Chinoiserie & the Fashioning of the Self through Aesthetics of Exoticism


Nicole Kidman in John Galliano dress, Dior, spring/summer 1997 haute couture. Chartreuse silk charmeuse with macramé and embroidery of polychrome silk thread; brown mink fur.

A chartreuse garment in silk charmeuse. A mesh back that is framed in striking embroidery, these delicate threads forming a free-flowing design of flowers, pagodas and rococoesque C-scrolls. These features describe the breathtaking gown Nicole Kidman wore to the 1997 Academy Awards. From John Galliano’s début collection for the House of Dior, this famous dress changed the rules of Oscar fashion by introducing haute couture to the most important night in the movie business, and its effects are still ‘worn’ by both the fashion and film industry today. Most importantly, the garment marks a transitional moment in Kidman’s life, a juncture when her public persona shifted from being an actress who was the wife of Tom Cruise, to being recognised as a star who determined her own personality. Interestingly, this gown, the history of which has been fabricated to emphasise its transformative powers, adorns Kidman’s body in exotic ornamentation, and mysterious images of the East meander across the surface of the incandescent silk. They become a projection, radiating Kidman’s inner glamour, desires and mystique. With inmost emotional landscapes refigured and manifested on the very fabric of the dress, Kidman’s chinoiserie attire sets her on a course that traverses the difficult terrain of film and celebrity culture. She becomes a traveller, a tourist in her own life who sees, collects and translates foreign appearances in order to weave together her identity.

If I begin this post by joining clothing with self-identity, then it is to draw attention to the fact that selfhood is always constructed – ‘fashioned’ if you will – and to consider the role that the ornamental style of chinoiserie might play in this process. As a fashionable trend, chinoiserie speaks in aesthetic translations, and it reorganises the passage from East to West into a decorative surface. Indeed, the materiality of Kidman’s celebrated gown does not simply convey the actress’s own emotional narrative: it also embodies and expresses a history of cultural exchanges and transformations that spans several centuries. By tracing the affective histories of chinoiserie, I reflect here on subjectivities that are fabricated through ‘aesthetics of exoticism’.[1]

To begin, what is chinoiserie? Emerging in the late seventeenth century, chinoiserie is traditionally characterised as European-made commodities that seek to replicate or evoke the aesthetics and materiality of Chinese design, such as the asymmetrical motifs found on silk, porcelain and lacquerware furniture. This explanation is misleading: many chinoiserie objects were, in fact, made in China with the intent of being sold in the European market; Chinese manufacturers were creating goods and compositions they knew would be popular in the West. In any case, chinoiserie is always an interpretation of Chinese styles and cultures.

Understood in this way, chinoiserie is the aestheticisation of translation, making visible the processes of transcultural convergences. China has always figured in the European imagination; however, contact between the two hemispheres was limited and sporadic. With the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, interactions gradually became more continual. Slowly – and not without resistance – trading companies from Holland, Portugal, Britain and eventually France established trade routes and ports in the East. Little by little, material commodities such as spices, silks, cottons, porcelain, lacquerware furniture, fans and wallpapers arrived on European shores. Additionally, sailors and missionaries recorded and drew their experiences of Chinese art, architecture and daily culture. Eventually published, these engravings fuelled European longings to be close to the exciting world of the Orient.

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Chinese wallpaper with garden motifs, c. 18th century, Badenburg, built 1718–1721, Munich.

The objects that circulated introduced Europe to new designs, which ultimately developed into new existential attitudes. The West became aware of different varieties of flora, fauna and personages, and vibrant colours, the likes of which Europe have never before seen, were incorporated into clothing and interior spaces. Furthermore, the Asian method of printing directly onto fabric, a technique not yet mastered by European textile producers, allowed for freer, asymmetrical and more informal patterns, and the fluidity of line remains one of the most significant aspects of Chinese visual culture that the West absorbed. It is not just the twisting forms that caught the curious European eye: the very materiality on which chinoiserie ornamentation moves across – the cool and smooth surfaces of silk, porcelain and lacquerware, or the feathery lightness of cotton – was so dissimilar texturally to the usual Western sensations of touch.

Soon, the continent was crazy for all things Asian, with the European market working hard to reproduce these commodities to fill gaps in this lucrative economic environment. Chinoiserie objects, and in some cases entire chinoiserie rooms, appeared in European households. Although the quality of produce varied greatly according to the consumer’s financial situation, the point remains that ‘exotic’ aesthetics and materials were being woven into everyday European life. By the early eighteenth century, a moment in chinoiserie’s history I am particularly interested in, the style occupied a liminal space. It was somehow both foreign and familiar, creating worlds that were both alien and quotidian. It is remarkable from a twenty-first-century perspective, an era which has seen the boundaries between cultures made impenetrable and xenophobic sentiments explode, that the formation of modern European identities was actually built upon an assimilation and, in many cases, a celebration of ‘foreignness’.

Gene Tierney in dress by Oleg Cassini, publicity photograph for The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941).

This narrative contextually places chinoiserie in a temporally specific location, but to a modern observer, chinoiserie may as well be a contemporary aesthetic. From the luxury of haute couture to the mass production of prêt-à-porter, from exquisite interior design to cheap tea sets, chinoiserie, it would seem, is everywhere today. Truth be told, it is inhibiting to think of chinoiserie purely as a historically fixed style as it has undergone multiple metamorphoses over the years, and with each incarnation, a new tangle of conditions and meanings transpire. For example, Hollywood in the early and mid-twentieth century mobilised chinoiserie in both film and publicity campaigns, where the style signified the allure, as well as the danger, of the exotic. The ‘Chinese objects’ of these movies – which found their highest expression in film noir titles like The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941), The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Wells, 1947) and Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) – held secrets, and were traded and held in order that their enigmas be revealed, a desire that is often thwarted and never realised.

Dress by Travis Banton for Anna May Wong. 1934. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A recent exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York entitled ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’ (2015) explored the ever-present and ever-changing histories of chinoiserie. Surveying the long interaction between China and the West, interactions that in the exhibition were primarily crystallised in the mediums of fashions and film, this exposition cultivated controversial conceptualisations. In the words of curator Andrew Bolton:

while neither discounting nor discrediting the issue of representation of “subordinated otherness” outlined by [Edward] Said, China: Through the Looking Glass attempts to propose a less politicised and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a locus of infinite and unbridled creativity.[2]

Since projects like these run a serious risk of being misconstrued, I want to quickly address the notion of chinoiserie in regard to cultural appropriation.

Chinoiserie today is repeatedly (mis)understood as a set of culturally reductive signs that circulate a fetishised image of China based on stereotypes. From this angle, chinoiserie is inauthentic and distorted. With well-meaning but fundamentally dogmatic debates on cultural preservation all the rage, the issue of chinoiserie is an important one, particularly as the ‘fashionable’ critique of cultural appropriation commonly reduces the phenomenon to being solely indicative of the West’s controlling grip and gaze. I cannot fully speak to these concerns in this space; however, it is worth repeating that chinoiserie dwells in the space between binary oppositions, communicating – through the adaptability and diversity of surface design – the potential for personal transformations. Consider the Pagodenburg pavilion at Nymphenburg Palace. Built between 1716 and 1719, the interior of this small garden palace was designed to replicate the famous colour schemes found on Chinese porcelain. The entire world is represented in one room, and nationalistic boundaries are meant to be crossed. The affective interior surfaces of the Pagodenburg that take the beholder on global journeys in their mind signal that chinoiserie is not an aggressive mode of viewing. Instead, it is a haptic way of looking that desires to come into contact with that which is foreign, to caress the unknown and bring it closer. In this sense, chinoiserie encourages fluid surrenders to the unfamiliar, and the viewer is enveloped and draped in exotic surfaces.

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Pagodenburg, Josef Effner, 1716–1719, Munich.

Drawing inspiration from the look, history and philosophies of chinoiserie, I want to rethink the lines marked out in discourses orientated towards cultural appropriation in our contemporary visual culture. Chinoiserie is less about the products of transcultural exchange than it is about the passage between things, less about what something represents than it is about the emotional journey we embark on to discover meaning. To understand chinoiserie is to handle it as an agent of cultural motion: a translation. In translating the aesthetics and materials of the East, chinoiserie deconstructs – and most certainly disfigures – the ‘original’, yet at the same time, the style makes clear that translation is also the production of new spaces and ideas. In order to theorise cultural appropriation, then, we must turn to more transient reasonings to emphasise the ephemeral nature of cultural conversions. Such an approach would see chinoiserie not as a ‘false’ rendering of the East, but as a style that offers subjects the pleasures of spatial and cultural displacements.

Mirror, attributed to Thomas Johnson, c. 1750–1760, carved and gilded wood, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

And with that we are led back to Kidman’s chinoiserie gown, although in truth we never really left it. Through the decoration of personal spaces with foreign objects, or perhaps in the cloaking of the body with exotic ornamentation, we can travel the globe. By looking at or wearing chinoiserie objects, our emotions wander and we go on tender journeys in our minds. We carve out a space to dream, to create, blurring the divide between foreign and familiar, crossing that gulf between travelling and dwelling. In this, I am reminded of John Locke’s philosophies, which introduced in the seventeenth century, around the same time chinoiserie was increasing in popularity, a new type of subjectivity. Surrounded by a Europe in crisis as traditional political, social and theological orders disintegrated, Locke abandoned the idea that identity is somehow inherent to demonstrate that selfhood is ‘fashioned’ over time.[3] Chinoiserie intensifies this theory by emphasising the exotic, demonstrating that the line between what is foreign and what is familiar is always shifting, in the same manner that identity and subjectivity are never a fixed essence, but rather a series of (re)fashionings.

Culture and history are also not static, pure and natural concepts, but rather fluid, hybrid and constructed geographies. Chinoiserie, with its mix of East and West, playfully reminds us of this fact. Chinoiserie was a troubling aesthetic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – and remains so today – precisely because it troubles the rigid dichotomies of East/West, exotic/familiar, self/other, authentic/inauthentic that are embedded in conventional critical thinking and notions of identity. To learn from chinoiserie is to see that identity is nothing more than a fashionable yet individualised garment, worn and then discarded as a new subjectivity is adopted. In these costume changes, identity emerges in gaps, pauses and adaptations. Caught in the motion of chinoiserie, we are nothing but tourists in our own existence, sentimentally and actively collecting postcards in voyages through the exotic terrains of our lives, fashioning our identities through textured and transformative memories.

Samuel Harvey is a PhD candidate and research assistant in both Screen and Cultures Studies and the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of the Emotions at The University of Melbourne. His thesis, entitled ‘Rococo Film Aesthetics and the Sinuous Cinema of Sofia Coppola’, examines the (re)emergence of the eighteenth-century decorative style of the rococo in contemporary visual culture, as is particularly evident in the films of Sofia Coppola. More on his research here.

Further Reading:

Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New York: Verso, 2002.

——. ‘Surface, Texture, Weave: The Fashioned World of Wong Kar-wai’, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2014, pp. 35–51.

DeJean, Joan. ‘The Fabric of Their Lives’, The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual—and the Modern Home Began. New York, Berlin and London: Bloomsbury, 2009, pp. 205–18.

Jacobson, Dawn. Chinoiserie. London: Phaidon Press, 1993.

Jenkins, Eugenia Zuroski. A Taste for China: English Subjectivity and the Prehistory of Orientalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Lemire, Beverly and Riello, Giorgio. ‘East & West: Textiles and Fashion in Early Modern Europe’, Journal of Social History 41.4 (summer 2008): 892–907.

Porter, David. ‘Chinoiserie and the Aesthetics of Illegitimacy’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 28 (1999): 27–54.

——. The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 

Many thanks to Angela Ndalianis for her insightful and invaluable comments on this post.

[1] The phrase ‘aesthetics of exoticism’ originates from David Porter, The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[2] Andrew Bolton, ‘Toward an Aesthetic of Surfaces’, in China: Through the Looking Glass, edited by Nancy E. Cohen (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015), p. 17, italics in the original.

[3] See Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins’ interpretation of Lockean philosophies in Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins, A Taste for China: English Subjectivity and the Prehistory of Orientalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 45–50.

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