The history of the relationship between the Asian and Western worlds had always been simultaneously problematic and fruitful. On the one hand, the two worlds idealised each other in ways that had little to do with reality. On the other, the pollination between the two worlds and their different cultures created incredible artistic achievements.
The Near and Far East always exerted a great fascination on the Western World, particularly Europe. Since the Medieval times, Asia was the place of magic, mythic creatures, manly warriors and women of exquisite beauty.
Colonisation intensified this feeling, which soon turned the Eastern World into a fairyland rather than a real place. In Western consciousness, the Orient burred into a generic oriental image that didn’t match any real culture but was an aggregation of ideas and fascinations residing in the Western’s imagination.
This fascination created a demand for Asian items that increased during Colonialism and became almost a craze after the 1850s, when Japan, a nation that had been unreachable by any Westerner for centuries, finally opened itself up to international trade.
Japanese artefacts, stories and information about Japan, reached the West, and the West fell in love with it.
The New Woman and the Oriental Style fashion
Fashion certainly didn’t stay out of this.
Europe had imported textiles from Asia for many centuries. Many textiles – like Chinese silks and Indian fabrics – were produced and dyed with more advanced techniques than in Europe.
In India, dyes created beautiful, deep colours that European technology could not replicate. Indigo produced an intense blue, turmeric brilliant yellows, and alizarin bright red unapproachable by European dying techniques.
But at the end of the 19th century, the Western World started to import more than just textile from Asia.
Cloths in many Eastern countries were far less restricting than in Europe, especially for women.
As the New Woman revolution advanced and women started to demand more comfortable clothes, designers looked East for inspiration. Soon many clothes the New Women wore were heavily inspired by East fashion.
Paul Poiret was one of the first designers to take inspiration from the East. He was who introduced the tunic and the harem pantaloon into French fashion. The harem pants – which were full in the leg and gathered at the ankle – were among the first trouser-like garments women started to wear for fashion rather than activism. Another couturier, Mariano Fortuny, designed clothes influenced by Moroccan djellaba, Arabic abaya, Coptic tunics, and Indian saris, and especially Japanes kimonos.
Sashes, tunics, scarves, and turbans became very fashionable.
When in 1922 Carter discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb, people went crazy for anything Egyptian, and fashion found a new venue of inspiration. Dresses started to feature beaded necklines that recalled an ancient Egyptian broad collar. Pleated skirts echoed the ancient Egyptian style. Jewellery replicated the beautiful designs found in the tomb.
Paul Poiret was an innovative French couturier who dressed Paris’ finest before World War I. He epitomized Art Deco fashion and is credited with freeing women from corsets as well as introducing new silhouettes like the hobble skirt, harem pants, and lampshade tunic.
Much of modern fashion was born with Paul Poiret, from the spectacle of the runway to the idea of fashion brands as a means to promote a luxurious lifestyle. Influenced by the sleek lines and draped constructions of the Japanese kimono and Middle Eastern caftan, Poiret also introduced a new dramatic palette and unprecedented combinations of colors to fashion design, elevating the status of couture to an art form.
(Artland Magazine Online)
Was the Oriental Style unpatriotic?
But the Oriental Style fashion also faced a lot of criticism.
First of all, it was generally deemed improper. Even if it was a couturier designing it, many of these Asian inspired dresses included trouser-like garments and discarded any form of corsetry. Which, of course, was improper and masculinised women.
And it was unpatriotic. After all, the style was based on foreign fashion, some of which came from colonised countries.
Yet women didn’t seem to care. The less restricting fashion became increasingly popular. Although trousers remained semi-taboo for the rest of the New Woman historical arc (only in the 1930s they started to be acceptable), tunics, turbans and sashes flooded women’s fashion, especially in the Art Deco time.
Besides, this fashion was perceived as exotic and erotic, like the fabled women of Asia, and therefore plaid into the New Women’s sensuality.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
From Fetish to Fashion: Japanese Style as Commodity in 19th and 20th Century Britain by Rebecca Schmiegel (PDF)
Flashback Summer – International Vintage: Orientalism of the 1910s- 1920s
American Duchess – Orientalism in 1920s Fashion
Bellatory – Orientalism in Western Costume
Fashion-Era – Orientalism in Dress 1910s Fashion History
Artland Magazine Online – Paul Poiret: Life and Designs of the King of Fashion