AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 48

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Session 48: Fashion in Asia: Politics, Consumption and Identity Part 1

Organizer: Toby Slade, University of Tokyo, Japan

Fashion studies is a field that continues to grow in importance and complexity. Analogous to film studies in the 1970s it is establishing itself as an intellectually worthy and rigorous discipline recognized by the academy and it is an exciting time to be working in it as it advances and matures. Contributing to this new field these papers examine various aspects of recent and contemporary fashion in Asia through the perspectives of politics, consumption and identity. They include examinations of fashion and trade between Australia and New Zealand, Chinese fashion and identity, the complex identity of kawaii (cute) in Japanese fashion and the varied creation of identity using kimonos, the Asian-Australia aesthetic legacy and fashion and authoritarianism at the centres and peripheries of Asia. Despite the multifarious flows of information in our globalizing world, the homogenizing corporate and advertising imperatives, and the more universal lifestyles and appropriateness of certain sartorial forms to fit those lifestyles, Asian fashion remains fascinatingly idiosyncratic. While often a subject that is studied from the perspective of its fragment components, the scope of this panel is deliberately broad in an attempt to identify the continuities and major themes of Asian fashion at the present moment.

Fashion and Authoritarianism at the Centres and Peripheries of Asia
Toby Slade, University of Tokyo, Japan

This paper is an examination of fashion before and after authoritarian regimes in Asia looking at case studies in Mongolia, Burma and urban and rural China. The sudden arrival of political, social and economic freedom with the often accompanying impulses toward newness, foreignness and the modern make this moment in the relationship between national political structure and expression in clothing particularly interesting and important. Mongolia is examined as an example of a post-Soviet rediscovery of indigenous traditions in clothing and embrace of once forbidden Western cultural influence. Burma is examined as hopefully part of two-part study recorded last year under the firm grip of an authoritarian military government. And China is examined through the relationship between the authoritarian regime and the political and economic pressure to reform. The Chinese example provides an example the influences of an authoritarian regime on local ethnic groups as well as the rapid embourgeoisement in the major urban areas. The research pays particular interest to youth fashion in Shanghai, and the also the ongoing changes in Tibet. The relationship between the political authority and fashion seems to be an obvious one for examination however it is rarely studied and then only amongst ruling elites. The need to record the aesthetic choices, judgments and attitudes of ordinary people is important and a useful tool to calibrate minute shifts in popular feeling. Fashion is often only considered at the centre rather than the periphery but this focus denies other perspectives to this quintessential and ubiquitous human activity.

A Gentle Kind of Revolt: Cute (Kawaii) Fashion and Japanese Music-Video Appropriations of ‘Alice’
Masafumi Monden, Independent Scholar, Australia

The application of the Japanese word kawaii (cute) is contested, contentious and culturally contingent. In simple definitional terms, kawaii refers to an aesthetic that connotes something childish, girlish or sweet; it is neither restricted to children nor women in Japan. The concept of a ‘cute’ aesthetic, particularly when associated with feminine appearances, is most often viewed in the generally unfavourable terms of infantilisation, objectification and passivity in many Western cultures. Yet the Japanese concept of kawaii can also be interpreted as a “delicate revolt” that softly and implicitly subverts established stereotypes and cultural preconceptions. My paper explores this issue by focussing on a group of music-video clips in which female Japanese pop-singers adapt and appropriate the imagery of Lewis Carroll’s famous heroine ‘Alice’. The emphasis in these videos is on the singers’ girlish and cute, almost “infantile” appearance, mostly constructed through the repertoire of clothing that they wear. I argue that these performers offer an innovative representation of youthful femininity in terms of a negotiation between “infantile” cuteness and forceful independence. Furthermore, I explore how the ‘cute’ fashion displayed in these music videos possibly serves as an alternative to the established binaries of sexualisation and subservience in which young women tend to be represented, particularly in but not exclusive to the West. This Japanese aesthetic concept of kawaii, I argue, might illuminate the possibility of detachment of eroticism from the representation of femininity, as well as from ‘sweet’ and ‘girlish’ sartorial style.

Under Western Eyes: Chinese Fashion Identity in Global Perspective
Simona Segre Reinach, Independent Scholar, Italy

Since the first years of the new century China, previously mainly a manufacturing country, is increasingly becoming one of the most promising country for the distribution and sale of global brands (80% of international brands are now present in China) - The strategies of international fashion companies in China (especially Italians, the object of my study) are strongly influenced by the recent change from ‘made in China’ to ‘made for China’. On the other hand Chinese fashion itself is a relatively new subject - not defined by ‘made in China’ nor by ‘made for China’ - an issue to be established in China and outside China. In China the need to promote an independent fashion identity - recognized internationally - is part of a larger strategy of promoting a Chinese aesthetics outside stereotypes and convey new narratives of the country. In all cases the issue of national identity clearly emerges. My research on Sino-Italian joint ventures companies shows how manufacturing fashion and its visual communication in the media both shape and reflect the main contradictions of this process and highlight the opposite goals of Italians and Chinese partners: maintaining the value of ‘made in Italy’ and re-constructing Chinese fashion.

Asia-Chic – Investigating Australian-Asian Aesthetics in Late Twentieth-Century Australian Fashion
Sally Gray, University of New South Wales, Australia

While the history of western fashion includes many examples of orientalist appropriation - of design motifs, textile technologies and fibres - there is something both specific and enigmatic about Australian orientalist fashionability which relates to its geographical location in Asia and to its patterns of 19th and 20th century migration. From imperial and mercantilist beginnings, Australian cultural and aesthetic life has been impacted by its global placement. Fashion and fashionability is inflected by Australia’s peculiar nature as a European-based settler society, in the Asia/Pacific region, with a large East and South East Asian population. What was the historical legacy and contemporary impact of Asian cultures on late twentieth century Australian fashionable urban life? Did influential Australian fashion figures of the time, such as Clarence Chai and Jenny Kee bring a particular sensibility to bear on Australian fashion? This paper will investigate the specificities of Asian-Australian aesthetics in Australian fashion in the 1970s and 1980s.