"China Chic"

Foot binding was barbarous, but that doesn't mean the shoes weren't fabulous.

Published May 3, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

China's influence on fashion is everywhere you look. Mandarin collars and dragon-brocade silk have become so commonplace that they're universally accepted as part of the classic Chinese look. But to those who haven't thought about it much, Chinese fashion prior to the 20th century seems like a monotonous timeline of long brocade robes.

In "China Chic," Valerie Steele and John S. Major, along with a handful of other experts on Chinese history and clothing, do all they can to dispel that misconception, presenting in a relatively brief space a solid overview of Chinese fashion through the centuries, with an emphasis on how Chinese culture has influenced the rest of the world during this century. Steele, the chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Major, a scholar of Chinese history, are able guides, particularly when they're outlining China's influence on such contemporary Western designers as John Galliano, Christian Lacroix and Anna Sui.

Other sections of the book trace the history of foot binding, the development of the Maoist uniform and the changes in Chinese fashion before and during the Cultural Revolution. Individuality has always found ways to flourish. Verity Wilson, an assistant curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, explains how in the 1960s many urban Chinese were able to afford certain luxuries -- their own cameras, for instance: "At the Chinese New Year Festival in the early 1970s, Tiananmen Square in Beijing was crowded with people trying out their new cameras. People who did not have cameras formed long queues behind government photographers whose tripods dotted the square. The sitters smoothed their hair and adjusted their clothing. They carefully took up a position. A cherished watch was revealed by folding back a cuff before the shutter clicked. A 'good' profile was turned toward the lens. There were choices to be made."

But it's the pictures that really tell the story here. From the photographs included in "China Chic," it's easy to see how the cheung sam -- the fitted high-collar dress that Westerners think of as the traditional dress of China -- evolved from the long, loose-fitting robes worn by Manchu women in the 19th century. Similarly, it's easy to see the relationship between the gorgeous but restrictive cheung sam and contemporary designer Vivienne Tam's columnar stretch-net dresses, which are screen-printed with dragons or cartoonified images of Mao Zedong.

Perhaps most fascinating of all are the tiny, wedge-shaped satin shoes worn by women with bound feet. One pair from the 1800s, made from aqua and cotton-candy-pink silk, sport fancifully embroidered bats on their soles. They're shoes for a woman who would need to be carried, her deformed feet having rendered her almost completely dependent on men. It's almost shocking that the remnants of such a barbaric custom should be so exquisite and appealing, but there they are: a reminder that cultural practices we're unable to condone can still result in spectacular works of art -- even if, in this case, these boots weren't made for walkin'.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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