positions: east asia cultures critique 11.2 (2003) 395-425
[Access article in PDF]
Fashion and Consumption in the Early Nineteenth Century
What does it mean to talk about “fashion” in a Chinese context? Presented with Chinese fashion magazines and fashion shows, we can be confident that the term is meaningful, but these are phenomena of the twentieth century. For earlier times, the temptation may be to agree with Quentin Bell when he wrote, “No doubt there were variations in Chinese dress from dynasty to dynasty of a kind that Western eyes would hardly notice…. but [change there] occurs at the speed of a rather hesitant glacier.”1 Correspondingly, Chinese diplomat Zhang Deyi, on tour in Europe in the 1860s, remarked in astonishment on foreign women “changing their makeup by the week and their style by the fortnight.”2 And it must be admitted that the vicissitudes of the shift in European women's dress from empire line in the early nineteenth century to the bustle at the century's other end, the crinoline coming in between, has no compare in China prior to the twentieth century. [End Page 395]
Nonetheless, Bell overstated his case in asserting that “the Chinese family of the last [i.e., nineteenth] century looked very much like a Chinese family of the classical age.”3 He should not be judged too harshly on this account. He took advantage of such writings on Chinese dress as were then available to him, and at the microlevel of sartorial detail not much more has been published since. Fernand Braudel, writing at a much later date, echoed Bell when he stated of the mandarin's robes that they “scarcely changed in the course of centuries, but then Chinese society itself scarcely moved at all.”4
Contemporary historians of China, with access to works in Chinese and Japanese, face much the same problem as Bell and Braudel did: a specialist literature on clothing culture in Chinese history that has only recently begun to expand and is generally too broad in its coverage of space and time to provide any sense of local, short-term sartorial trends and practices. Examining luxury consumption in eighteenth-century China, Kenneth Pomeranz was no more able than Bell or Braudel to discern an impulse toward fashion—for this period, at least. He brought a critical perspective to bear on the issue, criticizing the West's predilection for celebrating its instinct for fashion.5 But his own search for answers, and indeed the formulation of his questions, was clearly hampered by the paucity of studies on consumption in China under the Qing.6
This dearth has been highlighted by Craig Clunas in a review of consumption studies in the early modern “world.” In an eloquent protest against the self-regard and self-preoccupations of Western historiography, Clunas posed the question, What was happening in China while the so-called consumer revolution was making history in Europe?7 The scholarship on consumption in Europe, he argued, is at present weighed down by “the heavy burden of global explanation” while remaining essentially uninformed about consumption elsewhere.8 One of the consequences of this ignorance has been the survival of what he describes as an essentially Hegelian assumption on the part of Western scholars concerning the stasis of dress in Asia.9
From the different theoretical contexts within which the subject of fashion looms into view, it follows that fashion is not merely a tale of sartorial practices. “The history of costume,” as Braudel wrote, “is less anecdotal than would appear.”10 Braudel's interest was in how costume related to other aspects of material culture and economic activity, but as his study [End Page 396] demonstrates, fashion as a subject of scholarly reflection and argumentation is thick with implications for the historical periodization of non-Western histories. Clunas shows, with regard to the issue of consumption in general, that to speak of fashion is to invoke a sense of historical change. His own research on material and visual culture in the late...