dmp: Taking a stroll in my finery (Default)
dmp ([personal profile] dmp) wrote2010-03-07 01:08 pm

Beyond Victoriana #17: The Semantics of Words & the Antics of Fashion: Addressing "Victorientalism"

This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there.

Jaymee and I had a discussion the other day triggered by the use of the word "Victorientalism" (also spelled "Vicorientalism") in the steampunk community and whether it is an appropriate description of the transcultural blend of Eastern and Western fashion. I had my first (rather angry) rant about Orientialism sometime around this time last year, and now would be apt to revisit those thoughts about Victorientalism.

First, let me say that steampunk, because it deals with the dynamics of history and its alternatives, can never, ever be considered apolitical.* History is always subjective, choosing to expose or veil people, events, and perspectives based on the bias of the teller. In fact, it's not surprising that the most widely-known histories are those written from the perspective of those in the dominant culture and that underrepresented histories are so because they have been ignored or oppressed by institutions in the dominant culture (government policy, school education, media representation, etc).

Even something that seems frivolous like fashion has political ramifications, since clothing, as the most basic form of self-identity, has always being subject of control by others. Threadbared, a journal that focuses on the politics of fashion and beauty, captures the sentiment of how the politics of clothing impact everyday life during their discussion about vintage:

Clothing matters because it is through clothing that persons are understood to matter, or not. Consider the Sartorialist's captions for the presumably homeless man, or his driver, which attribute to these anonymous figures qualities of human dignity and pride because of what they are wearing. Consider the hijab, and all the histories and conflicts that hinge upon the presence of absence of the veil as a sign of civilization and modernity or its opposite. Consider legislation throughout the centuries to regulate what might be worn by whom: European medieval sumptuary laws forbidding the conspicuous consumption of the bourgeoisie; Dutch colonial missionaries insisting that African "converts" abandon their "heathen" clothes in order to reform their bodies and souls; World War II-era rationing bans on the material extravagance of the "zoot suit," the informal uniform of black and Chicano youth, as "unpatriotic;" and contemporary legislation across cities in the United States criminalizing black male youth in sagging jeans.

Thus, when speaking about Orientalism aesthetics, its existence as an art form is undeniably entangled with its political and social consequences. Orientalist fashions has long served to romanticize colonialism both in the past and today. The word "Orientalism" itself was a creation of the West to use by the West in reference to the East. That alone is a reason that the use of "Orientalism" as a term, especially by white people, does not promote a message cultural equality and exchange. It rings of old colonialist sentiment, which is connected to the history of Western engagement with the East as Professor Richard Martin mentions in his article "Orienting the Wardrobe":

Interestingly, each strand of Orientalism in dress has arrived with its own political circumstances. India yielded much in being a colonial nation. China's long isolation crystallized Cathay as an enchanted dream, although clearly some soft goods, such as the brocaded silk velvet of a sixteenth-century Portuguese cape, passed early on to the West. The opening of Japan in the 1850's influenced impressionist artists and Western fashion enthusiasts alike.

Therefore, believing that the word "Victorientalism" implies a positive, transcultural blend is misguided. In fact, using the term "Victorientalism" as a phrase to emphasize Eastern aesthetics in Victorian style is somewhat redundant, for Eastern influences have been prevalent in Western Victorian fashion already. Professor Richard Martin, in Orienting the wardrobe, gives an overview of the history behind Orientalist fashion and gives examples of British fashion, like the Paisley shawl and mandarin and pagoda sleeves, that had Eastern origins but then had been adapted into British fashion. For examples of this, Metropolitan Museum of Art has a fascinating overview of the Eastern influences in Western fashion in their online exhibit Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress.

Thus, the existence of Eastern influences has had a long history in Western dress and had frequently been tied to political moorings; as a result, the term Orientalism today is in flux between its literal geographical meaning and the implied negative baggage it has acquired over timethat Orientalism is a Western-created ideal imposed upon the East and used to justify its subjugationan argument first presented by postcolonial theorist Edward Said. Commentary in the steampunk communities, however, continue to frame Victorientalism in a positive light, highlighting its romanticism as a positive endorsement for its use. This is all fair and well, IF the political and social effects of Orientalism were dead and gone. However, because it is very much alive todaycausing damaging stereotypes and promoting racist mindsetsthen perpetuating the glorified stereotypes of the Orient only serves to hurt the people of color they were based on. Moreover, such attitudes are only expressions of privilege, where white steampunks can turn a blind eye to steampunks of color in the community.

In fact, the term "Orientalism" may be on the way out. Its negative connotation has become so prevalent since Said first made his argument forty years ago that academic communities are starting to reject the term even in reference to Eastern-originated fashion, prefering the terms "Asian Look" or "Asian Fashion." Academic Bong-Ha Seo's 2008 article for the Journal of Korean Society of Clothing and Textiles argues against the use of the term "Orientalism" in fashion in "Critical Discussion on the ‘Orientalism’ in Fashion Culture":

Orientalism is geographical violence. In spite of the independence of numerous colonies, imperialistic culture is still influential. Therefore, Orientalism as an enlightened and open conversation without deflection or prejudice cannot be supposed.
So, don't think that adding the Eurocentric "Vict-" is a cute way of undoing the negative connotations of a historically loaded term. The term "Victorientalism" doesn't neutralize anything: the message is not the positive transcultural blend of east and west. Instead, the term augments a oppressive Western concept with another Eurocentric prefix. It's Western objectification times two. And Orientalism by any other name is still Orientalism.

But to sum up

I'm not saying that there is no beauty in these fashions.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't like it.

I'm saying that what one likes doesn't always exist in an apolitical vacuum, no matter how much one wants it to.

Fashion, just like any form of art, is a reflection of society, and art movements like Orientialism have complex political history that members of the dominant culture may not recognize as something negative or hurtful. Moreover, the social implications of Orientalism didn't die out with the end of the Victorian era, but has had a rather long and, often socially detrimental, afterlife.

So if one chooses to engage in Orientalism or toss about the word "Victorientalism," do not act defensive if other marginalized people take offense. Do not claim that you are re-living a "past that never was" because you're not; your fantasy is merely replicating attitudes from a very real present. Rather, instead of justifying this discriminating mindset, figure out for yourself what you can do to stop engaging in promoting those hurtful messages.

*One caveat: Steampunks and steam enthusiasts can be apolitical, but a person's apolitical stance does not mean steampunk as a conceptual idea is apolitical.

Below is a brief suggested reading list of resources that present a mindful assessment of Orientialist aesthetics and the transcultural blend of Eastern and Western looks.

Fashion & Orientalism resources:

Edward Said: Since I really can't quote him here often enough (and in the contextual whole in which he is meant to be quoted), so here are the two landmark books he had written on Orientalism.
Culture & Imperialism

Re-orienting fashion: the globalization of Asian dress (Excerpt also available on Google Books)
by Sandra Niessen (Editor), Ann Marie Leshkowich (Editor), Carla Jone (Editor)

Book Description:
From ‘Indo chic’ collections on the catwalk to mass-market clothes in retail shops, Asian fashion is everywhere. Re-Orienting Fashion explores this phenomenon in a global context and, unlike other books, does not ignore the western / non-western divide. How do western economic, cultural, political, iconic, and social forms influence Asian fashion when (and often because) that fashion is an expression of resistance against western encroachment? How does dress reflect state ideals and gender roles in nations struggling to construct new identities informed by modern, western impulses? What role does gender play and how does this tie in with commodification by the global economy?

With chapters focusing on East, South, and Southeast Asian designers, retailers, consumers, and governments, this timely book moves Asian fashion center-stage and will be of interest to dress and fashion theorists, anthropologists, sociologists and all those seeking to understand globalization and its effects.

Imperial Bodies
C.M. Cullingham

I've found this one of the best resources that details the conflicted dynamic between the colonizer and the colonized in terms of fashion exchange. I can't recommend this book enough.

Book Description:
This innovative volume demonstrates that the body was central to the construction and maintenance of British authority in India. Imperial Bodies explores ways in which the transformation of the British presence in India between 1800 and 1947 involved and relied upon changes in the way the British in India managed, disciplined and displayed their bodies. The move from commerce to control, and then to imperialism and Empire corresponded to a shift in bodily norms. As the nineteenth century progressed, an openness and interest in India gave way to a ban on things Indian. The British rejected curries for tinned ham, cool white clothing for black broadcloth and Indian mistresses for English wives. By the twentieth century, the British official had been transformed into an upright, decent representative of British virtues whose task was to bring civilization to India.

By the late nineteenth century, racial theory focused attention on the physique to such an extent that the body became a distinct category within official discourse, regarded as an instrument of rule. The body was used symbolically during Raj ceremonial, and even the pith helmet worn by officials was turned from a reminder of British vulnerability in the tropics into a symbol of British power.

Through an in-depth discussion of texts and practices, the body is introduced into the historical account as an active social principle: a force in the construction of social inequalities along lines of race and class. Drawing on a wide range of sources including government records, newspapers, private letters, medical handbooks and cookery books, E.M. Collingham paints a vivid picture of the life and manners of the British in India.

This important contribution to both British and imperial history will appeal to students and scholars of cultural and colonial history.

Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress
Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is the exhibit guide to the MET link I included above. It's hard to find, but they give a sensitive assessment of Orientalist fashion while also acknowledging the movement's fraught political history. Plus, it contains those beautiful images as seen on the website and more.

Online Resources:

Excerpt from The Art of Decoration: Written by English cleric and popular Victorian writer Reverend H. R. Haweis In this excerpt, he talks about aspects of Orient design since the 1700s in British dress & decoration. About Oriental design in women's fashion, he hilariously commented that:

It was the dregs of that blind admiration for Oriental colouring with no understanding of its principles, which clothed Englishwomen in such horrible mixtures at the beginning of the present century, a fault which Frenchwomen with their better natural taste, and complexions which repudiate garish hues, were unlikely to fall into. Hence England soon won an unenviable celebrity for never knowing 'how to dress...'
Clothing & Fashion Encyclopedia - An online fashion history blog. The overaching history or Orientalism in fashion is explained in Part 1 and Part 2.

Orient-ing Fashion: Written in 1997 issue of Harvard's Digitas Magazine about that fashion season's Orientalism trend, Mina Kim Park's article is still very insightful. It also shows how modern fashion remains problematic in regards to racial representation and cultural appropriation that cannot be explained away by slapping a cheerful "multiculturalism chic" label on it.

On Using the Orient to Orient the West On Jaymee Goh's steampunk blog Silver Goggles. Her observations of the conceptual use of the term Orient by the West. Good stuff. She has also written a wonderful response to Victorientalism as well: Countering Victorientalism.
jhameia: ME! (Default)

[personal profile] jhameia 2010-03-07 07:13 pm (UTC)(link)
You are so much nicer about this than I am. <3 Loving the links, and thanks for the plug.
slashfairy: Head of a young man, by Raphael (Default)

[personal profile] slashfairy 2010-03-07 08:03 pm (UTC)(link)
epershand: One stick figure beheading another. (Beheading)

[personal profile] epershand 2010-03-07 11:22 pm (UTC)(link)
Eeep, people think that "Vicorientalism" is an acceptable, non-prejudiced term? And they're using it without being mindful of the connotation of "orientalism?" D:

Thanks much for all of the resources!
unjapanologist: (Default)

[personal profile] unjapanologist 2010-03-08 10:00 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you -great post, great resources.
tesserewhon: (Default)

[personal profile] tesserewhon 2010-03-09 12:54 am (UTC)(link)
I am so glad that you are doing this entire series of Beyond Victoriana! I've been thinking of dipping my toes into the actual costuming aspect of steampunk, but I had this vague notion of looking beyond the traditional Victorian English/European fashions. I've been researching the presence of Chinese people in America (mostly San Fransisco's Chinatown and various settlements in the West) during this era and the actual fashion in China during the reign of the Empress Dowager Cixi. I'm really happy to see that there are other people interested in the idea of understanding and mining the rest of the world's history during the Victorian era.
klgaffney: (Default)

[personal profile] klgaffney 2010-03-10 11:52 pm (UTC)(link)
"victorientalism"? that looks like pretentious pseudo-academia at its lowest level. also reminds me of "japanimation." brain hurt on two levels. who even came up with that? *smacks them with a glove* stop mangling the language!

(more seriously, though--being that it's so easy to alienate (or infuriate) a massive faction of the community via carelessness with victorian era ideas, so it'd be nice to see a little more care being taken.)

my first association with Orientalism is in the capital o sense--the victorian-era movement in the fine arts. so while i love a number of pieces by the orientalists, it's not without the awareness of how they came to be, and i guess that's where i got the understanding that "asian" and "oriental" are way different--the latter has all sorts of other things attached, like "exotic foreigner," so i never considered it appropriate to use outside of that specific-to-the-arts application. dragged into the modern age and applied to people and modes of dress, the word feels as dated and off as walking around center city calling american black muslims "moors."

i think a good thing for people to keep in mind in general is, "if european victorians called somebody something, it's probably NOT an appropriate term to use now."

beyond that, all my thoughts are possibly even more scattered. that narrow 100+ yr old context has so informed ours that i think people would really benefit from examining all assumptions that come along with the victorian era, and learning how to engage their critical thinking from a different perspective. it might also be possible that some people are trying to take their approach to steampunk from the popularised high fashion niche, which is not a niche noted for dealing with cultural and political issues in general, all the while taking its inspiration from "the lower classes" and other cultures without acknowledgement or understanding. oh! and, well, people not being used to actually THINKING about what messages their clothing sends outside of the immediate, and their personal choice of clothing as another facet of the empowerment issue. (none of these things are excuses; i have a need to understand why people do/think stuff. =p )
klgaffney: (Default)

[personal profile] klgaffney 2010-03-11 05:48 am (UTC)(link)
*laughing* true, true. and it's fun coming up with ridiculous multi-syllable words for very simple gadgets. it just probably should be left with objects, not people. >_>; (and no! i actually really love your articles--they're very accessible and intelligent at once, there's not that sense of flaming self-righteous indignation even when you're annoyed, and the subject matter is always interesting and informative, imho. you are a class act, ma'am.)

no, i didn't get the impression you were badmouthing the movement, i was just thinking further along the lines of words and usage vs. why the other usage struck me as so wrong. and yes, about the "above all critism." i find that while i might disagree (and strongly even) with people over an interpretation or how matters of art should be handled, that's not the same as saying "art is above criticism." if art were apolitical, very few artists would have gotten into as much trouble as they have throughout history. it's doing art a disservice. and i think a lot of artists would be unhappy if people NEVER thought about all the soul they poured into their work and it lost all context. i think it's possible but not necessarily advantageous to separate art from the politics and context of the society it's immersed in--and it's often better appreciated the more the someone knows about it.

aw... i remember being SO intrigued by that piece, the very first time i saw it. *ponders* possibly slightly ot now, but i think the orientalists may well have produced my first experiences of seeing people that resembled self in a context that wasn't images of anger, pain, slavery, etc. (ah, the joys of being a '70's kid. such an angry era.) they portrayed powerful, wise, wealthy dark-skinned people in gorgeous settings. which was very exciting for me back then, and might even have something to do with my interest in steampunk to this day.

why would wouldn't they like thinking about something they love in other ways than aesthetically?

i don't KNOW. i think it's FUN. and if i'm wearing anything other than the black-t-shirt, doc martens and jeans (old punk habits die hard?) from yesterday, i have to think about what i'm putting together anyway. steampunk is infinitely more interesting to think about!

[personal profile] opheliastornoway 2010-03-15 02:43 am (UTC)(link)
Hello! Sorry this is completely off-topic, but where is the image in your icon from? I've seen similar pictures in other icons, and I was wondering if you could tell me if there's a book or artist I should be looknig up to see more of them/bigger versions. It's such a sweet picture.
klgaffney: (Default)

[personal profile] klgaffney 2010-03-15 04:17 am (UTC)(link)
oh, no problem, i love this image to bits and pieces. the title is "kiss" by colette calascione, and you can find her online gallery at: [NSFW] -- there is a bit of nudity involved. enjoy! =)

[personal profile] opheliastornoway 2010-03-15 07:41 am (UTC)(link)
Ta very much!

[identity profile] 2010-03-16 01:48 am (UTC)(link)
This is lovely. Lovely lovely lovely. Thank you so much.

Especially love the reading list.