China Chic: East Meets West
by Valerie Steele, John S. Major
Hmm, I didn’t mean to review two books in a row that both feature cheong sam collars on the cover. Huh. What a random little coincidence.
China Chic is an ambitious book that looks to unravel the history of Chinese fashion. The history of clothing for both men and women are traced from the early Han and Qin dynasties to the modern day, revealing the many alterations that different rulers and foreign influences created as time went on. The strict rules and restrictions imposed by the Imperial Court, much discussed in other history books I’ve read, were not as rigorously enforced as I’d been led to believe and many peasants and nobles occasionally veered outside their “proper” spheres of dress. Indeed, this book is as much about clearing up misconceptions as celebrating fashion. An essay on foot-binding clarifies that as painful as the process was, this extreme body modification was considered beautiful, and would not have been practiced for one thousand years if women were not willing participants. It details the how and attempts to explain the why without imposing our modern sensibilities on women of previous centuries.
The book also offers essays on the influence Chinese design has on European and American fashion designers over the years. From the arrival of silk on Roman trading routes to dressing gowns at the turn of the previous century, Chinese aesthetics and materials would influence European nations time and time again. Now, with the globalization of the twenty-first century, Chinese influence can be seen nearly every season in at least one designer’s collection in Paris, New York, Milan or Tokyo. At the same time, European dress is changing how the Chinese wear their clothes, creating unique hybrid clothes that have become as iconic as the most traditional robes. The qi pao/cheong sam is one of the most distinctive styles to come from this union of East and West, and multiple essays discuss this popular dress.
It wouldn’t be a book about fashion without pages of lush illustration. The photographs come from a variety of sources, like official Mao propaganda posters and advertisements emphasizing the exotic appeal of a smiling, cheong sam-clad Chinese temptress, runway shots from Paris and photographs from personal collections. Terracotta figurines from tombs reveal clothing styles from early dynasties as surely as surviving dragon robes from the Ming emperors. It’s fascinating to visually see how the styles changed over the years because it is so easy – and so common – to imagine that China was an unchanging empire, staying exactly the same year after year.
This book is almost ten years old now, but the information is still valuable. I do hope that Steel and Major consider updating the book, and publishing a revised edition; China’s such a volatile and ever-evolving nation that new insights would certainly merit a revisit.