Author Archives: abomboka

Examining the Relationship between Fashion and Status in the Last Emperor

The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, places special emphasis on the ways in which costumes determine an individual’s status in society. The color and cut of the costumes donned by each character helps the viewer to understand the personality of each character. However, the one sequence within the movie that deviates from this motif is the first sequence in which the prisoners of war recognize Phu-yi’s face and bow to him as if he is still on his throne. I argue that the costume Phu-yi wears during this sequence distinguishes him from the other POWs, and that ultimately his position as emperor transcends his current identity as a POW within Maoist China.

When the viewer first sees Phu-yi in The Last Emperor, he is disembarking a train on the Manchuria-Russia border as a prisoner-of-war. Phu-yi has been brought in for detainment and questioning because he is believed to be a counter-revolutionary.

Last Emperor_Off-the-train

(03:17). A still of Phu-yi as he exits the train (

The setting where the sequence takes place is dark and industrial. The sky is cloudy, the ground is damp, and the POWs are being escorted by soldiers. All officers are wearing dark-green uniforms, and the other POWs are dressed in winter gear in dark green, dark grey, or black. Phu-yi stands our from the crowd because he is wearing business formal clothing in the form of a suit-and-tie. He wears a fedora instead of a fur-lined winter hat, and he is wearing glasses. From this still, the audience can infer that he was an intellectual, or at least worked in white-collar jobs prior to becoming a POW. When he enters the great-hall where the other POWs are waiting, they all turn to stare at him, with wary recognition. Some of the POWs bow towards him even though that is considered disobedience and could lead to death.

bowing down to the prince

People bowing to greet the Emperor as guards take them away. Phu-yi is in the far-right of the frame, watching in disbelief. (

This is the only time in the film where Phu-yi’s costume did not accurately portray his identity or indicate to people how he should be treated. As a young child in the height of his reign, Phu-yi was best remembered as wearing the yellow imperial robes. In the photo below Pu yi has emerged from the Forbidden City to conduct a ceremony. Historically, the color yellow is reserved for royalty, and is only worn by the emperor.

Emperor emerging from the forbidden city

Emperor emerging from the forbidden city (

Even when Pu yi is forced to evacuate the Forbidden City, he is still recognized as the Emperor in Japan due to his expensive attire. The Last Emperor  proves that costumes are not necessarily indicative of how a character inhabits and navigates the setting around them. The Last Emperor tells Pu yi’s story through flashbacks as he is questioned by the communist army. What matters most for Pu yi is not his current status as a POW, which is implied by the suit he wears entering the prison and the mao suit he is forced to wear during questioning. His story shows that people will remember him as emperor because he served as emperor and wore the robes. His cultural relevance in Chinese collective memory will always command respect from people around him regardless of his official title and the clothing he wears.


Footbinding: A Chinese Cultural Practice Used to Highlight the Uneven Comparisons Between the East and West

Dorothy Ko, in her articles The Body as Attire and Footbinding and Fashion Theory, highlights the problems that result when scholars try to compare cultural practices between the East and the West as they relate to fashion. Ko asserts that the lack of academic and historical information about foot-binding has lead to an oversimplification of the cultural practice and its significance within Chinese society.

In The Body as Attire, Ko explains that our understanding of foot-binding is based off of firsthand accounts of western missionaries who entered China with prejudices about the inferiority of Chinese culture. Their goal upon arriving in China was to expose the horrible aspects of foot-binding and work to abolish the practice altogether, which explains the use of “scientific tone of objective observation” in articles about foot-binding (Ko 9).


Natural Feet v. Bound Feet Comparison (,_1902.JPG)

Western missionaries and non-Chinese sociologist failed to understand how foot-binding was the basis of gender identity, cultural identity, and national identity. Foot-binding was part of a woman’s beauty ritual, having unbound feet was considered ugly and uncivilized. Foot-binding embodied wen civility, the highest form of cultural prestige which placed emphasis on concealing the body (Ko 14). Concealment was a form of respect and of self-control. The designs and embellishments on the lotus shoes were a reflection of a woman’s  socioeconomic status. Foot-binding was also an expression of political allegiance and ethnic identity (Ko 17). Chinese people considered groups from other nationalities (i.e. Korea, Japan) barbarians because they did not practice foot binding, which was justification for their imperial conquests (Ko 15). Han-Chinese did not view people from other ethnic groups (i.e. Manchu) as Chinese if they did not bind their feet because their choice was viewed as a lack of appreciation for wen civility.

Footbinding in Fashion Theory focuses more on the early interactions between westerners and Chinese people. Dorothy Ko’s analysis of western observations of foot-binding shows the reader that westerners viewed Chinese fashion as timeless costumes. While western scholars felt as though the Chinese were easier to relate to than other racial/ethnic groups (i.e. blacks, Hispanics), they perceived Western fashion to be more modern.

Wikicommons Foot binding wealthy

Chinese women wearing lotus shoes and long robes (

Westerners believed that Chinese people were similar to them because of their fairer skin and straight hair. However, their observations of Chinese facial features and stature are indicative of racial tensions: “for they are great people, on par with ourselves, but of uglier aspect, with little bit of eyes” (Footbinding in Fashion Theory 9). As a result, westerners observed that Chinese fashion had adopted aspects of western fashion, such as shoe designs and stockings, but saw their creations as unoriginal copies (Footbinding in Fashion Theory 9). Westerners did not believe Chinese fashion was modern there were not as many visible changes in the cut or style of garments as there were in Europe. However, they acknowledged the extent to which fashion was meant to maintain political order and national identity (Footbinding in Fashion Theory 11). Lastly, westerners were perplexed by the idea of wen civility. In attempting to study and observe Chinese people, they were unable to examine unbound feet and rarely saw Chinese women without their makeup and hair done. The inability to fully understand the effects of foot-binding on the physical condition and psyche of Chinese women led to the exoticism of Chinese women as “mysterious” or “unseen”.

Ultimately, Dorothy Ko’s analysis of foot-binding is intended to change the ways in which scholars approach the subject of foot-binding. One has to examine Chinese history and understand how western perceptions of foot-binding have limited our understanding of the complexities of the practice and ways in which it shaped Chinese identity. The goal is not to compare foot-binding with western fashion culture, but view each interpretation of foot-binding as a unique and valid expression of cultural pride and identity formation.

A Chamber of Whispers — Echoing the Consequences of Cultural Exchange

Adam Geczy, in his article A Chamber of Whispers, offers a critique of orientalization in defense of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ‘China Though the Looking Glass’ exhibit. The Chamber of Whispers is the last section of the exhibit — juxtaposing Chinese artifacts from the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries against the couture pieces they inspired. Gezcy wants the reader to reexamine the negative connotations of orientalization by pointing out the ways in which the East (China) was inspired by Western art. He points out cultural symbols such as the brise fan, which originated in Europe and co-opted into Chinese culture by way of printing cultural designs upon the object:

Picture1 Brise fan made in France c. 1830 – 1840

He introduces the term ‘transorientalism’ as “a more serviceable term that, while admitting of ethical aspects of cultural appropriation, also supports the undeniable circumstances of exchange, re-translation, and re-envisioning embedded in the Orientalist idea, and a dynamic that still today shows no signs of abating” (Gezcy 24). Gezcy aims to protect the integrity and freedom of artists that choose to create pieces inspired by Chinese culture by defending the experimentation that cultural exchange provides. However, he fails to acknowledge the power dynamics between the East and West, and the perpetual understanding of the East as ‘other’ or ‘stuck in the past’.

wonderful claim which calls for immediate support: how could one learn about “the power dynamics” through the fan object? 

Picture2Jar with Dragon. Early 15th Century. Picture3Evening Dress, fall/winter, 2005-6. This piece was inspired by the Jar with Dragon.

Gezcy is correct in saying that the East and West engaged in cultural exchange; the sheer volume of objects and concepts that were imported, exported, and intellectually  exchanged is worthy to note. However, Western interpretations of Eastern Art seems have more cultural longevity than the original Eastern art forms. This is to say that people value the ability of Western art to legitimize aspects of Chinese culture and make it accessible to the masses. Western art, in an attempt to appreciate aspects of Chinese culture, has misinterpreted cultural symbols and as a result taken them out of context. While Chinese artists have created works influences by Western artists, there remains an understanding of where the ideas originated from and the image of Western culture is not harmed in the process.

The West has historically viewed the East as an ‘other’; a foreign, amorphous location that can be used as an artist’s playground:  “Yet it is also worth remembering that, against all accusations of inauthenticity…dressing up furnished a means for expression that allowed one to do things that would have been difficult to justify in every day life” (Gezcy 27). It is this statement that unravels Gezcy’s argument, because he unabashedly describes the problematic lens through which Westerners view Chinese culture. Westerners did not have the freedom to experiment with their surroundings, and turned to Chinese culture as a means for exploration. When they had completed their exploratory phase, they created works of art that summarized their premature conclusions about Chinese culture. China has never had societal dominance in this manner. While they engaged in cultural exchange with the West, there was never a relegation of Chinese art to an inferior status.

In addition, there has not been a call from the East de-contextualize Western art from its Chinese origins in the support of academic and artistic freedom. Gezcy’s defense of the Chamber of Whispers exhibit is written under the assumption that people value Eastern and Western art equally. The consequence of using the term ‘transorientalism’ is that it purposefully ignores the inherent power imbalance involved in the exchange of Eastern and Western art.

your comments are critical and forceful. Just wish that you could use the art objects as visual evidence to support your claims

Cultural Uniformity at the Expense of Femininity

Chairman Mao envisioned a unified society in which ethnic, gender, and class inequalities were nonexistent. His ideal society was in direct opposition to the Western imperialism, specifically capitalism, that had inhibited the political and economic growth of China. Removing these inequalities was part of his efforts to bolster national pride in China.

need a transition between the two paragraphs

Chairman Mao introduced the Mao Suit to China in the late 1950’s with the effect being to “‘Civilize the mind and make savage the body.’ This is an apt saying. In order to civilize the mind, one must first make savage the body. If the body is made savage, then the civilized mind will follow.” (Chen 361). Chairman Mao took this to mean that the body is meant to be improved upon, to be strengthened. He wanted to uplift the proletariat class, who traditionally performed manual labor,  and highlight their value to Chinese society.

The Mao suit was a button-down shirt with either pants or trousers, denoting one’s occupation as a proletariat or farmer, respectively. The peasant workers wore trousers to show off their “well-formed calves” and rolled up their sleeves to show off their “powerful arms” (Chen 365). how about focus on the analysis of gender and mao suit?

Grey Mao SuitA Grey MaoSuit

For Chinese women, the Mao suit created an opportunity to be equal with men.  Each profession had a standard uniform that every worker was required to wear, and workers were evaluated on many tasks they completed during their shifts. Mao eliminated the benefits that beauty and propriety had initially given upper-class women. In addition, men and women worked alongside each other, and were encouraged in the same manner to strengthen their bodies and increase their productivity levels. Through the Mao suit and changing ideals of professionalism in the workplace, Chairman Mao achieved political, economic, and social uniformity among Chinese people, regardless of their ethnicity and other marginalized aspects of their identity.

Strive for an abundant harvest, amass grain 1973‘Strive for an abundant harvest, amass grain 1973’

However, Mao’s cultural uniformity eliminated the concept of femininity altogether. In advertisements and propaganda promoting the communist agenda, women were portrayed as hard-working individuals who were happy because they focused solely on their occupations. Women had short hair that was tucked under a hat or hair-wrap, and wore little to no makeup. The uniforms were shapeless so as to direct attention to the parts of the body that were visible (i.e. arms and legs). By forcing women to build muscle and work harder in the fields or in the offices of proletarians, Chairman Mao sent the message that equality could only be established by having both men and women conform to the standards of appearance and productivity initially forced upon men.

Farmers During the Cultural Revolution 1970 Farmers during the Cultural Revolution, 1970

Women’s bodies were in flux when it came to changing professions. In the agricultural sector, every individual wore the same suit and completed the same tasks. In the proletariat/technocratic fields, such as the textile industry, women had to wear different clothes to both signify their upward mobility and cover different parts of their body. Men, on the other hand, continued to wear trousers and button-down shirts. They did not have to alter their clothing in order to conform to the rules of different workplaces.

Overall, Mao did not achieve his quest for gender equality. Women could not engage in traditional beauty or fashion practices because they were required to focus on work and gaining strength. The shapeless Maosuit did not allow women to showcase their bodies. Women did not have uniform clothing, but were forced to change their garments when they changed professions. While unintentional, the gender inequality between men and women resulted because the standards for equality were not recreated to include the cultures and identities of women before the cultural revolution. Instead, women were forced to meet the societal standards placed upon men.

could pursue a much more cohesive organization, if take the thematic issue of gender (in)equality in terms of Mao uniformity as the central focus, then explain in detail, how the visual denotations construct socialist female body.

Works Cited:

Grey Mao Suit:

Strive for an abundent harvest:

Farmers during the Cultural Revolution, 1970:

Liu Jianhua’s Game Series: A Social Commentary of the Consumption of the Qipao

Liu Jianhua’s Game Series calls the authenticity of the qipao, and ultimately its cultural meaning, into question. Initially, the qipao was sanctioned by the Chinese government in the early 1900’s as the official dress for women in China. The qipao upheld Chinese national pride by showcasing patterns and designs specific to the Chinese fashion industry while allowing women an increased range of motion.

Chinese women were empowered by the qipao because they could choose the design and cut to show as much of their body as they were comfortable. Affluent women were able to dabble in Western ideals of fashion (by experimenting with Western patterns and designs) without backlash from society because the shape and the cut of the qipao were distinctly Chinese; this distinction placed national identity above the individual appreciation for Western ideals.

The qipao fell out of favor in the 1950’s-1960’s due to Cultural Revolution and the Socialist period that followed under Mao Zedong.  The qipao had come to represent over-extravagance and wealth, which was frowned upon during the socialist era. In the 1990’s, however, the qipao underwent a cultural emergence due in part to China’s growing economy and political stability. What truly brought relevance to the qipao was the renewed cultural pride that began in the fashion industry and was consumed by the general public and the West.

introduce an argument first before the detail. also there is no enough room for detailed historical description about qipao in a post

This is where Liu Jianhua’s Game Series becomes important in understanding the peculiar place of the qipao. Currently, the qipao is a cultural symbol but does not have national backing as it did from the 1920’s – 1950’s. As a result, the qipao has become less about empowering Chinese women and upholding national pride as much as it is about the qipao a commodity for mass consumption. While many fashion houses, Chinese and Western alike, are paying their respects to the traditional Chinese dress, they have left out the designs and cuts specific to Chinese culture. good point, are you going to support it?

katy-perry-122766413(Katy Perry at the Grammy Awards in a Western interpretation of the qipao)

what does the photo of Katy Perry with Liu Jianhua’s work? I feel confused.

LIu Jianhua purposefully chose to remove the heads of the women he sculpted to show the audience that when we consume the qipao, we are not focused on the people wearing the dress but on the dress itself and its ability to be modernized. He has the women positioned with their legs  spread open to show the viewer that the qipao has become a object with which to objectify women. Qipaos now, such as the one worn by Katy Perry at the Grammy Awards, do not provide as much covering for women as they used to. is it better to focus on one image?

women on blue rimmed plateLiu Jianhua, Color Ceramic Series – Game, Ceramic Sculpture 2000, 52 x 52 x 23 cm, LJH30

In addition, Liu Jianhua purposefully sculpted the women’s bodies without arms to indicate that they are powerless to the men that objectify them, and furthermore that the qipao is powerless against those that interpret it out of the Chinese context. Liu Jianhua chose to put the women on porcelain plates as an “offering” to the viewer. These women, who are headless and powerless, are up for the taking in terms of the male gaze. Their bodies and the designs of the qipao are also available for the fashion industry, both Chinese and Western, to have as much or as little as they want. raised number of good points here which need careful and analytical explanation.

While some might critique Liu Jianhua’s Games Series as extremist, I argue that he is providing a social commentary not only for men, but for Chinese and Western civilization. It is warning against the objectification of women’s bodies, and the dehumanization and dis-empowerment that results. It is a sign that the qipao is not authentically Chinese anymore; it has been interpreted through various lenses within the fashion industry and has lost its origin, at least, in eyes of the average western consumer.

if this is the argument, then introduce it at the beginning.

Liu Jianhua_twowomenonaplate (Liu Jianhua, Color Ceramic Series – Game ,Ceramic Sculpture 2000, 61 x 61 x 15 cm, LJH12)

Sources used: (photographs) (the inspiration for Liu Jianhua’s Games Series) (Liu Jianhua’s biography) (Professor Tsui’s Qipao powerpoint slides)