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Conceptualization of Fashion as a Social Construct_Yanyi Li

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Conceptualization of Fashion as a Social Construct_Yanyi Li

  1. 1. Conceptualization of Fashion as a Social Construct: A Global & Chinese Perspective Yanyi Li New York University Conceptualization of Fashion as a Social Construct 1
  2. 2. Abstract This paper explains Chinese cultural fashion diffusions phenomena from globalization and sociological perspectives. Moreover, this work projects that Chinese body and Asian bodies gradually become a new beauty standard. Combining with three fashion diffusion models, this paper provides an angel to look at and study Chinese cultural fashion in a way of using Weber’s classes and social status theories. Different classes and social status have different privileges and symbols. Fashion, one of the visible symbols, indicates people’s classes and social status. This work therefore specifically focuses on three diffusion theories: trickle-up, trickle-down and trickle-across. By presenting how ancient Chinese fashion diffused, my aim is to explain how contemporary Chinese cultural fashion diffuses in relation to global landscape. By studying Chinese cultural fashion diffused in the Western world, Chinese body and Asian bodies are changing the current social representations in our society. Key words: Chinese cultural fashion, Chinese body and Asian bodies, classes and social status, globalization, fashion diffusion. Global Contributions of Chinese Fashion Diffusion 2
  3. 3. Introduction Fashion scholars Bernard Barber and Lyle S. Lobel align with sociologist Max Weber school of thoughts that fashion is a socially constructed phenomena. In this article, “Fashion in Women’s Clothes and the American Social System”, Barber and Lobel’s fashion phenomena argument aligns with Weber’s definition of “social action” in that according to Barber and Lobel fashion “consumption equals social class position” (Barber & Lobel, 1952). They explain this by stating that fashion phenomena equation to social constructs open spaces for knowledge construction processes because it enables and advances meaning making practices. This is done through the fact that fashion places in communities offering fashion scholarship opportunities to observe and study fashion and fashion trends through social actions and norms. Barber and Lobel go on to state that fashion phenomenon ranges widely, from the social to the cultural, because it opens spaces for an extension of knowledge construction that ranges from language accessibility and usage to identity invention and construction. For this reason, a majority of fashion scholars and designers agree to the definition of fashion as a socially constructed phenomenon that is widely influenced by culture and communities of practices. That is, fashion definition and practices come from ways of a specific group of people think and do, which in some cases could be informed by religious and political practices. In this paper, I employ sociology theories, theorists and designers to examine Chinese definitions of beauty in relation to fashion trends. I do this examination by analyzing an Conceptualization of Fashion as a Social Construct 3
  4. 4. ancient Chinese fashion design Qipao to identify contributions of this fashion design in contemporary Chinese and global fashion. My conclusion aligns with fashion phenomena as a social construction that directly informs identity invention and construction. Situating Fashion as a Social Construct Phenomenon In Economy and Society Weber states the importance of individual social action sociologically, which he claims because social actions orient others towards subjective ways of meaning-making. As a result, social mobility directly influences fashion design and scholarship as well as its usage and accessibility. Aligning with Weber social construct phenomena, sociologist and fashion scholars introduce the trickle-up and trickle-down phenomena in fashion. For Barber and Lobel, trickle- up and trickle-down phenomena allow designers to take social mobility in consideration and practice while at the same time developing and introducing fashion designers that cuts across social classes and structures. Barber and Lobel argue that fashion functions on a trickle-down system which then creates a tension between and within social classes (Barber & Lobel, 1952). For example, women with higher socioeconomic status seek for fashion symbols that separate them from those within lower socioeconomic status. On the other hand, women within lower socioeconomic strive to attain fashion symbols that will equate them to those with higher symbols. Drawing from Barber and Lobel, I believe that fashion is an interrelated communicative skill influenced by Global Contributions of Chinese Fashion Diffusion 4
  5. 5. media, culture and communication. As compared to trickle-down system, fashion also functions as a trickle-up model. Scholar George A. Field demonstrates the trickle-up theory by defining a process of influence adoption, which is the “status float phenomenon” (Field, 1970). Trickle-Up system defines that fashion innovation is initiated from the lower status group rather than the higher status group. The adoption process is originated from new styles in subculture, and the majority starts to borrow and spread the new styles. In Field’s article “The Status Float Phenomenon the Upward Diffusion of Innovation”, Field exemplifies trickle- up model in fashion. He cites the fashion adoptions from prostitutes. For instance, the style of high heel was adopted massively by middle and upper class after Parisian prostitutes first adopted. Similarly, the style of rouge and lipstick spread upward from the lower class to middle and upper class. As the third model in fashion diffusions, trickle-across indicates that fashion moves horizontally between similar social groups. Scholar Herbert Blumer argues that a collective selection process actually replaces class differentiation, which is that trickle-across replaces trickle-down (Blumer, 1969). In addition to the trickle-up and trickle-down phenomena, Fields adds that fashion moves horizontally as well. That he calls trickle-across and describes it as the third model in fashion diffusions. For Fields, trickle-across indicates that fashion moves horizontally between similar social groups. This is important because it confirms sociological implications of fashion as social construct phenomena, but in this case also, as a mobile fluid construct. Sociologist researcher and scholar Herbert Blumer grounds Conceptualization of Fashion as a Social Construct 5
  6. 6. this concept of fashion moving on the concept that collective selection processes replace class differentiation, which in turn leads trickle-across to replace trickle- down (Blumer, 1969). In his classical article, “Fashion: From Class Differentiation to Collective Selection”, Blumer (1969) suggests that The fashion mechanism appears not in response to a need of class differentiation and class emulation but in response to a wish to be in fashion, to lie abreast of what has good standing, to express new tastes which are emerging in a changing world (p. 282). For example, a particular fashion design could move through diverse social status at the same time. This movement often builds relationships as the first group to adopt a fashion design or trend has the tendency to communities around them accordingly. Fashion Diffusions in Chinese Fashion History and Culture Fashion conceptualization of trickle-up, down and across also has its roots in the history of Chinese fashion design. As the earliest theory among these three, trickle-down illustrates the relationship between social rank and fashion. Going back to Barber and Lobel’s examples of fashion as a social class symbol, Chinese fashion draws its definition and distinction from Western influences. To illustrate this point, I will share two stories: the first is a Western example, whereas the second is an example in ancient China. In France, only princess and duchesses Global Contributions of Chinese Fashion Diffusion 6
  7. 7. could wear silk before the Revolution legally. Similarly, clothes were used as a class symbol to differentiate prestige people and ordinary people in ancient China. Barber and Lobel explain that, “In Classical China, the mandarin showed his class position and his abstention from manual labor by his ankle-length gown and his long fingernails” (Barber; Lobel 1952). Moreover, trickle-down phenomenon has existed in ancient China. In ancient China, it was common that clothes were legally bonded with royal family, prestige and social rankings. Due to the fact that traditional social norms in ancient China controlled women’s clothing and in turn fashion, it was difficult for women reveal certain parts of their bodies in the Tang Dynasty. At that time, dress code was favored by the society and legally enforced. In Tang Dynasty, women’s clothes were less conservative. At the early period of Tang Dynasty, only royal women, duchess and professional royal dancers and singers could wear clothes that bare the body above chest. Women from ordinary social class were not allowed to dress up clothes revealing their body above chest. Then this kind of innovative revealing style spread throughout the wealthy and privilege; and some evidence shows that even ordinary women adopted this bold style eventually. Not only did Ancient China had fashion that reflected trickle-down system, but also trickle-across phenomenon has shown ancient China, too. For instance, in Song Dynasty, both Royal members and ordinary people had prospered their own fashion within each group. The examples of trickle-up could also be found in Tang Dynasty. Conceptualization of Fashion as a Social Construct 7
  8. 8. As one of the most prosperous and powerful periods in ancient China, Tang Dynasty has attracted plenty of international visitors, diplomats, scholars and business men. There were many minority groups while Han people was the ruling class. Those minorities were called Hu people by the dominant class. The fashion of Hu people had unique exotic styles and elements of Indian and Persian. Hu fashion quickly became favored and adored by majority in Chang’an (the capital of Tang Dynasty). The adoption of Hu fashion by Han people exemplified the adoption process of subcultural fashion by majority. Even there are controversies on the origin of Qipao, the importance and position of it is publicly acknowledged. In 2011, the craftsmanship of Qipao or Cheongsam was listed as China intangible cultural heritage. In 2014, China Cheongsam Association was established, and Chinese first lady, Peng Liyuan, was assigned as the honorary chair. High class has been definitely associated with Cheongsam since it was first created back in 1920s. The adoption of Cheongsam is trickle-down as it made popular by socialites and upper class women. There was another recent example in the international political stage to reaffirm its trickle-down diffusion model. Each year, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) provides a platform to discuss international issues for global leaders from different countries. Additionally, it has become a tradition that world leaders wearing the traditional outfits designed by the host country. In 2014, the APEC summit was held in Beijing, China. Luxury handmade cheongsams were designed for the first Global Contributions of Chinese Fashion Diffusion 8
  9. 9. ladies from different countries. And for the leaders, the matched male made-to- order traditional Chinese Zhongshan suits were given to wear. One article on The New York Times has proved the trickle-down system again. “APEC Leaders’ Attire Inspires Imitators” stated, “The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Beijing had barely concluded when copies of the outfits worn by the leaders at the event’s opening began appearing for sale in China” (Austin Ramzy, 2014) Several vendors had produced copies of the suits worn by the world leaders, because they believed that the suit must be popular since the Chinese President has worn it. This is exactly one trickle-down example in Chinese fashion contemporarily. One style is worn by the elites or upper class, and it is copied by the lower class and ordinary people. Chinese Fashion Contributions in the Global Market Chinese traditional outfit draws attentions to the world fashion. Chinese fashion has been actively presented on the runway at the global fashion weeks. As one of the Chinese signature cultural symbols, inspiring Western luxury and haute couture fashion has confirmed its luxurious and prestige image, its cultural beauty and aesthetic value. Hazel Clark is one of the leading scholars in design and cultural identity with a focus on fashion. Clark talks about how Chinese fashion plays a critical role in global fashion as a chapter Fashion and Orientalist - the 1990s in her recent book The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, and Globalization. One of the well-selected examples Clark demonstrated in this Conceptualization of Fashion as a Social Construct 9
  10. 10. chapter was that designer John Galliano designed 1930s Shanghai inspired collection for Christian Dior autumn/winter 1997/1998 (Paulicelli; Clark 2008). Another example of how China influences global fashion tremendously is the exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass. China: Through the Looking Glass became the highest attended exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, which has attracted more than 730,000 global visitors. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty has drawn 661,509 visitors totally, which ranked the 8th most popular exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. China: Through the Looking Glass featured more than 140 haute couture pieces. The exhibition reflects how Chinese visual culture influences global fashion landscape. Chinese fashion has created a dialogue between the East and the West. Chinese fashion has spread Chinese cultural identity globally through history, art and film, and made its influences in culture, communication and economics on a global scale. Exploring fashion theories trickle-up, trickle-down and trickle-across explains that fashion diffusions function closely with social class in Western culture. Examining and interpreting the three Western fashion theories in Chinese culture indicate that fashion phenomenon of ancient China reflects the Western fashion diffusion models. As such, Chinese fashion trends influence global fashion industry through interactions and impact. My examination of Cheongsam or Qipao through the trickle-down and trickle-up theory identifies that Chinese fashion influence Western fashion culture and trends. The reminder of my analysis Global Contributions of Chinese Fashion Diffusion 10
  11. 11. concludes that the adaptation of Cheongsam/Qipao signifies that Chinese cultural fashion is diffused as trickle-up on a global level. Since the global fashion landscape is changing because of the force of globalization, Chinese fashion interpretations is informing how Chinese people define beauty in relation to Chinese fashion and global fashion developments. Similar to definitions of fashion constructs, beauty is also a debatable construct. In fact sociologist Lucile Salesses and Deborah Romain discuss beauty as a social imaginary and social representation concept. In their article “The Imaginary and Social Representations Generated by Fashion Images”, Salesses and Romain discuss the challenge fashion magazines put on women. They talk about the social imaginary concept as a theoretical concept and framework has two fundamental approaches. Salesses and Romain describe social imaginary as ‘the product of imagination” and claims that has creative and dynamic abilities. Furthermore, they describe social representations as foundation for social imaginary, offering social imaginary elements for its structure. Moreover, because representation is socially represented, it means that it evolves constantly. Social representations can be generated and given by different groups. Salesses and Romain analyzed representations of women on fashion on leading women’s magazines to clarify social assumptions of on the “ideal women”, and this ideal is “by definition, diffilcult to obtain ...” (Salesses & Romain, 2014). Their analysis suggests that Women’s magazines play a major role on how community members define beauty. In relations to social representations and Conceptualization of Fashion as a Social Construct 11
  12. 12. imaginary, women’s magazines deliver images that are part of social representations, and the images can also constantly change existing representations. Historically and stereotypically, fashion images only portrait women’s images as unrealistic and unachievable. The images produced by fashion magazines and their advertisers tend to only present the ideal women. However, Salesses and Romain found out that the ideal women right now is seen as: “at ease with herself, who feels good about herself”. Since the images presented in the magazines are no longer just only being unrealistic skinny, the representations often look natural. With “natural look”, the ideal woman should also be “individualistic, self-centered and hedonistic ambition” (Salesses & Romain, 2014). Based on social presentation and social imaginary theories and the study they conducted, they conclude that women’s magazines do not only deliver social imaginary of traditional type of idea women social representation, but also a new trend of ideal women social representation. Unlike only being beautiful, thin and feminine, the new trend of ideal woman is also “graceful, independent, intelligent, educated, tall, voluptuous, sporty and elegant”(Salesses & Romain, 2014). Their conducted study also proved that, there is a strong relationship between social imaginary and social representations. And their research reaffirmed that women’s magazines do deliver and build the stereotypical ideal woman. Global Contributions of Chinese Fashion Diffusion 12
  13. 13. Moreover, women’s magazines also help create new social imaginary and develop new social representation of the ideal women trickle-down, trickle-up and trickle-across are fashion theories generated in Western society and culture. However, fashion phenomenon, diffusions and trends in ancient China can be explained by those three theories. As a traditional Chinese cultural fashion trend, Qipao still impacts and leads Chinese fashion nationally and globally. As a trend that can be explained as tickle-down in China domestically, Qipao become a fashion and cultural trend of trickle-up in the globe internationally. As fashion movements intertwined with globalization, Chinese body or Asian bodies are presented and visible more. That makes me question: how does globalization in minority fashion relate to Chinese body or Asian body. Global Conceptualization of Chinese Fashion From fashion diffusions theories’ perspective on a global scale, Chinese fashion adaptation by Western leading luxury fashion houses aligns with the trickle-up theory. From a traditional point of view, Chinese culture is considered to be a subculture as it is a minority identity from a dominant Western culture perspective. Specifically, Western luxury designers adopted traditional and cultural Chinese fashion, and presented to the most elite and upper class groups. This process of adoption of a dominant culture from a subculture indicated that Chinese fashion has been diffused upward from a global perspective. The upward diffusion of Chinese fashion is directly related to Chinese identity, cultural beauty Conceptualization of Fashion as a Social Construct 13
  14. 14. and Asian bodies. When John Galliano presented his Shanghai inspired collections for Christian Dior fall/winter 1997-1998, he styled and accessorized his models to embody what he thinks of as China doll. He did this by ensuring that all models wear dark-haired wigs, traditional Chinese earnings and necklaces and rouge lipsticks. In his collection, which is based on Chinese fashion, most of the models he used where all Caucasian white females; a handful where were Asian and/or Black. After a decade, another haute couture house created a whole collection based on Asian culture. The fashion creative director of Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci, presented his Japanese - influenced collection at the Summer/Spring 2011 Haute Couture show. Unlike John Galliano at his Christian Dior show more than a decade ago, Riccardo Tisci used Asian models exclusively this time. This time, no Asian styled dark wigs needed. Riccardo Tisci made his statement through his Asian beauties. A decade ago, Asian fantasy was performed from White bodies. The difference between the Christian Dior show and Givenchy show indicated a trend; a trend of Chinese-ness and Asian body. Chinese fashion increases its influence in the globe, and Chinese beauty and Chinese body are presented. Drawing from all of the social theories, communication and media studies and fashion researches above, fashion is part of identity, more specifically, an identity of classes and social status. With globalization emerging and new social trends of women and beauty developing, Chinese-ness composing of Chinese cultural fashion and Chinese body becomes empowering and influential globally. Global Contributions of Chinese Fashion Diffusion 14
  15. 15. As one of the visible symbols, fashion indicates people’s classes and social status in our symbolic society. Thus, the rising of Chinese fashion indicates that the global landscape of classes and social status is changing by the force of Chinese- ness. Moreover, fashion is also a symbol of race and ethnicity, as I studied Chinese national costume Qipao, for example. The double functions of fashion in social classes and racial identity determine that fashion needs to be studied and researched deeper directly, from a sociological perspective. As Chinese fashion is rising, Chinese body or Asian bodies are presented increasingly. Oriental physical features gradually become a new beauty standard in the international fashion industry. While the new beauty standard is establishing, Asian female identity is gaining its voice and power to reinforce the changes in global classes and social status. As a new standard establishes, people will try to attain it and social trends will be directed. More social imaginary of Chinese body and Asian bodies will be created and published, while Chinese body and Asian bodies will change existing social representations and become new social representations. Thus, these new changes will reflect Chinese-ness in classes and social status with a globalization lens. Conclusion To conclude, fashion sologists’ definition of fashion phenomena as social constructs offer fashion meaning-makers opportunities to advance fashion scholarship. This advancement is not only important as it offers way fashion Conceptualization of Fashion as a Social Construct 15
  16. 16. relates to everyday practices, but it also shows how fashion informs concepts such as beauty, which directly informs identity construction. Salesses and Romain’s description of social presentation and social imaginary theories relates to this because their study shows how women’s magazines influence social imagination of what could be considered as the traditional ideal women. They go on to suggest that while beautiful should not be limited to whether one is thin and feminine, trend of ideal woman should be discussed based on the person’s “graceful, independent, intelligent, education, tall, voluptuous, sporty and elegant” (Salesses & Romain, 2014). Their study proves that there is a strong relationship between social imaginary and social representations. And their research reaffirmed that women’s magazines do deliver and build on existing stereotypes of ideal woman. Weber’s definition of class tension in relation to race identity creates and common shared culture in one chapter Ethnic Groups. In addition to racial groups that have different physical types, habits and custom, Weber also pointed out that interracial intercourse can generate attraction, tension or conflicts. I focused on Weber’s discussion on common shared racial characters and visible traits of cultural group. According to Weber, clothes, one of the cultural traits, can serve as a symbol of ethnic membership. Moreover, clothes and all other visible cultural traits function as a standard that reflects what people think is proper. Thus, clothes are a way to demonstrate group honor and dignity. Similarly, clothes function in a way that presents and reflects classes and status. In my research Global Contributions of Chinese Fashion Diffusion 16
  17. 17. paper, Qiaopao, positioned as Chinese national costume, is adopted by the Western world. As the visible racial symbol of Chinese, Qiaopao stands for Chinese cultural honor and dignity. And its adoption by the Western fashion world indicates that Chinese. Finally, majority of fashion scholars may agree that fashion is a socially constructed phenomenon. Bernard Barber and Lyle S. Lobel’s argument subscribes to this description and argues that fashion is used in a wide range from social to cultural meaning making practices that includes but not limited to historical preservations, as well as language usage and accessibility. Barber & Lobel believe that because fashion “consumption equals social class position” (Barber & Lobel, 1952), it makes opportunity for mass production of ready-to-wear and made-to-order designs, which have the opportunity to move in between and across cultures and peoples. For Barber and Lobel, fashion functions on a trickle-down system, which creates a tension within social class (Barber & Lobel, 1952). Trickle-down system defines a fashion diffusion model from upper class to lower class. For example, women with higher socioeconomic status seek for fashion symbols that separate them from those within lower socioeconomic status. On the other hand, women within lower socioeconomic strive to attain fashion symbols that will equate them to those with higher symbols. Drawing from Barber and Lobel, I believe that fashion is an interrelated communicative skill influenced by media, culture and communication. Conceptualization of Fashion as a Social Construct 17
  18. 18. The adoption process is originated from new styles in subculture, and the majority starts to borrow and spread the new styles. Thus the trickle-up, down and across fashion theories, though generated in Western society and culture, has strong influences in non-western cultural practices. As such fashion phenomenon, its diffusion and trending in ancient China cultures could be explained by understandings of fashion as social construct. As a traditional Chinese cultural fashion trend, Qipao still impacts and leads Chinese fashion nationally and globally. As a trend that can be explained as tickle-down in China domestically, Qipao become a fashion and cultural trend of trickle-up in the globe internationally. As fashion movements intertwined with globalization, Chinese body or Asian bodies are presented and visible more. That makes me question: how does globalization in minority fashion relate to Chinese body or Asian body. Global Contributions of Chinese Fashion Diffusion 18
  19. 19. References Barber, B. Lobel, L. S. (1952). "Fashion” in Women’s Clothes and The American Social System. Social Forces, 31, 124-131 Blumer, H. (1969). Fashion: From Class Differentiation to Collective Selection, TheSociological Quarterly, 10, 275–291 Clark, H. (2000). The cheongsam. New York: Oxford University Press Field, G. (1970). Status Float Phenomenon, Business Horizons, 13, 45–52 McCune, Z. (2011). Consumer Production in Social Media Networks: A Case Study of the “Instagram” iPhone App. Retrieved from http://thames2thayer.com/portfolio/a-study-of-instagram/ Paulicelli, E. Clark H. (2009). The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, and Globalization. New York:Routledge Ramzy, A. (2014). APEC Leaders’ Attire Inspires Imitators, New York Tmes, Retrieved from http: / /sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/13/apac- leaders- attire-inspires-lmitators/ Salesses, L. Romain, D. (2014). "The Imaginary and Social Representations Generated byFashion Images in Women’s Magazines”. Papers on Social Representations, 23, 23.1-23.20 Weber, M. (1922). Economy and Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press Weber, M. (2000). Social Stratification: Class, Race, and Gender in Sociological Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview Press Conceptualization of Fashion as a Social Construct 19

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