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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress

Orientalism is a fabrication of the West. The perilous voyages to Cathay and Edo, and even the narrower crossing to the mysterious harems and itinerant lifestyles of North Africa and the Middle East, gave Europe a secular heaven-on-earth, a paradise undefiled by Western civilization. The early discoverers and the traders sought a land never to inhabit, ever to see as different—a perfect “other,” warranting Western supremacy and segregation, and vested with exotic mystery. The allure of the East has been, in part, based on its impenetrability to the West. The inscrutability attributed to the East is, in fact, the West’s failure to achieve full comprehension. Orientalism always challenges the Western mind: it is Orientalism that makes Western culture incomplete and that the West uses to see itself as whole.

It is in apparel that the West’s need for and assimilation of the East is first evident. Western chinoiserie, japonisme, and turquerie as recurring phenomena of the decorative arts and culture are well known, yet, of the many objects in transaction between East and West, textiles and apparel have been among the most prominent. The power of costume is in its capacity to be absorbed. Nonverbal, the rich textiles and traditions of Eastern dress transcend language barriers. The option in dress afforded by the East is charged with enchantment, with a seeming sweetness and seduction that allows the East’s presence to seem innocuous. While never losing the characteristics of its place of origin, clothing has shown itself a readily assimilated object. Eastern ideas of textile, design, construction, and utility have been realized again and again as a positive contribution to the culture of the West.

Thus, the Orientalist objective in Western dress was to cull from the various Easts their spellbinding foreignness for the purpose of rendering Western dress richer and more exotic. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Western wardrobe was vastly enriched by the sumptuous stuffs of the East that brought new pattern and possibility to Western dress, even as it was immediately copied by mills in England and France. In the nineteenth century, the era of universal expositions and colonial exchange brought object categories—such as silks from China, shawls from India, or, after 1854, kimonos from Japan—into the West, and created businesses of copying and adaptation. In addition to the great textiles, ideas of Eastern dress have come to be a part of Western dress, including saris and dhotis from India, kimonos from Japan, caftans and djellabahs from North Africa, and cheongsams from China. The East offers a larger concept in alternative to the Western propensity for tailoring. In giving primacy to the textile, Eastern dress emphasizes the flat terrain of cloth, the looping and wrapping of the garment, and the integrity of the untailored textile. These values, antithetical to postmedieval Western dress, have offered a paradigm of dressing and dressmaking to the West that has been sporadically influential, and notably so in our time.

Orientalism is not a picture of the East of the Easts. It represents longing, option, and faraway perfection. It is, like Utopia, a picture everywhere and nowhere, save in the imagination. The Orientalist female was a fabrication of the West, attributing Salambō-like license and nudity to figures who escaped Occidental sanction by their placement in an Orientalist world.