China has been a cultural marvel for the past 5,000 years, beginning with their discovery of the silk worm during the Neolithic period (4th millennium BCE). Chinese artisans wove the most amazing textiles and introduced robes with intricate handcrafted embroideries that, to this day, provide a wealth of inspiration. Over time, Western designers began incorporating Chinese cultural symbolism into their designs: the philosophy of Confucius, Chinese calligraphy and porcelain, Imperial Chinese dynastic robes featuring embroidered dragons (a symbol of power), the martial arts of Tai Chi and Kung Fu, Chinese medicine and food, and of course, the Great Wall.
After the Chinese national revolution of 1911, the country began to accept a more “modern” form of dress. By the mid-twentieth century, the tight-fitting dress known as a cheongsam or qípáo, became traditional women’s dress and the “Mao suit,” a modern revolutionary garment, often made in blue cotton, was the expected attire for men.
Subsequently, when we visualize Chinese or Chinese-inspired clothing, we imagine large dragon motifs, dense floral embroidery, including lotus and plum blossoms. Works of calligraphy paired with red geometric borders and China porcelain art comes to mind. With time, Mandarin collars, Mao jackets and frog closures also found their way into Western designers’ collections.
China’s Influence on Western Fashion
Let’s take a look at some of the best and most popular examples of how Western designers used exoticism, borrowed from the Far East, in their collections.
French designer Paul Poiret was highly influenced by Chinese fashion with his famous ‘lampshade’ dress and embroidered Chinese-inspired robe from 1912.
Fast Forward to the 21th Century
In his Fall/Winter 2004 ready-to-wear collection, Tom Ford designed his version of the Chinese cheongsam or qípáo, with added sequins and a side draped detail.
Roberto Cavalli’s Fall 2005 ready-to-wear collection showcased this silk gown with a Chinese blue and white porcelain pattern.
Designers continued to channel China in the Fall 2011 collections of both Ralph Lauren and Naeem Khan. Khan was inspired by the book The Silk Road.
Far Eastern influences continued as a trend that same year as Oscar de la Renta featured ornate Chinoiserie patterns on coats and silk dresses.
Christian Louboutin brought Chinese inspiration to accessories, with his dragon motif pumps and flats.
Metropolitan Museum of Art: China- Through the Looking Glass
The impact that Chinese aesthetics has had on Western fashion and the extent to which China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries, was explored in a show entitled: China – Through the Looking Glass, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2015.
The Met Gala Opening (2015) saw celebrities getting into the spirit. Traditional talismans like dragons, yin-yang and butterflies abounded. Jennifer Lopez poses on the red carpet with this strategically placed dragon-motif gown.
The gala was also provided a showcase for Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei, who designed Rihanna’s golden yellow gown. Pei, whose couture collection is shown during Paris Fashion Week, channels Chinese Imperialism, by utilizing rich fabrics and intricate embellished embroideries for the stars that seek out her work.
The year 2016 was a big one for Chinese inspiration as dragon motifs were favoured by designers at Emilio Pucci, Giuseppe Zanotti and at Gucci.
Chinese zodiac signs also became a marketing opportunity for Western fashion designers as the Year of the Monkey ushered in a series of monkey-motifs that appeared on handbags, watches and on this studded jacket at Valentino.
Gucci went China crazy with this updated cheongsam that featured a floral and dragon motif in a patchwork combo from their Pre-Fall 2017 collection.
It appeared that Gucci just couldn’t get over ‘Chinoiserie Fever’ when they created this blue and white Chinese porcelain-inspired dress for its Cruise 2017 collection.
China has given the Western fashion world a plethora of design inspiration and yet for a country that: comprises 19.24% of the total world population, ranks number 1 the list of countries in world population with a total of over 1.4 billion people, we have yet to see Chinese designers reach the status of a Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani or Tom Ford. However, stay tuned. We at UoF have our eyes set on a new group of Chinese designers that we think are about to change the future of fashion. Let’s face it…they have lots of inspiration to tap from.