In the elite space of Haute Couture, fashion is presented through a theatrical array of dynamics—the engagement of specific bodies performing for select audiences in highly curated spaces. Each element is both very precise in its objectives and carefully selected for impact. In this way, the production of Haute Couture makes itself accessible to only a few select members of society. Globally, there are only an estimated 4,000 direct consumers of Haute Couture (Hendrik). Given this limited market, the work of elite couturiers relies on other forms of artistic media, namely film, photography, and increasingly, museum spaces, to reach broader audiences who are then enabled to participate in the fashion ‘space’ via a process of visual consumption.
For these audiences, Haute Couture is less about material consumption than it is about the aspirational consumption and contestation of notions of identity. This article uses qualitative textual analysis and draws on semiotic theory to explore symbolism and values in Haute Couture. Semiotics, an approach popularised by the work of Roland Barthes, examines signifiers as elements of the construction of metalanguage and myth. Barthes recognised a broad understanding of language that extended beyond oral and written forms. He acknowledged that a photograph or artefact may also constitute “a kind of speech” (111). Similarly, fashion can be seen as both an important signifier and mode of communication.
The model of fashion as communication is one extensively explored within culture studies (e.g. Hall; Lurie). Much of the discussion of semiotics in this literature is predicated on sender/receiver models. These models conceive of fashion as the mechanism through which individual senders communicate to another individual or to collective (and largely passive) audiences (Barnard). Yet, fashion is not a unidirectional form of communication. It can be seen as a dialogical and discursive space of encounter and contestation.
To understand the role of Haute Couture as a contested space of identity and socio-political discourse, this article examines the work of Chinese couturier Guo Pei. An artisan such as Guo Pei places the results of needle and thread into spaces of the theatrical, the spectacular, and, significantly, the powerfully socio-political. Guo Pei’s contributions to Haute Couture are extravagant, fantastical productions that also serve as spaces of socio-cultural information exchange and debate. Guo Pei’s creations bring together political history, memory, and fantasy. Here we explore the socio-cultural and political semiotics that emerge when the humble stitch is dramatically amplified onto the Haute Couture runway. We argue that Guo Pei’s work speaks not only to a cultural imaginary but also to the contested nature of gender and socio-political authority in contemporary China.
The Politicisation of Fashion in China
The majority of literature regarding Chinese fashion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has focussed on the use of fashion to communicate socio-political messages (Finnane). This is most clearly seen in analyses of the connections between dress and egalitarian ideals during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. As Zhang (952-952) notes, revolutionary fashion emphasised simplicity, frugality, and homogenisation. It rejected style choices that reflected both traditional Chinese and Western fashions. In Mao’s China, fashion was utilised by the state and adopted by the populace as a means of reinforcing the regime’s ideological orientations. For example, the ubiquitous Mao suit, worn by both men and women during the Cultural Revolution “was intended not merely as a unisex garment but a means to deemphasise gender altogether” (Feng 79).
The Maoist regime’s intention to create a type of social equality through sartorial homogenisation was clear. Reflecting on the ways in which fashion both responded to and shaped women’s positionality, Mao stated, “women are regarded as criminals to begin with, and tall buns and long skirts are the instruments of torture applied to them by men. There is also their facial makeup, which is the brand of the criminal, the jewellery on their hands, which constitutes shackles and their pierced ears and bound feet which represent corporal punishment” (Mao cited in Finnane 23). Mao’s suit—the homogenising militaristic uniform adopted by many citizens—may have been intended as a mechanism for promoting equality, freeing women from the bonds of gendered oppression and all citizens from visual markers of class. Nonetheless, in practice Maoist fashion and policing of appearance during the Cultural Revolution enforced a politics of amnesia and perversely may have “entailed feminizing the undesirable, by conflating woman, bourgeoisie, and colour while also insisting on a type of gender equality that the belted Mao jacket belied” (Chen 161).
In work on cultural transformations in the post-Maoist period, Braester argues that since the late 1980s Chinese cultural products—here taken to include artefacts such as Haute Couture—have similarly been defined by the politics of memory and identity. Evocation of historically important symbols and motifs may serve to impose a form of narrative continuity, connecting the present to the past. Yet, as Braester notes, such strategies may belie stability: “to contemplate memory and forgetting is tantamount to acknowledging the temporal and spatial instability of the post-industrial, globalizing world” (435). In this way, cultural products are not only sites of cultural continuity, but also of contestation.
Imperial Dreams of Feminine Power
The work of Chinese couturier Guo Pei showcases traditional Chinese embroidery techniques alongside more typically Western fashion design practices as a means of demonstrating not only Haute Couturier craftsmanship but also celebrating Chinese imperial culture through nostalgic fantasies in her contemporary designs. Born in Beijing, in 1967, at the beginning of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Guo Pei studied fashion at the Beijing Second Light Industry School before working in private and state-owned fashion houses. She eventually moved to establish her own fashion design studio and was recognised as “the designer of choice for high society and the political elite” in China (Yoong 19). Her work was catapulted into Western consciousness when her cape, titled ‘Yellow Empress’ was donned by Rihanna for the 2015 Met Gala. The design was a response to an era in which the colour yellow was forbidden to all but the emperor. In the same year, Guo Pei was named an invited member of La Federation de la Haute Couture, becoming the first and only Chinese-born and trained couturier to receive the honour. Recognition of her work at political and socio-economic levels earned her an award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Economy and Cultural Diplomacy’ by the Asian Couture Federation in 2019.
While Maoist fashion influences pursued a vision of gender equality through the ‘unsexing’ of fashion, Guo Pei’s work presents a very different reading of female adornment. One example is her exquisite Snow Queen dress, which draws on imperial motifs in its design. An ensemble of silk, gold embroidery, and Swarovski crystals weighing 50 kilograms, the Snow Queen “characterises Guo Pei’s ideal woman who is noble, resilient and can bear the weight of responsibility” (Yoong 140). In its initial appearance on the Haute Couture runway, the dress was worn by 78-year-old American model, Carmen Dell’Orefice, signalling the equation of age with strength and beauty. Rather than being a site of torture or corporal punishment, as suggested by Mao, the Snow Queen dress positions imagined traditional imperial fashion as a space for celebration and empowerment of the feminine form. The choice of model reinforces this message, while simultaneously contesting global narratives that conflate women’s beauty and physical ability with youthfulness.
In this way, fashion can be understood as an intersectional space. On the one hand, Guo Pei's work reinvigorates a particular nostalgic vision of Chinese imperial culture and in doing so pushes back against the socio-political ‘non-fashion’ and uniformity of Maoist dress codes. Yet, on the other hand, positioning her work in the very elite space of Haute Couture serves to reinstate social stratification and class boundaries through the creation of economically inaccessible artefacts: a process that in turn involves the reification and museumification of fashion as material culture. Ideals of femininity, identity, individuality, and the expressions of either creating or dismantling power, are anchored within cultural, social, and temporal landscapes.
Benedict Anderson argues that the museumising imagination is “profoundly political” (123). Like sacred texts and maps, fashion as material ephemera evokes and reinforces a sense of continuity and connection to history. Yet, the belonging engendered through engagement with material and imagined pasts is imprecise in its orientation. As much as it is about maintaining threads to an historical past, it is simultaneously an appeal to present possibilities.
In his broader analysis, Anderson explores the notion of parallelity, the potentiality not to recreate some geographically or temporally removed place, but to open a space of “living lives parallel …] along the same trajectory” (131). Guo Pei’s creations appeal to a similar museumising imagination. At once, her work evokes both a particular imagined past of imperial grandeur, against instability of the politically shifting present, and appeals to new possibilities of gendered emancipation within that imagined space.
Contesting and Complicating East-West Dualism
The design process frequently involves borrowing, reinterpretation, and renewal of ideas. The erasure of certain cultural and political aspects of social continuity through the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the socio-political changes thereafter, have created fertile ground for an artist like Guo Pei. Her palimpsest reaches back through time, picks up those cultural threads of extravagance, and projects them wholesale into the spaces of fashion in the present moment.
Cognisance of design intentionality and historical and contemporary fashion discourses influence the various interpretations of fashion semiotics. However, there are also audience-created meanings within the various modes of performance and consumption. Where Kaiser and Green assert that “the process of fashion is inevitably linked to making and sustaining as well as resisting and dismantling power” (1), we can also observe that sartorial semiotics can have different meanings at different times. In the documentary, Yellow Is Forbidden, Guo Pei reflects on shifting semiotics in fashion. Speaking with a client, she remarks that “dragons and phoenixes used to represent the Chinese emperor—now they represent the spirit of the Chinese” (Brettkelly). Once a symbol of sacred, individual power, these iconic signifiers now communicate collective national identity.
Both playing with and reimagining not only the grandeur of China’s imperial past, but also the particular role of the feminine form and female power therein, Guo Pei’s corpus evokes and complicates such contestations of power. On the one hand, her work serves to contest homogenising narratives of identity and femininity within China. Equally important, however, are the ways in which this work, which is possible both through and in spite of a Euro-American centric system of patronage within the fashion industry, complicates notions of East-West dualism.
For Guo Pei, drawing on broadly accessible visual signifiers of Chinese heritage and culture has been critical in bringing attention to her endeavours. Her work draws significantly from her cultural heritage in terms of colour selections and traditional Chinese embroidery techniques. Symbols and motifs peculiar to Chinese culture are abundant: lotus flowers, dragons, phoenixes, auspicious numbers, and favourable Chinese language characters such as buttons in the shape of ‘double happiness’ (囍) are often present in her designs. Likewise, her techniques pay homage to traditional craft work, including Peranakan beading.
The parallelity conjured by these choices is deliberate. In staging Guo Pei’s work for museum exhibitions at museums such as the Asian Civilizations Museum, her designs are often showcased beside the historical artefacts that inspired them (Fu). On her Chinese website, Guo Pei, highlights the historical connections between her designs and traditional Chinese embroidery craft through a sub-section of the “Spirit” header, entitled simply, “Inheritance”. These influences and expressions of Chinese culture are, in Guo Pei's own words her “design language” (Brettkelly).
However, Guo Pei has also expressed an ambivalence about her positioning as a Chinese designer. She has maintained that she does not want “to be labelled as a Chinese storyteller ... and thinks about a global audience” (Yoong). In her expression of this desire to both derive power through design choices and historically situated practices and symbols, and simultaneously move beyond nationally bounded identity frameworks, Guo Pei positions herself in a space ‘betwixt and between.’ This is not only a space of encounter between East and West, but also a space that calls into question the limits and possibilities of semiotic expression.
Authenticity and Legitimacy
Global audiences of fashion rely on social devices of diffusion other than the runway: photography, film, museums, and galleries. Unique to Haute Couture, however, is the way in which such processes are often abstracted, decontextualised and pushed to the extremities of theatrical opulence. De Perthuis argues that to remove context “greatly reduce[s] the social, political, psychological and semiotic meanings” of fashion (151). When iconic motifs are utilised, the western gaze risks falling back on essentialising reification of identity. To this extent, for non-Chinese audiences Guo Pei’s works may serve not so much to problemitise historical and contemporary feminine identities and inheritances, so much as project an essentialisation of Chinese femininity.
The double-bind created through Guo Pei’s simultaneous appeal to and resistance of archetypical notions of Chinese identity and femininity complicates the semiotic currency of her work. Moreover, Guo Pei’s work highlights tensions concerning understandings of Chinese culture between those in China and the diaspora. In her process of accessing reference material, Guo Pei has necessarily been driven to travel internationally, due to her concerns about a lack of access to material artefacts within China. She has sought out remnants of her ancestral culture in both the Chinese diaspora as well as material culture designed for export (Yoong; Brettkelly).
This borrowing of Chinese design as depicted outside of China proper, alongside the use of western influences and patronage in Guo’s work has resulted in her work being dismissed by critics as “superficial … export ware, reimported” (Thurman). The insinuation that her work is derivative is tinged with denigration. Such critiques question not only the authenticity of the motifs and techniques utilised in Guo Pei’s designs, but also the legitimacy of the narratives of both feminine and Chinese identity communicated therein.
Questions of cultural ‘authenticity’ serve to deny how culture, both tangible and intangible, is mutable over time and space. In his work on tourism, Taylor suggests that wherever “the production of authenticity is dependent on some act of (re)production, it is conventionally the past which is seen to hold the model of the original” (9). In this way, legitimacy of semiotic communication in works that evoke a temporally distant past is often seen to be adjudicated through notions of fidelity to the past. This authenticity of the ‘traditional’ associates ‘tradition’ with ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity.’ It is itself a form of mythmaking.
As Guo Pei’s work is at once quintessentially Chinese and, through its audiences and capitalist modes of circulation, fundamentally Western, it challenges notions of authenticity and legitimacy both within the fashion world and in broader social discourses. Speaking about similar processes in literary fiction, Colavincenzo notes that works that attempt to “take on the myth of historical discourse and practice … expose the ways in which this discourse is constructed and how it fails to meet the various claims it makes for itself” (143). Rather than reinforcing imagined ‘truths’, appeals to an historical imagination such as that deployed by Guo Pei reveal its contingency.
In Fashion in Altermodern China, Feng suggests that we can “understand the sartorial as situating a set of visible codes and structures of meaning” (1). More than a reductionistic process of sender/receiver communication, fashion is profoundly embedded with intersectional dialogues. It is not the precision of signifiers, but their instability, fluidity, and mutability that is revealing.
Guo Pei’s work offers narratives at the junction of Chinese and foreign, original and derivative, mythical and historical that have an unsettled nature. This ineffable tension between construction and deconstruction draws in both fashion creators and audiences. Whether encountering fashion on the runway, in museum cabinets, or on magazine pages, all renditions rely on its audience to engage with processes of imagination, fantasy, and memory as the first step of comprehending the semiotic languages of cloth.
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