of these were looted from Beijing during the suppression of the Boxer Uprising. These suits were obviously entirely conserved – they were originals – but they were worn only in private (Vogue on several occasions recommended purchasing “Mandarin robes” as cheap and beautiful “boudoir sets”).

Left: “Boudoir set of embroidered jacket, skirt and shoes.” Vogue, December 15, 1911, p. 94. Right: “Fancy-­boxed perfumes.” Vogue, December 5, 1901, p. xviii.

This seems to mirror the trajectory of the kimono, yet there is one key difference – the kimono remained a luxury item, but the Chinese robes were sold as cheap curiosities in Chinatowns. Similarly, as Heather Chan pointed out in her From Costume to Fashion1, there was a fad for packaging perfumes in lotus shoes – it was a relatively cheap way to own the exotic, a way to decorate the boudoir. Here we see a desire to preserve a quickly dissipating image of Imperial China, of this exotic land of fairytales that was quickly modernizing.

As for daywear: there was a trend for jackets and coats cut in lines vaguely suggesting various Chinese garments to be decorated with bands of Chinese embroidery – here, the embroidery was transplanted onto Western dress, but, unlike with Indian beetlewing embroidery, which, if you’ll remember, decorated dresses European in construction and material, this dress did draw inspiration from China in cut and was usually made of Chinese silks.

“The Chinese Summer Dress.” Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1913, p. 26.

This 1913 article from the Ladies’ Home Journal2 describing the use of Chinese embroidery contains an excellent description of attitudes towards traditional Chinese clothing (specifically traditional, as this is the time period of the “new China” – this is a year after the founding of the Republic of China, and the exotic land perception of the land, though not the culture, is fading away). It reads:

“China has always been known as possessing a wonderful, though somewhat barbaric, color sense, and the exquisite beauty of its hand embroidery is the marvel of every needlewoman.”

Old China was fascinating, but its exoticism was still barbaric.

And that’s it for today! We’re done with our overview of actual articles of clothing, which means next week, we’ll have our analysis! Until then, farewell!

1Chan, Heather. “From Costume to Fashion: Visions of Chinese Modernity in Vogue Magazine, 1892-1943.” Ars Orientalis, Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2017,–from-costume-to-fashion-visions-of-chinese-modernity?rgn=main;view=fulltext#N36

2 “The Chinese Summer Dress.” Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1913, p. 26.


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