#17 The Semantics of Words & the Antics of Fashion: Addressing “Victorientalism”

Jaymee and I had a discussion the other day triggered by the use of the word “Victorientalism” (also spelled “Vicorientalism”) in the steampunk community and whether it is an appropriate description of the transcultural blend of Eastern and Western fashion. I had my first (rather angry) rant about Orientialism sometime around this time last year, and now would be apt to revisit those thoughts about Victorientalism.

First, let me say that steampunk, because it deals with the dynamics of history and its alternatives, can never, ever be considered apolitical.* History is always subjective, choosing to expose or veil people, events, and perspectives based on the bias of the teller. In fact, it’s not surprising that the most widely-known histories are those written from the perspective of those in the dominant culture and that underrepresented histories are so because they have been ignored or oppressed by institutions in the dominant culture (government policy, school education, media representation, etc).

Even something that seems frivolous like fashion has political ramifications, since clothing, as the most basic form of self-identity, has always being subject of control by others. Threadbared, a journal that focuses on the politics of fashion and beauty, captures the sentiment of how the politics of clothing impact everyday life during their discussion about vintage:

Clothing matters because it is through clothing that persons are understood to matter, or not. Consider the Sartorialist’s captions for the presumably homeless man, or his driver, which attribute to these anonymous figures qualities of human dignity and pride because of what they are wearing. Consider the hijab, and all the histories and conflicts that hinge upon the presence of absence of the veil as a sign of civilization and modernity or its opposite. Consider legislation throughout the centuries to regulate what might be worn by whom: European medieval sumptuary laws forbidding the conspicuous consumption of the bourgeoisie; Dutch colonial missionaries insisting that African “converts” abandon their “heathen” clothes in order to reform their bodies and souls; World War II-era rationing bans on the material extravagance of the “zoot suit,” the informal uniform of black and Chicano youth, as “unpatriotic;” and contemporary legislation across cities in the United States criminalizing black male youth in sagging jeans.

Thus, when speaking about Orientalism aesthetics, its existence as an art form is undeniably entangled with its political and social consequences.

Orientalist fashions has long served to romanticize colonialism both in the past and today. The word “Orientalism” itself was a creation of the West to use by the West in reference to the East. That alone is a reason that the use of “Orientalism” as a term, especially by white people, does not promote a message cultural equality and exchange. It rings of old colonialist sentiment, which is connected to the history of Western engagement with the East as Professor Richard Martin mentions in his article “Orienting the Wardrobe”:

Interestingly, each strand of Orientalism in dress has arrived with its own political circumstances. India yielded much in being a colonial nation. China’s long isolation crystallized Cathay as an enchanted dream, although clearly some soft goods, such as the brocaded silk velvet of a sixteenth-century Portuguese cape, passed early on to the West. The opening of Japan in the 1850’s influenced impressionist artists and Western fashion enthusiasts alike.

Therefore, believing that the word “Victorientalism” implies a positive, transcultural blend is misguided. In fact, using the term “Victorientalism” as a phrase to emphasize Eastern aesthetics in Victorian style is somewhat redundant, for Eastern influences have been prevalent in Western Victorian fashion already. Professor Richard Martin, in Orienting the wardrobe, gives an overview of the history behind Orientalist fashion and gives examples of British fashion, like the Paisley shawl and mandarin and pagoda sleeves, that had Eastern origins but then had been adapted into British fashion. For examples of this, Metropolitan Museum of Art has a fascinating overview of the Eastern influences in Western fashion in their online exhibit Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress.

Thus, the existence of Eastern influences has had a long history in Western dress and had frequently been tied to political moorings; as a result, the term Orientalism today is in flux between its literal geographical meaning and the implied negative baggage it has acquired over timethat Orientalism is a Western-created ideal imposed upon the East and used to justify its subjugationan argument first presented by postcolonial theorist Edward Said. Commentary in the steampunk communities, however, continue to frame Vicorientalism in a positive light, highlighting its romanticism as a positive endorsement for its use. This is all fair and well, IF the political and social effects of Orientalism were dead and gone. However, because it is very much alive todaycausing damaging stereotypes and promoting racist mindsetsthen perpetuating the glorified stereotypes of the Orient only serves to hurt the people of color they were based on. Moreover, such attitudes are only expressions of privilege, where white steampunks can turn a blind eye to steampunks of color in the community.

In fact, the term “Orientalism” may be on the way out. Its negative connotation has become so prevalent since Said first made his argument forty years ago that academic communities are starting to reject the term even in reference to Eastern-originated fashion, prefering the terms “Asian Look” or “Asian Fashion.” Academic Bong-Ha Seo’s 2008 article for the Journal of Korean Society of Clothing and Textiles argues against the use of the term “Orientalism” in fashion in “Critical Discussion on the ‘Orientalism’ in Fashion Culture“:

Orientalism is geographical violence. In spite of the independence of numerous colonies, imperialistic culture is still influential. Therefore, Orientalism as an enlightened and open conversation without deflection or prejudice cannot be supposed.

So, don’t think that adding the Eurocentric “Vict-” is a cute way of undoing the negative connotations of a historically loaded term. The term “Victorientalism” doesn’t neutralize anything: the message is not the positive transcultural blend of east and west. Instead, the term augments a oppressive Western concept with another Eurocentric prefix. It’s Western objectification times two. And Orientalism by any other name is still Orientalism.

But to sum up

I’m not saying that there is no beauty in these fashions.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t like it.

I’m saying that what one likes doesn’t always exist in an apolitical vacuum, no matter how much one wants it to.

Fashion, just like any form of art, is a reflection of society, and art movements like Orientialism have complex political history that members of the dominant culture may not recognize as something negative or hurtful. Moreover, the social implications of Orientalism didn’t die out with the end of the Victorian era, but has had a rather long and, often socially detrimental, afterlife.

So if one chooses to engage in Orientalism or toss about the word “Victorientalism,” do not act defensive if other marginalized people take offense. Do not claim that you are re-living a “past that never was” because you’re not; your fantasy is merely replicating attitudes from a very real present. Rather, instead of justifying this discriminating mindset, figure out for yourself what you can do to stop engaging in promoting those hurtful messages.

*One caveat: Steampunks and steam enthusiasts can be apolitical, but a person’s apolitical stance does not mean steampunk as a conceptual idea is apolitical.

Below is a brief suggested reading list of resources that present a mindful assessment of Orientialist aesthetics and the transcultural blend of Eastern and Western looks.

Fashion & Orientalism resources:

Edward Said: Since I really can’t quote him here often enough (and in the contextual whole in which he is meant to be quoted), so here are the two landmark books he had written on Orientalism.
Culture & Imperialism

Re-orienting fashion: the globalization of Asian dress (Excerpt also available on Google Books)
by Sandra Niessen (Editor), Ann Marie Leshkowich (Editor), Carla Jone (Editor)

Book Description:
From ‘Indo chic’ collections on the catwalk to mass-market clothes in retail shops, Asian fashion is everywhere. Re-Orienting Fashion explores this phenomenon in a global context and, unlike other books, does not ignore the western / non-western divide. How do western economic, cultural, political, iconic, and social forms influence Asian fashion when (and often because) that fashion is an expression of resistance against western encroachment? How does dress reflect state ideals and gender roles in nations struggling to construct new identities informed by modern, western impulses? What role does gender play and how does this tie in with commodification by the global economy?

With chapters focusing on East, South, and Southeast Asian designers, retailers, consumers, and governments, this timely book moves Asian fashion center-stage and will be of interest to dress and fashion theorists, anthropologists, sociologists and all those seeking to understand globalization and its effects.

Imperial Bodies
C.M. Cullingham

I’ve found this one of the best resources that details the conflicted dynamic between the colonizer and the colonized in terms of fashion exchange. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Book Description:
This innovative volume demonstrates that the body was central to the construction and maintenance of British authority in India. Imperial Bodies explores ways in which the transformation of the British presence in India between 1800 and 1947 involved and relied upon changes in the way the British in India managed, disciplined and displayed their bodies. The move from commerce to control, and then to imperialism and Empire corresponded to a shift in bodily norms. As the nineteenth century progressed, an openness and interest in India gave way to a ban on things Indian. The British rejected curries for tinned ham, cool white clothing for black broadcloth and Indian mistresses for English wives. By the twentieth century, the British official had been transformed into an upright, decent representative of British virtues whose task was to bring civilization to India.

By the late nineteenth century, racial theory focused attention on the physique to such an extent that the body became a distinct category within official discourse, regarded as an instrument of rule. The body was used symbolically during Raj ceremonial, and even the pith helmet worn by officials was turned from a reminder of British vulnerability in the tropics into a symbol of British power.

Through an in-depth discussion of texts and practices, the body is introduced into the historical account as an active social principle: a force in the construction of social inequalities along lines of race and class. Drawing on a wide range of sources including government records, newspapers, private letters, medical handbooks and cookery books, E.M. Collingham paints a vivid picture of the life and manners of the British in India.

This important contribution to both British and imperial history will appeal to students and scholars of cultural and colonial history.

Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress
Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is the exhibit guide to the MET link I included above. It’s hard to find, but they give a sensitive assessment of Orientalist fashion while also acknowledging the movement’s fraught political history. Plus, it contains those beautiful images as seen on the website and more.

Online Resources:

Excerpt from The Art of Decoration: Written in by English cleric and popular Victorian writer Reverend H. R. Haweis In this excerpt, he talks about aspects of Orient design since the 1700s in British dress & decoration. About Oriental design in women’s fashion, he hilariously commented that:

It was the dregs of that blind admiration for Oriental colouring with no understanding of its principles, which clothed Englishwomen in such horrible mixtures at the beginning of the present century, a fault which Frenchwomen with their better natural taste, and complexions which repudiate garish hues, were unlikely to fall into. Hence England soon won an unenviable celebrity for never knowing ‘how to dress…’

Clothing & Fashion Encyclopedia – An online fashion history blog. The overaching history of Orientalism in fashion is explained in Part 1 and Part 2.

Orient-ing Fashion: Written in 1997 issue of Harvard’s Digitas Magazine about that fashion season’s Orientalism trend, Mina Kim Park’s article is still very insightful. It also shows how modern fashion remains problematic in regards to racial representation and cultural appropriation that cannot be explained away by slapping a cheerful “multiculturalism chic” label on it.

On Using the Orient to Orient the West On Jaymee Goh’s steampunk blog Silver Goggles. Her observations of the conceptual use of the term Orient by the West. Good stuff. She has also written a wonderful response to Victorientalism as well: Countering Victorientalism.



Filed under Essays, History

3 responses to “#17 The Semantics of Words & the Antics of Fashion: Addressing “Victorientalism”

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  3. I think you could pick up that comment and use it as a blog post. What you wrote is great advice any way that you look at it.