Saturday, August 9, 2008

Orientalism's Fashion

Orientalism's Fashion:
John Galliano's Spring 2007 Couture Collection
critiqued through Edward Said's Orientalism

In Spring 2007, following a tour of Japan, John Galliano created a collection for Christian Dior which pulled elements from Japanese culture into couture looks. This is a clear example of how Orientalism functions in contemporary times in the same way that it did 100 years ago. This Oriental world which was displayed in museums or defined in theories is now walking the runway. Galliano takes the part of the colonialist explorer, owning and taking credit for the Orient, while maintaining the view that the people are 'other' and making an exotic fantasy out of the actual geographic place.

The collection contains a variety of couture gowns and dresses, but they have unifying elements which makes it easier to look at the collection as a whole, instead of an individual look. From the fabrics, to the folded origami shapes, to platform heels, an exotic, foreign look is established through appropriation of Japanese cultural representations. Looking at a piece individually may make the Oriental influences less apparent, since there are also Western influences in the design, but the thematic elements that give the collection unity are all Oriental. To begin with, the models all have white-face makeup in the geisha style, with anime eyes of exaggerated eyebrows and large swatches of colour. They wear heels with shapes influenced by geisha geta sandals. Hair is always pulled back in round pompadours and hairpieces are intricate ovals like Japanese sun-hats. The gowns themselves are brilliantly colour silks with floral designs, and are very sculptural, incorporating origami folds and shapes into the structure and sculptural elements of the clothing and sashes referencing the Japanese obi.

In fashion, designers create two lines of clothing. Couture is a theatrical production with extravagant, unwearable clothing that only a few very rich or well-connected people would purchase, while ready to wear lines are more practical and wearable. The corresponding ready-to-wear collection for Spring 2007 had none of the colours or silhouettes that the couture collection did. Galliano reinforced the otherness of Orientalism by basing his couture collection around the Orient, because that collection is the one that draws attention to the clothing, adding to the construction of Orientalism as an exotic curiosity. The situation of the Orient in the couture collection reinforces the divide between east and west.

In colonial times, the Orient was viewed as an experience. Said writes, "When Disraeli said in his novel Tancred that the East was a career, he meant that to be interested in the East was something bright young Westerners would find to be an all-consuming passion (132)." Galliano seems to be a part of this; he tours Japan and comes back to create a huge spectacle of Japanese cultural appropriation, featuring everything from origami to basket-weaving in his fashion career. Said says that the ideas of Orientalism were influenced by those who went to the Orient, as explorers, missionaries, or merchants, and Galliano has become one of these. This fashion inspiration parallels the Orientalism of the 1890's, where similar inspiration dressed Victorian ladies in 'Oriental' dressing gowns and fabrics.

Said uses the example a wealthy, foreign, male who speaks for an Egyptian courtesan, and refers to her as 'typically Oriental' (133) to show who perpetuates the stereotype. Galliano, a man with similar characteristics, is speaking the visual language with 'typical Oriental' elements in his runway show, about models. The comparison could also be drawn between the models and the Egyptian courtesan.

The models showing the clothes on the runway are not Asian. They are either black or white models; Asian women are rarely seen on the runway. This correlates with the way that the construction of Orientalism places the dominant culture in a position of power over the Orient, where the Orient is not a contributing part of the framework. The ethnic subject is absent and a new non-existant construction has replaced her. Galliano takes credit for the entire collection, although it is all reworked from Japanese traditional elements. The Galliano collection doesn't use any traditional silhouettes. Instead of the cylindrical shapes of traditional kimonos, the Galliano collection still show a female silhouette. I think that this shows that he is using the elements of Japanese culture to create something that is more about the person looking at it from an outsider's perspective.

The couture collection is a fantasy in clothing. Said says that "One ought never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away." In the floaty, light-coloured clothing of the collection, this myth seems personified; it creates a fantasy land of exotic origami feminine creatures, but behind this, there is a 'body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been considerable material investment (133)." This phrase can be taken on two levels- fashion houses as institutions of design and the point of view imparted by Orientalism. The whole Galliano collection is a European fantasy, which is what creates Orientalism, according to Said. The politics of fashion underneath the design house support the myths of Orientalism.

Many of the elements in the fashion line are not the everyday life of the Japanese people- kimonos are formal, special-occasion wear, samurais are a thing of the past. Anime is media which is also consumed by Westerners and isn't a realistic part of life in any culture, although the collection is ostensibly based upon Galliano's observances of Japan.

Said states that Orientalism depends on the assumption that the Westerner has the upper hand in his relationship with the Orient. Indeed, Galliano's tour of Japan is the manifestation of this, where he goes to the Orient and comes back with these ideas for a collection in the same way that the scientist or scholar or missionary "could be there...with very little resistance on the Orient's part (134)." The most blatant manifestation of the colonial in a foreign place comes when Galliano steps onto the runway. He is wearing a costume complete with what appears to be a British or Spanish military jacket, tricorn hat, gold braid and red sash, white trousers and over the knee boots. After his Japanese appropriation, he walks in looking every inch the colonial explorer, complete with a curly blonde wig, becoming the colonial master with success based on his interpretation of an absent culture.

This couture example of Orientalism in contemporary times shows that the politics and political framing of the Asian other is still functioning behind the Western view of the Orient. The purposes of fashion is to create something exotic, something alluring, something different from the banal everyday as a commodity, and this purpose is served by the construction of Orientalism, according to Edward Said. The comparison is so blatant it is almost funny.


Mower, Sarah. "Christian Dior Spring 2007 Couture Collection." Style.Com. 2007. 26 Feb. 2008 .