Tag Archives: Orientalism

The Techno-Orientalist, White Feminist History of “Harem Pants”


From Vogue (May 2007)

Before there was Jean Paul Gaultier’s kimono bikinis and Tom Ford’s Gucci line of satin jackets with the cherry blossom embroidery, there was Paul Poiret’s jupes sultan or harem pants. In an article that is now published in Configurations, I locate Poiret’s harem pants and his larger 1911 fashion line at the intersection of modern white feminism, Orientalism, and the Machine Age. Analyzing the design and construction of key pieces in the collection, I show how his harem pants, Mandchou tunics, and hobble skirts are a kind of “machine art” and an early example of wearable virtual technology.

While the loose design of these garments freed European white women from crinolines and corsets and enabled proto-feminist physical and social mobilities, they were also technologies of racial virtuality. Vogue and other women’s and fashion magazines at the time breathlessly described Poiret’s collection as “modern magic”. Wearing his clothes, the magazines promised, would transport the woman from “the dull materialism of the temperate zone to . . . warmth, colour, and perfume in the tropics.” And as you can see from the photo above from an article Vogue ran a few years ago on Poiret’s influence, Poiret and  his wife were all too happy to participate in virtual racial play. My article includes some amazing photographs of other pieces in the collection worn by some of the Poirets’ friends.

In some ways, this essay is a “one-off” for me. I don’t usually do this kind of historical research (though it is part of my larger interest in fashion’s virtual technologies) but once I discovered this collection and the “Thousand and Second Night” party he threw to introduce it to the fashion public, I had to write about it. Also, it was maybe the most fun research ever.

The full title of the essay is “Paul Poiret’s Magical Techno-Oriental Fashions (1911): Race, Clothing, and Virtuality in the Machine Age” and it’s in the Winter 2013 issue of Configurations: Journal of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts 21.1. (Configurations is an academic journal that emphasizes the relationships between the arts and science and technology – very cool reading, this journal.) 



The Truth of Lagerfeld’s Idea of China

Several days ago, Karl Lagerfeld, head designer and creative director at Chanel, debuted Paris-Shanghai: A Fantasy, a short film made to accompany the Chanel pre-Fall runway show. The 22-minute short was projected on an outdoor screen amid the Shanghai cityscape. (The film clip is below.)

Cross-overs between fashion and film are nothing new. Indeed, Paris-Shanghai isn’t Lagerfeld’s first foray into filmmaking either. Last year, he made his directorial debut with a 10-minute silent film called Paris-Moscow. Another designer/filmmaker is Tom Ford who just released his first film, A Single Man, a feature-length adaptation of a novel (with the same name) by Christopher Isherwood. And while The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover was not produced or directed by a fashion designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s contribution to the 1989 acerbic comedy film on the pleasures and perils of (all manner of) consumption undeniably exceeded his role as head costume designer.

Lagerfeld’s latest film has Lithuanian model Edita Vilkeviciute playing a very tightly-wound Coco Chanel who travels to 1960s Shanghai in her dreams. (Vilkeviciute also played Chanel in Paris-Moscow.)There, she meets two “Chinese” youth in Mao-style suits, played by Danish supermodel Freja Beha and Lagerfeld’s French male muse, Baptiste Giabiconi. Both are adorned with Mao-style outfits and heavy kohl-lined eyes. While the Beha character admits that she doesn’t “know much about Western designers,” she admires Chanel’s jacket and is soon invited to try it on. Chanel then offers the Giabiconi character a men’s jacket to try on. As Beha and Giabiconi happily embrace each other in their new jackets and hurry to admire themselves in the mirror (speaking fake Chinese), Chanel beams smugly at the camera, “You see, everyone in the whole world can wear Chanel.”

As with French Vogue‘s earlier blackface editorial featuring Dutch model Lara Stone, yellowface and other dominant forms of racial masquerade highlight and reaffirm white thin female bodies as the signification of universal beauty. Despite defensive assertions by, among many others, Carine Roitfeld (with regard to the French Vogue editorial), Tyra Banks (in her “apology” for the racial drag photo shoot on America’s Top Model), and now Lagerfeld that racial performances by white models/actors is “avant-garde” and “post-racial,” such performances are ridiculously retrograde and reproduce historical racial hierarchies in which white bodies (imagined as racially-unmarked and thus universal) are superior to racially-marked bodies. It is from this location of universality — what Nirmal Puwar calls “the universal empty point” — that white female bodies like Beha’s and Stone’s “can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized dress without suffering the violence of revulsion.”

Lagerfeld seems to anticipate this critique when he argues that his short film represents “the idea of China, not the reality. It has the spirit of, and is inspired by, but is unrelated to China.” Without meaning to, Lagerfeld describes precisely one of the core truths of Orientalism (a system of Western knowledge that, as Edward Said explains, “had since antiquity [imagined the Orient as] a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences”). Lagerfeld’s China, like the Orient Said discusses, is a European/American invention.

More from Said’s groundbreaking book, Orientalism:

“[The] Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.”

In the example of Lagerfeld’s film and its accompanying runway show, the material effects of the cultural enterprise of Orientalism is clear. Lagerfeld’s production of an idea about China, articulated through Western epistemologies and white bodies, sells both Chanel fashions and the Chanel brand. As Vilkeviciute/Chanel puts it: “You see, everyone in the whole world can wear Chanel.” The implication being that if “Chinese” people who are imagined as located in a time, place, and culture so far removed from (and thus alien to) fashion’s modern Western cosmopolitan center can desire Chanel fashions then anyone can. Thus, Chanel’s dream is the neoliberal dream of increased global markets for Western commodities.

Orientalism is distinctive in the Western cultural archive of racial projects because it operates not simply through the hatred of but also the fantasies about the other. Orientalist objects — and this includes Oriental people like the yellowfaced characters in Lagerfeld’s film and those in so many of Hollywood’s classic films — are, to quote Homi Bhabha, “at once an object of desire and derision.” The writers Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan have also described this racial ambivalence in terms of “racist love” and “racist hate.” The desire for the other and the desire to consume otherness are subtle forms of “genteel racism” that have become preferred modes of cultural representation in this multicultural or post-racial historical moment. I want to note that while genteel racism is specific to this historical moment, it emerges from a legacy of patrician Orientalism (the production of otherness through its exoticization and eroticization) that has always been an integral part of U.S. history. Jack Tchen observes in his book, New York Before Chinatown, that George Washington and other founding figures sought distinction and respectability through the consumption and display of Chinese and Chinese-style goods like porcelain, tea, and silk.

It may be difficult for Lagerfeld and others in fashion who practice and endorse blackfacing or yellowfacing (as well as their supporters) to accept that these cultural modes emerge from and reproduce histories of racism, Orientalism, and xenophobia because Lagerfeld does not fit our image of the virulent racists we remember from sensationalist talk shows like Jerry Springer. Also, aesthetic practices seem far afield from more recognizably racist practices like cross-burning, for example. And it is not my contention that genteel racism and overt racism are the same thing.

What we have been seeing in fashion magazines and on runways are cultural practices of “boutique multiculturalists,” to borrow a phrase from Vijay Prashad: “boutique multiculturalists like the faddishness of difference . . . they reduce different ways of life to superficial tokens that they can harness as style, but refuse to engage with those parts of difference with which they disagree.” Prashad argues (and I would agree) that boutique multiculturalism is more pernicious than overt racism because it covers over or “occludes the structures and practices of actually existing racism” by aestheticizing their histories.

While Lagerfeld stumbles upon the truth of Orientalism, it is clear that he doesn’t understand its material and political effects. Locating Paris-Shanghai among classic Orientalist productions like The Good Earth (in which Luise Ranier won an Oscar for her yellowface portrayal of O-Lan) and Madame Butterfly (Mary Pickford famously played the Japanese geisha Cho-Cho San in the 1915 silent film), Lagerfeld explains, “People around the world like to dress up as different nationalities.”

What Lagerfeld misses, though, is that yellowfacing (as with blackfacing) is not simply about playing at difference but about reaffirming and securing traditional meanings about racial difference that are constituted by their asymmetrical and contrasting relationship to the universal ideal of whiteness.


Leave a comment


History and the Harem Pant

Whether deemed a “must have,” as some contestants on The Fashion Show insisted, or a hideous mistake, the so-called harem pant is back in a big, billowy way. But the resurgence of the harem pant in the long shadow of war in the Middle East –specifically, those conflicts being pursued by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan– should prompt a raised eyebrow for more than its unconventional shape.*

While I enjoy the intellectual and artistic transformation of the shape of the body through clothing (see Issey Miyake’s Pleats, Please!), I also find it useful to be skeptical of the ways that geopolitical rubrics of race, nation, gender and sexuality are mapped through such transformations (think bullshit Orientalisms perpetrated by hostile fashion journalists about the so-called “Hiroshima bag lady” of 1980s Japanese designers). The most obvious yet often unasked question –why the term harem to qualify this pant?– requires a history lesson.

At the turn of the 20th century, Western imperial forces were busily carving up the rest of the world into territories, colonies, and protectorates. In between the 1880s and the First World War, the “race for Africa” and Western Asia proliferated claims among the European powers for political influence and direct rule in Egypt, Turkey, Persia (now known as Iran), and Morocco. In 1911, the same year that Morocco was named a protectorate of France, famed Parisian fashion designer Paul Poiret “introduced” the harem pant to avant-garde aesthetes alongside caftans, headdresses, turbans and tunics in an Orientalist collection. Those items deemed “traditional” and “backward” when worn on a native body were thus transformed as “fashion forward” when worn on a Western one, in what amounted to the blatantly uneven, and undeniably geopolitical, distribution of aesthetic value and modern personhood. In a Pop Matters column on bohemian fashion (or what she hilariously calls “a competition for Best Dressed Peasant”), Jane Santos details how Poiret both drew from the imperial fashion for Orientalism** as well as contributed to it:

In Raiding the Icebox, UCLA film professor Peter Wollen argues that Poiret’s designs embodied the rampant Orientalism dominating French culture at the time. Wollen describes the lavish “Thousand and Second Night” party Poiret threw to celebrate his new line. He says, “The whole party revolved around this pantomime of slavery and liberation set in a phantasmagoric fabled East.” According to Wollen, Parisian culture was in awe of the Orient, seduced by the Russian ballet’s performance of Shéhérazade and ecstatic over the publication of the new translation of The Thousand and One Nights; and Poiret’s fashions further whetted the public’s appetite for Orientalism. In addition, Poiret’s designs greatly impacted haute couture, and set the precedent for Orientalism in avant-garde fashion. 

The harem, as an Orientalist fantasy of sexual excess and perversity (bearing no relation to actual practices of seclusion), depended upon imperial tropes of Muslim women’s sexuality as alternately available and licentious, or naive and repressed. In either instance, the Muslim woman was understood as a patriarchal property and an “undeveloped” personality. But as numerous feminist scholars note, Orientalist fantasies about the sexual proclivities –and possibilities– assigned to the “loose” clothing of the harem’s imagined denizens were often received as liberating for the corseted Western woman. For her, donning the harem pant (or the beaded veil or the fringed “Chinese” shawl) powerfully enacted a series of resonant fantasies about the ostensible transgression of bourgeois domestic life for a more spectacular and sensuous one, defined by shocking indulgence and theatrical intensity.

But in her essay “On Vision, Veiling, and Voyage,” about “cross-cultural dressing” by different groups of women (in this instance, European and Turkish women) at the turn of the century, Reina Lewis argues that the “thrill” of such cross-dressing for Western women was “predicated on an implicit reinvestment in the very boundaries they cross. Clothes operate as visible gatekeepers of those divisions and, even when worn against the grain, serve always to re-emphasize the existence of the dividing line.” About the European woman who indulges in sartorial tourism, “she can enjoy the pleasures of cultural transgression without having to give up the racial privilege that underpins her authority to represent her version of Oriental reality.”

TOP: LaRedoute’s much derided “harem pant.” BOTTOM: Marc Jacobs S/S 07.

What these histories might mean for the contemporary appearance of the harem pant is unpredictable. We can easily observe that we are in the midst of wars waged by competing world powers seeking to carve out influence and rule in the Middle East, and that recent runways reflect certain fears and fantasies about what this might mean.***

But there is also significant categorical confusion with regard to the harem pant, which seems to have become a catch-all term for almost any pant that is loose around the crotch, with seemingly endless variations on the amount of fabric swathing the hips and thighs, as well as the cut and cuff of the leg. Some look like jersey jodhpurs, others like roomier yoga or sweatpants (which often already come with elastic at the ankle). Still others are likened to MC Hammer’s infamously billowy parachute pants. There is no clear referent, no one “authentic” garment, to which the harem pant necessarily gestures.

It seems these garments are tied to one another less through form or fabric and instead through a concept, but the content of this concept seems confused and incoherent. Runway shows or magazine editorials might still pair the harem pant with other Orientalist signifiers conjuring an exotic sensuality or imperial aesthetic (with a pair of leather lace-up sandal wedges dubbed “Mecca,” for example, from Diane von Furstenberg), but this semiotic coherence is often (but not always!) absent from other iterations of this pant form. For example, consider that there doesn’t seem to be much reference to sexual transgression with this loose fit. In fact, the contemporary harem pant seems to be read as supremely unerotic, prompting fashion blogger Footpath Zeitgeist to wonder if the contemporary harem pant deliberately refuses overt sexuality or sexual availability.

This begs the question: Why call it a harem pant? Why not simply call them drop-crotch or low-crotch trousers, which is both more descriptive and much less vexed? Even though retailers high and low are in this game, is there still something specific about the qualifier harem that signals an avant-garde or nonconformist fashion sensibility? Perhaps the dividing line Reina Lewis discusses is a mutable one — it shifts to accommodate transformation and change, but continues to distinguish hierarchies of status and position. Maybe, the harem pant continues to conjure an artistic or cerebral aesthetic against a sartorial norm that decries this silhouette as “weird” and “ugly.” That is, the harem pant references not the exoticism of the Muslim woman, but the non-Muslim woman “brave” or “daring” enough to wear them. Such that even in the near absence of an overt Orientalism, we might still detect a subtle reiteration of its “worldliness,” a cosmopolitan self-image of adventuresome aesthetes, in the enduring usage of harem to qualify this pant. (This aura is again available only to those who are not, say, Turkish peasant women wearing the shalvar to clean the house or work the field). If so, we might do well to remember that the originality of the avant-garde, as art critic Rosalind Krauss observes, is itself a modernist myth.

Here are just a few of the discussions I found about the “harem pant” in a brief Google search. Some time when I’m not supposed to be finishing my other book manuscript, I may attempt a more coherent critique.

In a long and detailed entry called Orientalism, Culture, and Appropriation, Part 3, Farah at Nuseiba calls the Western fascination with the harem pant a form of ethnomasquerade, writing, “It is through ethnomasquerade that mass culture simultaneously exercises and hides its hegemony over the colonised Other.”

An “old school Hejabi” contemplates the laughter of her “Turkish sisters” as a peasant pant sweeps the Western fashion landscape, posting some images of the shalvar (related versions, and terms, include the salwar and sherwal) as worn by conservative Turkish women for house cleaning or field work and detailing her own adventure in purchasing a pair from H&M.

In fact, a number of the hijabi style blogs find that the newest rage for the harem pant means more options in shopping for “modest” items from mainstream stores like LaRedoute, Urban Outfitters and Forever 21. This transforms the terrain for comprehending the harem pant in the contemporary present. Even while some Muslim women might observe hijab more casually (and often defiantly) in skinny jeans and tight manteaus (and some observe not at all), others are glad for an accessible fashionable alternative that allows for looser definition. Hijabulous, for instance, cracks a playful Aladdin joke before adding, “Hey, I rocked ’em last eid and they were super comfy!” Trendy Hijab Fashionista puts together some outfit collages with these new offerings on the non-Muslim market. Still more others decry them as resembling “an adult diaper” (probably the most common denunciation of these pants).

“When a hijab-friendly trend does come along, I stock up in case it doesn’t stick around,” writes Jana Kossaibati, a Muslim woman who takes the Guardian reader on a tour as she shops the mainstream stores for long tunics and harem pants (verdict: comfortable, but not as cute on short people).

And finally, Diwan (“Your Gateway to Middle East Chic”) opens their review of the recent London and New York Fashion Weeks with a throw-away Edward Said citation and interviews Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, “one of the few Middle Eastern voices to be heard on fashion’s front lines,” about how a Middle Eastern buyer (such as herself) might interpret the harem pant for the region’s cosmopolitan elite.

* As should the proliferation of YouTube instructional videos on creating what is baldly called “the Arabic eye,” in conjunction with sartorial fascination and social fear about the hijabi, the veiled woman, and all the likely Orientalist connotations of an exotic, because “forbidden,” female sexuality.

** Edward Said famously argued that far from simply reflecting what the countries of the “East” were actually like, the “Orient” was created in the European imaginary as its opposite. As an array of images, ideas, and practices, Orientalism thus produces, through different forms of representation (for instance, scholarship, literature, and painting), forms of racialized knowledge of the Other that are deeply implicated in operations of power (e.g., imperialism).

*** For instance, Ellen McLarney charts the burqa’s post-9/11 evolution from”shock to chic” in her essay, “The Burqa in Vogue: Fashioning Afghanistan” in The Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Winter 2009).