The aesthetic of blue-and-white porcelain, when used by Western designers, is often perceived as a form of neo-chinoiserie that appropriates and bastardises porcelain in a form of colonial power. These designers are perceived to be effacing and unfaithfully presenting a cultural aesthetic that does not truly belong to them; that they only acquire through colonial power. When exhibited together in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2015 exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass [1] the Museum was critiqued for ‘using the imagery and style associated with China as manipulable, unconstrained to China itself.’ [2] In contrast to the works by these Western designers, the works by Guo Pei and Li Xiaofeng can be interpreted as reclaiming this aesthetic. As Chinese artists, they are perceived to be presenting an ‘authentic’ and ‘pure’ maintenance of an iconic tradition that embraces China’s artistic history. They are ‘insiders’ and thus their creative interpretations of the porcelain dress are more legitimate; they are more entitled to ‘broker representation’ [3] of what a contemporary, sartorial interpretation of blue-and-white porcelain looks like. The appeal and celebration of Chinese cultural identity in these items suggest that they align better with the history of China and its visual traditions. However, in this case, this is a notion that should be challenged.

Before exploring blue-and-white porcelain and its use as iconography in fashion, it is key to understand the transorientalist nature of the medium. Adam Geczy’s concept of transorientalism complicates the idea of a ‘pure,’ linear tradition, particularly in the area of decorative arts and clothing, in which the ‘maintenance of tradition’ looks like a continual ‘borrowing’ and reinventing of elements of the old traditions in new ways. What traditions are we supposed to maintain? What aspect of the past should be embraced? Is there a single rightful owner to blue-and-white porcelain? The concept merges the notions of exchange with the ideological volatility of the term ‘Orientalism.’ [4] In a Chinese context, the (re)transformation of porcelain into a luxury commodity and art object subjects it to the greatest cultural scrutiny of appropriation and exoticisation. A transorientalist exploration of history exposes the multiple and irregular roots of what an individual may consider essential to their culture. [5] Geczy creates a space in which the ‘guilt and opprobrium’ [6] that is commonly associated with notions of appropriation, aestheticization, Othering and exoticisation can be alleviated and explored more freely in accordance with the historical context. For much of history, China was pivotal to global trade, as the ‘fulcrum of the world system.’ [7] As such, the ‘generic straw man of Western oppression’ that is accused of mystifying and simplifying complex Eastern cultures weakens substantially; the history of global trade is founded upon a global network of connections that ‘cannot be reduced to a unidirectional narrative of Western influence.’ [8] Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century – when chinoiserie first appeared – did not occupy any ‘position of domination, manipulation or cultural condescension.’ [9] Rather, it was China that wielded considerable power in the world system, and their global ubiquity inevitably led to external conceptions of Chinese culture, to varying degrees of accuracy. Conversely, China’s conception of the ‘the West’ also exists more so as a generic discursive category, [10] that was treated as a homogenised whole at times. [11]

China’s global power increased the porosity of their culture, [12]making them more susceptible to appropriation, aestheticization, and exoticisation. As their cultural objects were disseminated through trade, they acquired new identities and meanings and have their own ‘social lives.’ [13] Importantly, exports at the time cannot be solely understood as ‘unauthentic, non-Chinese’ as this reinforces a sharp distinction between Chinese aesthetic norms and Western tastes that did not exist; the most successful export trades in Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East tended to be the ones that looked more Chinese. [14] China voluntarily aestheticized itself into its ‘inauspicious signs’ [15] for outsider consumption in the historical context of transnational trade rather than colonial power imbalance; it was a willing player in ‘shaping and manipulating an image congenial to the oriental phantasm.’ [16] As such, while current understandings of chinoiserie consider it a loaded term, the history of chinoiserie is one that is devoid of such sinisterly ideological underpinnings. [17] In the context of trade, it functioned as ‘a stylistic Esperanto’ [18] that was adaptable to facilitate a form of symbolic communication between China and the cultures it traded with. The origins of chinoiserie can be traced back to Persia under Mongol rule, in which fanciful representations of Chinese culture facilitated strong trade relations. [19] China’s self-exoticised image was a trading strategy that was able to communicate an aura of mystery and allure to Western traders, in ways that were equally unreal as their depiction of Chinese culture seen in travel writings. [20] The perpetuation of this image profited them immensely at the time, as the obsession with porcelain skyrocketed. 

Furthermore, the success of wares such as porcelain and silk were valued because of their aesthetic appeal and their adaptability by these new cultures; their capacity to be appropriated contributed to their success as a global export. Clothing and decorative arts must be understood as objects that can be interpreted as anywhere along the spectrum of purely decorative to purely functional. This ambiguity makes them susceptible to mutual influence; China often had re-imaginations of their visual motifs sold back to them, and thus the roles of producer and consumer are often rendered indistinguishable. [21] Chinoiserie offered the aesthetic opportunity to play, turning Chinese motifs into illegible decorative imagery that took on new significances. [22] Every transaction represented a re-assertion of Chinese culture and a new opportunity for trading countries to (re)interpret its relation to their culture.

Installation view of China Through the Looking Glass, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015
Museum image of a 15th century Chinese vase, painted with a blue and white dragon

Jar with Dragon, early 15th century, China, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Blue-and-white porcelain can be read as a transorientalist medium, that has changed as it has been passed from culture to culture, and subsequently back to China. It has become a possession of the world, manufactured and used virtually everywhere. [23] To embrace a history of blue-and-white porcelain that is uninformed by non-Chinese influence would be incomplete; Chinese porcelain is a ‘tale of stylistic miscegenation on a grand scale.’ [24] Huang argues that the potency of the medium and aesthetic can be understood as ‘a product of its diverse history of interchange and its ability to defy definitive categories such as image/text, West/China, material/symbolic, and local/imperial.’ [25] Thus, the global use and appropriation of blue-and-white porcelain contribute to its status as a cultural icon. It is estimated that at least 70 million pieces of porcelain had been imported to Europe alone by the close of the eighteenth century. [26] It was considered such a normal attribute of everyday life, to the point where it appeared as subjects in other works of art and design, [27] and certain interiors in Britain and Africa would look incomplete without the inclusion of blue-and-white porcelain. [28] Reinterpretation and reinvention played a vital role in this; the same bowl could simultaneously be considered an unexceptional product of industry in China and an expensive, singular object that reflected design history in Europe. [29]

Blue-and-white porcelain was thus fundamental in the construction of the cultural identity of other nations, because of its distinctiveness. The system of global trade was influential in the aesthetic development of blue and white porcelain. On one hand, Chinese traders would have been influenced by the aesthetic cultures of the countries they were trading with. On the other hand, China was willing to create objects that appealed to the ‘exotic’ impression of ‘China’ that those nations held, that subsequently sold well in those countries. China’s global success —something they took a great deal of pride in, and was a significant part of their cultural identity— is thus tied to these potentially ‘inauthentic’, ‘exotic’ designs. The awareness of other cultures allowed all nations, including China, to develop notions of self-identity and ‘otherness.’ [30] Their ubiquity also meant that eventually, their foreignness diminished as they became increasingly familiar and thus came to represent the self-identity of non-Chinese nations, distancing the object from the culture that produced it. [31]

Image of a Guo Pei garment on a mannequin.

“Guo Pei” by chooyutshing is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As such it would be incorrect to suggest that the widespread appropriation of porcelain means that it needs to be ‘reclaimed’ by the Chinese. This is for two reasons: imitations did not diminish the value and desire for Chinese imports; China also exported commissions of porcelains with non-Chinese designs. A core tenant to what makes appropriation problematic is the presence of a cultural hierarchy and the double standard applied; when the appropriated object receives more appreciation than the original. Appropriations and attempts to imitate Chinese porcelain were often failures or could not live up to the original medium; it was much more difficult to replicate the materiality of porcelain. As Pierson describes it, ‘we may copy it because of the high cost of the original material, but we still want the original material if we can afford it.’ [32] Furthermore, the practice of taking commissions from trading countries contributes to the image of blue-and-white porcelain as a global artefact and contributing to the ambiguity surrounding its cultural ‘authenticity.’ Since its invention in the Tang dynasty, China has been accepting designs requested by traders. [33] In these requested items, the main factor that stayed the same was the blue-and-white aesthetic. Elements from these designs were subsequently incorporated into the domestic wares these artisans created and were embraced for their lively decoration and more varied inventive design. [34] As such, China was also culpable in the impression that their aesthetic forms could be used interchangeably with those of other cultures and other forms in a back and forth [35] that would extend into contemporary fashion.  

From this, how is one to understand Western ‘sartorial chinoiserie’ [36] that ‘appropriates’ blue-and-white porcelain given its global ubiquity? As Steele and Major argue, it seems completely obfuscatory to criticise inspiration and references in fashion as being superficial, this criticism could be levied at designers whenever they are inspired by anything beyond their immediate lives. [37] Yet it is this global ubiquity of blue-and-white porcelain that differentiates this instance of appropriation from other instances that are identifiably more harmful to their cultures of origin. Many of these designers would have been exposed to blue-and-white porcelain in their local contexts because of this history of global trade. These designs range from being inspired by Chinese designs to non-Chinese imitations of Chinese designs to distinct reinterpretations of blue-and-white porcelain entirely. Whether or not they have misunderstood the motifs or history they are using seem to miss the point of these garments. [38] Dolce and Gabbana’s 2016 Fall/Winter Preview collection uses the Majolica print, which is an Italian polychromic print that was inspired by Islamic Near East and North African. [39] While being one of the more distantly influenced interpretations of blue-and-white porcelain, it is still often conflated with ‘china blue’ fashion generally. [40] Similarly, Alexander McQueen’s 2011 Fall/Winter Ready-to-Wear collection featured the ‘broken plate gown.’ While visually it looked similar to Li’s work, McQueen’s gown used an entirely different process which used the designs from hand-painted plates featuring British designs, [41] likely commonly found in domestic British spaces. The timing of this collection coincided with the opening of its first boutique in China, suggesting that the reference to Chinese design by using blue-and-white porcelain was intentional. The looks by Valentino and Giambattista Valli’s 2013 Fall/Winter collections thematically depict a history of porcelain in Europe, which inevitably feature blue-and-white pieces. Both their works feature interpretations of the excessive use of florals in Chinese ceramics, with Valentino’s alluding to the well-known Blue Willow pattern through its incorporation of architectural elements. Christian Dior’s 2009 Spring/Summer Haute Couture collection similarly seems much more focused on recreating the materiality of the porcelain in its drapes and using the designs that align more closely with those seen in chinoiserie. John Galliano, as well as Dior frequently feature exoticised and Orientalised depictions of Chinese culture in which the inspiration of different elements of the ensemble are derived from a multitude of sources such as European paintings, Chinese nomadic costume, and cultures of countries adjacent to China such as Japan and Russia. [42] Galliano’s looks demonstrate the transformative nature of the creative process that does not slavishly reproduce Chinese imagery. [43] It is the pieces from Roberto Cavalli’s 2005 Fall/Winter collection that reference Chinese ceramics the most strongly. In China, Guo has even been accused of plagiarising Cavalli’s porcelain dress. Thus as Major and Steele point out, ‘it is, therefore, impossible to say that Asian-inspired fashion has any one single meaning.’ [44]

Conversely, Guo’s garment can be read as a self-Orientalising piece that combines traditions of Chinese art forms and Western high fashion in ways not dissimilar to the works by the Western fashion designers. The piece was presented as part of her 2010 Spring/Summer collection at Hong Kong Fashion Week. The decision to display at Hong Kong, rather than at China Fashion Week suggests an interest in gradually capturing a Western audience. [45] The collection, titled ‘One Thousand and Two Nights’ invoked the fantasy associated with the Middle Eastern One Thousand and One Nights. This is likely an allusion to an Orientalist-themed fancy-dress party couturier Paul Poiret hosted in 1911 called ‘The Thousand and Second Night’. [46] Imagination thus informs her designing process; she wants her works to lift the viewer out of their ordinary lives, and ‘deliver [them] into the realm of the sublime.’ [47] It is clear that while Chinese motifs and design elements do clearly pervade her work, her interest in truth and authenticity in her work, like that of the Western designers, is minimal. Compositionally, the two notable design features of the gown are: the mermaid skirt and train; the fan-like pleating on the front. The former is a Western silhouette originated and popularised by Marcel Rochas. The latter references an item that came to be associated with China, through appropriating the Japanese pleated fan, to assert cultural difference and mystery while trading with Europe. [48] When exhibited in SCAD, the name of the garment is listed as ‘Blue and Porcelain,’ an unspecific general name that simply alludes to a longstanding artistic tradition. However, the blue-and-white print on the dress does not specifically correlate with the traditional visual style of blue-and-white porcelain. Notably, the basis of blue-and-white porcelain is blue designs drawn onto a white base, yet the central feature on the train of her skirt features the inverse of this aesthetic, with white designs on a solid blue base. While China does have a rich tradition of embroidery, the embroidery techniques that Guo employs are a recreation from memory of a technique from the Middle Ages she saw at a European art museum. [49] A combination of appropriating a bastardised European tradition and the maintenance of a Chinese tradition lost in the Cultural Revolution into a technique that is neither Eastern nor Western. [50] This suggests that her design process, like her Western counterparts, is more interested in visual appreciation and an ‘aesthetic of surfaces.’ [51] Guo’s works can be read as both maintaining the tradition of blue-and-white porcelain by acknowledging its appropriation or embracing the globality of the medium and thus adding legitimacy to the Western fashion designers’ interpretations.

Installation shot of China Through the Looking Glass at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2015
Image of a blue and white painted plate.

Deftware Dish made in imitation of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, 1704, Dutch, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Part of porcelain’s success is its physical properties that make it ‘easy to break yet hard to destroy’ and able to look conditionally pristine even after centuries buried underground. [52] Despite the hardships that China has undergone since then, in the current era, China is once again perceived as an industrial powerhouse and a hub of trade with the West. Through combining these two narratives, Li highlights the current industrial boom in China, and how both rely on globalisation to assert its technological and cultural progressiveness. 

What becomes apparent when one attempts to embrace the past is that it complicates the notion of tradition. The assumption of the ‘untainted’ nation-state quickly unravels and with it does the presumed ‘authenticity’ of all the traditions of a culture. Blue-and-white porcelain has a demonstrably nuanced and global history, involving instances of reinterpretation and imitation that must be acknowledged when discussing issues of appropriation.

References

[1] China: Through the Looking Glass, exh., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015.

[2] Adam Geczy, Transorientalism, London: Bloomsbury, 2019, p. 109.

[3] Geczy, 2019, p. 22

[4] Geczy, 2019, p. 6

[5] Geczy, 2019, p. 6.

[6] Geczy, 2019, p. 5.

[7] Robert Finlay, The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History, Berkley: University of California Press, 2010, p. 14. 

[8] Ellen C. Huang, ‘From the Imperial Court to the International Art Market: Jingdezhen Porcelain Production as Global Visual Culture,’ Journal of World History, 23, no. 1, 2012, pp. 115-145, p. 142.

[9] Adam Geczy, ‘A Chamber of Whispers,’ in China: Through the Looking Glass, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, p. 25.

[10] Adam Geczy, Fashion and Orientalism, London: Bloomsbury, 2013, p. 189.

[11] ‘European’ style became a court fashion in China, derived from patterns found on Meissen ceramics, which were an imitation of Chinese ceramics. (Pierson, 2009, p. 115)

[12] Geczy, 2019, p. 7.

[13] Stacey Pierson, Chinese Ceramics, London: V&A Publishing, 2009, p. 7; Stacey Pierson, ‘The Movement of Chinese Ceramics: Appropriation in Global History,’ Journal of World History, 23, no. 1, 2012, p. 38.

[14] Huang, 2012, p.134; Pierson, 2009, p. 34.  

[15] Geczy, 2019, p. 110.

[16] Geczy, 2013, p. 175.

[17] This isn’t to say that this concept wasn’t eventually used as a tool of subjugation, purely that it would be overly simplistic to only perceive it as such.

[18] Geczy, 2019, p. 113.

[19] Finlay, 2010, p. 154.

[20] Huang, 2012, p. 134.

[21] Huang, 2012, p. 144.

[22] Finlay, 2010, p. 169; John Carswell, Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain Around the World, London: British Museum Press, 2007, p. 145. 

[23] Finlay, 2010, p. 15

[24] Geczy, 2019, p. 112.

[25] Huang, 2012, p. 145.

[26] Anne Gerritsen and Stephen McDowall, ‘Material Culture and the Other: European Encounters with Chinese Porcelain, ca. 1650-1800,’ Journal of World History, 23, no. 1, 2012, p. 88. 

[27] Pierson, 2009, p. 103.

[28] Carswell, 2007, p. 194; Pierson, 2009, p. 7.

[29] Pierson, 2012, p. 36.

[30] Pierson, 2012, p. 12.

[31] Pierson, 2012, pp. 38-39.

[32] Pierson, 2012, p. 27.

[33] Finlay, 2010, p. 10.

[34] Finlay, 2010, p. 174. 

[35] Finlay, 2010, p. 165.

[36] Valerie Steele & John S. Major, China Chic: East Meets West, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999, p. 71.

[37] Steele and Major, 1999, p. 70.

[38] Maxwell K. Hearn, ‘A Dialogue Between East and West,’ in China: Through the Looking Glass, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015,, p. 14.

[39] Edward A. Maser, ‘The European Imitators and Their Wares,’ in Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and Its Impact on the Western World, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985, p.37; it is also to be noted that Dolce and Gabanna have made collections using a polychromal iteration of the same print. 

[40] Nina Dobev, ‘Exquisite Pattern of Dolce and Gabbana Winter 2016 Woman Collection,’ Anis Zandesh, 17 August 2015.; Kate Quinlan, ‘Blue and White: Fashion,’ V&A Blog, 24 September 2015.

[41] Joyce Official, ‘Alexander McQueen Beijing Opening’, YouTube, 12 December 2011.

[42] Andrew Bolton, China: Through the Looking Glass, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, p. 232

[43] Hearn, 2015, p. 14

[44] Ann Marie Leshkowich & Carla Jones, ‘What Happens When Asian Chic Becomes Chic in Asia?’ Fashion Theory, 7, no. 3-4, 2003, p. 296.

[45] It is important to note that her main clientele would still have been Chinese.

[46] Koda and Bolton, 2008; The suggestion of an additional fantastical story could also refer to the stories her grandmother told her as a child, which painted a sumptuous, romanticised sartorial image of pre-Communist China,  that fuelled her imagination and ignited her love for fashion.

[47] Lynn Yaeger, ‘Made in China’ in Guo Pei: Couture Beyond, New York: Rizzoli, 2018, p. 9

[48] Geczy, 2015, p. 28.

[49] Naoki Takehata, ‘Rich and Famous in China Line up for a Guo Pei Creation’, Asahi Shimbun, 4 June 2011.

[50] Takehata, 2011. 

[51] Bolton, 2015; The documentary Yellow is Forbidden follows Guo’s as she simultaneously creates the garments for ‘Legend’, her 2017 Spring/Summer Couture show and first Paris Fashion show, and prepares to set up an atelier in Paris, while being under consideration for a place in the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, as one of its few female and non-European members. The documentary illuminates that Guo isolates imagery and iconography in her design process. While walking through the European churches, she seems less interested in the religious institutions it houses or the stories that are represented in the spaces. While perusing samples in a textiles showroom, she asks the sales assistant ‘Are angels ok? All religions are ok with angels, right?’, prioritising the visuals over the content of her religion-inspired collection.

[52] Finlay, 2010, p. 9.