A long, long time ago, one of the first humans emerged from his cave and looked around. He noticeed that, while he slept, an amazing transformation had occurred. The brown dirt, grey rocks, and green trees and bushes were no longer their usual colors, but instead were covered with a strange white substance. Everything sparkled as the morning sun rose over the mountains. He took a step out from his cave and curiously picked up some of the white powder. His feet sank into the newly formed white ground as he is overcome with excitement and awe. Suddenly, he realized something so profound that it would change the course of human civilization forever:
“It’s freakin’ cooooooooooooooold!”
So maybe this description isn’t historically accurate, but at some point, the first humans came to the stark realization that they could no longer survive the harsh elements of this earth walking around naked. Researchers have narrowed down when humans began wearing clothes—around 170,000 years ago—but before that time, they note, “Our ancestors were likely running around nude and relatively hairless for quite some time then” until it became too cold for comfort (Viegas, 2011).
Since that time, humans have found many ways to stay warm and covered, mostly by using animal skins, as well as grass and other types of foliage. However, what was once considered a means for survival became one of the most significant determiners of a cultural group. The way one dressed signified the clan or tribe he or she belonged to, and this was important for many reasons. Let’s consider some of those reasons now!
Choose one group of people clothing from your home country with a unique style of clothing. You could choose teenagers, housewives (or stay-at-home moms), rap or hip-hop artists, Japanese salaryman, etc. Describe how they typically dress. Start from their footwear and move up, or from their head (hair/hat) and move down. Your description can also include things like hairstyle, jewelry, skin tone (e.g., tanned skin), tattoos, and so on. After you have finished describing how they typically dress, explain why you think they chose to dress that way.
My home country: ____________________________________________________________________________________________
The Group I Chose: ____________________________________________________________________________________________
Description of How They Typically Dress:
After you’ve written down your description and ideas, share with a partner or small group. Finally, have a class discussion and share some of your groups most interesting descriptions and thoughts!
Now let’s return to our topic.
As everyone knows, fashion has now become a way to express individuality, the work they do, the school they attend, and even the street gang to which they belong. What we wear speaks volumes about who we are as a people, and every item, if you really think about it, has some cultural significance (note: Look back to Unit 1’s discussion on people as cultural beings!). Fashion can be a source of praise (when one is wearing the latest fashion or an expensive brand name item), or a source of bullying (when one isn’t wearing the latest fashion or is wearing cheap clothes that aren’t “cool”).
One of the most amazing aspects of fashion is that it has, at times, transcended concepts like gender, blurring the lines between masculine and feminine, and this is coming from both the haute couture (high-end fashion designer clothing) to prêt-à-porter fashion that is available in every street mall across the globe. Another amazing feat is that fashion has the ability to transcend language. For example, you don’t need to speak Chinese to appreciate the beauty and innovation behind some of the fashion creations that come from China and Chinese designers, and this applies to other countries that speak different languages and have different cultures and fashion than yours.
One cannot discuss fashion without delving into the history of a country, and China has one of the oldest and richest. Fashion in China has a long, rich, and fascinating history. Because fashion is such a visual art, it would be best to actually see the various transitions and changes that Chinese fashion has undergone. While this seems like a near impossible task, one person—N. Duong (2013)—has managed to create a beautiful pictorial showing some of the various changes women’s fashion went through during certain periods of China’s history.
There are a few things to consider when looking at clothing and the development of fashion in a country. The first is the materials that were available to make the clothing; the second is the utilitarian aspect of the clothing produced (in other words, clothing that is designed to be practical rather than eye-catching fashion statements); the third is the influence on clothing design influences can be areas within the country, like clothes worn in rural areas, climate change, war, foreign fashion influences, and so on.
Apparently, there are four main types of traditional clothing worn by Chinese: the Hanfu (Han clothing), the Zhongshan suit (also known in foreign countries as the Mao suit), the Tang suit, which is in reference to the style of the jacket rather than the entire ensemble, and the cheongsam (qipao), which evolved from the Manchu women’s long gown (Fercility, 2019).
Take a look at the poster on the next page that highlights some of China’s fashion styles during different periods (Duong, 2013).
After reviewing the poster, respond to the following questions, and then share your answers with a partner or small group.
What are your initial thoughts on the clothing? ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
What influences do you believe caused the changes in fashion? Remember that influences can be areas within the country (e.g., rural style), climate change, war, foreign styles, etc. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Comment on the color of the dresses, the hairstyles, the accessories, and patterns of the fabric, the footwear. Can you see any outside influences in some styles?
The final topic to be discussed actually is connected to a holiday that was discussed earlier in this textbook: Halloween. While Halloween has long been connected to the walking dead, evil spirits, haunted houses, and horror movies, a recent trend has revelers dressing up as real people and, in many cases, as people from different cultures.
Some of these “cultural costumes” have been deemed inappropriate and even racist. One example is “blackface,” or painting one’s skin to look like an African American. This phenomenon is not limited to The United States and other countries where the majority are Caucasian. In 2017, the popular Japanese New Year’s Eve show 笑ってはいけない (Waratte ha ikenai) dressed up one of the comedians as Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverly Hills Cop, but took the costume further by painting his skin brown.
This was seen as hilarious comedy in Japan, but many people from other countries voiced their concern and objection to the use of blackface. Besides blackface, other “cultural costumes” still exist, and are very popular during the Halloween season. Some cultural costumes include Japanese “geisha girls” and ninja, Arabs, Native American Indians, and Mexican “hombres” (men).
Dressing up as “Chinese people” is also an extremely popular choice for Halloween:
These costumes are essentially caricatures based on cultural and ethnic stereotypes. Many agree that these costumes are tongue-in-cheek (ironic or not serious) and therefore harmless fun; however, some argue that “cultural costumes” support and further strengthen false beliefs, stereotypes, and even racism. In other words, they are not culturally appropriate.
Cultural appropriation is becoming a topic of great importance in today’s multicultural society. Cultural appropriation, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, means “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not yours, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” However, as shown above, there are times when acts are viewed with contempt and outrage (e.g., blackface in Japan) while other acts are lauded (blackface in the 2008 comedy movie Tropic Thunder). It is another difficult topic that deserves more of our attention and discussion.
 freaking (often spelled or pronounced “freakin’” to express casual speech): A word used to emphasize a situation, usually stressing surprise, anger, or annoyance at something or someone.
 (Note: To look more closely at the details of each drawing, N. Duong’s (2013) complete poster can be viewed online at https://ninchanese.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2013/06/Full_Chinese_fashion_timeline.jpg. Please note that the website and email address printed on the poster were not functioning at the time this textbook was published.