Chinoiserie, what does Chinese style represent today?

Silvia Bizzarra

For centuries, China has represented a place of inspiration for everything from design to fashion, that is probably because it has always been far from the West in terms of culture and distance, and that sense of exotic chic has attracted generations of western populations. Is Chinoiserie today still an appreciative response to Chinese decorative style or it has evolved into something different?

Chinoiserie was born in the 18th century when the trade developed between China and France induced a Chinese-style boom. Reflected in a decorative design, this movement is an elegant and exotic decorative style that combines the classic Western aesthetic and the pure Chinese style.

While in that period the Eastern influence was mainly reflected in the design of textile patterns, after the 19th century, Chinese-influenced clothing and colours became popular in Europe and America. The special appeal of Chinese clothing, the Han suit, the cheongsam and the Mao suit inspired many western fashion designers like Chanel and Dior during the 70ies. However, the popularity of Chinese-influenced clothing was mainly a result of anti-fashion aesthetics in western society rather than an honest appreciation for Chinese design.

How has Chinoiserie changed during the 21st century?

The access of China to WTO in 2001 has facilitated Chinese companies to integrate into the western fashion scene. But what has brought the Western fashion world to reconsider Chinoiserie as an appreciative cultural response free from cliché´ was the China-themed Met Gala 2015.

The iconic show received severe criticism for the exaggerated use of Chinese cultural elements by the artistic directors and was accused to lack promoting a country beyond the stereotypes it is known for (jade, porcelain, dragons).  This brought the entire fashion industry to realize that China finally started to exist in collective fantasy, and fashion exhibitions reconsidered Chinoiserie in depth.

Today this movement is intended to revalue a culture that many still do not understand. To help the process, Chinese consumers are increasingly demanding products that reflect their own rich cultural heritage. But that doesn't necessarily mean embroidered dragons, the rich Chinese philosophy along with the classical literature has become a must in recent years, brands are starting to include Chinese traditional elements in the design philosophy process, and consumers from all over the world seem to like it.

What will Chinoiserie be like in the future? It's difficult to predict in which direction this fashion movement will go, but it is important to reflect on how after more than 2 centuries of Chinoiserie, we still feel attracted by cliché´ elements that make us feel closer to a culture that is becoming more and more present in our lives, but that we struggle to understand.