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What Happens When Asian Chic Becomes Chic in Asia?

by Ann Marie Leshkowich & Carla Jones

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For more than a decade, Asia has been chic in international fashion. While scholars have criticized Asian Chic for perpetuating Orientalist structures of knowledge and power, a significant number of designers and consumers in Asia have chosen to participate in the trend. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Vietnam and Indonesia, this article explores some Asians’ motivations for engaging in Asian Chic, as well as the broader symbolic and material repercussions of their stylistic choices. We argue that producing and consuming Asian Chic involves adopting a self-Orientalizing perspective on one’s imagined ethnic heritage, with mixed effects. For the people we describe, self-Orientalizing can yield personal, cultural, and economic benefits. Self-Orientalizing dress may be used as a sign of cosmopolitan cachet, but it may also mark local differences based on class, ethnicity, or locale and confirm Orientalist stereotypes of Asians as timeless and traditional “Others.” We argue that whether viewers accurately interpret the intentions behind self-Orientalizing dress depends on the subject position of both the dresser and the audience. Building on insights from performance and practice theories, we propose a model of performance practices to track how the interaction between intentionality and positionality shapes the effects of dress choices.

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