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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.3 (2002) 395-411
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Eighteenth-Century Fashion and the Aesthetics of the Chinese Taste
David L. Porter
My topic, broadly speaking, is the aesthetics of exoticism. What are the origins and cultural significance of that seductive allure we identify with aestheticized emblems of otherness? How can their uncontested appeal in the modern world be understood from the complementary vantage points of consumer culture and the philosophy of art? There are few richer contexts within which to explore these questions than early eighteenth-century Britain. The period once known best for the stately couplets of Augustan poetry has received attention more recently as the site of the origins of modern aesthetic theory, the birth of the consumer society, and the consolidation of nationalist pride in the cornucopia of exotic commodities procured through a rapidly expanding overseas trade. 1 The pervasive cultural motifs reflected in morally fraught debates over standards of taste, changing patterns of consumption, and the social effects of luxury coalesce in the period's pronounced and deeply ambivalent fascination with that style in the decorative arts known as chinoiserie. 2
Chinoiserie, it should be noted at the outset, was a pan-European phenomenon, and most existing studies have considered it as such. I choose to limit my attention to Britain for three reasons whose importance will become apparent over the course of the essay. First, it is reasonable to assume that the cultural meanings attached to chinoiserie objects would have been differently inflected in different times and places. As one of my primary interests is in teasing out the particular nuances of such meanings and associations, in performing a "close reading," as it were, of a particular instantiation of eighteenth-century exoticism, [End Page 395] it would seem prudent to focus on a single context. The comparative question remains an essential one, but in order to avoid falling back into bland generalizations, local contexts need first to be excavated as a precondition of an informed comparative analysis. Second, I am interested in the ways the experience of Chinese exoticism may have informed or interacted with the emergence of discourses of taste and aesthetics in eighteenth-century Britain. The tradition demarcated by Addison, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hogarth, Reynolds, Hume, and others is the historically contingent product of a particular time and place, and a phenomenon that intersects in interesting and previously unexamined ways with the emergence of the "China craze" in precisely the same period. And finally, chinoiserie strikes me as a more intrinsically interesting phenomenon in Britain in this period than elsewhere as a result of its close association with the expansion of commercial activity, its dissemination across class boundaries, and the attendant debates on luxury, consumption, politeness, and taste that it produced.
Beginning as a trickle of exquisite luxury goods in the seventeenth century, imports of Chinese porcelain, silks, wallpaper, and lacquerware furniture surged in the first decades of the eighteenth, responding to, among other things, the steady increase in market demand for fashionable novelties and the rapid emergence of ritualized tea drinking as a national pastime at every level of society. As was the case with other newly introduced foreign commodities such as coffee, sugar, and chocolate, Chinese products and the imitations they spawned initially appeared as luxurious markers of class distinction in the drawing rooms of the social elite but soon spread to a much broader market, driven by the forces of fashion and the new merchant classes' contagious ambitions of social mobility. In the 1690s, Queen Mary was renowned for her magnificent porcelain collection. By the 1730s, a Chinese room, decorated with imported paper and screens, plump figures of the laughing buddha, porcelain vases on the mantlepiece and blue and white plate lining the walls, was de rigueur in respectable country houses. By the 1750s, when the style seems to have reached its peak, even David Garrick's modest London quarters featured a Chinese bed and chest of drawers, perhaps inspiring his foolhardy attempt to stage a French production called the Chinese Festival in England at the...