Western Attitudes Towards Orientalism Cultural Studies Essay

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Hello Kitty, magic carpets, Geishas, Yo Sushi, Tea Ceremonys - From cheap commercial knick-knacks to treasures of the ancient world; a diversity of things spring to mind when one mentions 'The Orient'. The term orientalism is broad (Spanning most of the continent of Asia and part of North Africa), and covers a whole array of different cultures and nations, grouping them together as a "Unified Whole". Although attitudes have changed over time, our conceptions of the East are still widely prejudiced, or at best, ignorant, constructed from the imperialist attitudes of the 18th and 19th centuries. Orientalism is a Western interpretation of the East, drawing widely on exoticism, fantasy and nostalgia, sometimes extremely naively. It is also criticised as being "A western style for dominating, restructuring and having control over the Orient". Orientalism has, however, in creative terms, been the factor behind some extrodonary and revoutionary work over the past few centuries.

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The 1869 opening of the Suez Canal and improvements in technology and communication meant that the East became more widely documented and the West developed a deeper understanding of their cultures and values. Goods from the 'old world' were brought back to the West by soldiers, merchants and missionaries, heightening the Nostalgia for the exotic ancient Orient of "Eighteenth-Century European Chinamania" and "the old China of Mandarins and pagodas", which reached its peak in the early 20th Century. In a way, "Colonialism, like modernity, produced exoticism by threatening to erase the exotic". Fashionable department stores such as Liberty's took advantage of this and used clever marketing strategies to show Oriental product as both commodity and spectacle, suited to the 'Western gaze'. It became fashionable for women to purchase goods from 'far away lands', giving them "Access to the empire and all its fruits". Orientalism became linked with the feminine space of the department store, adopting Eastern traditional clothing into decorative cushions, footstalls and small trinkets, and so by "reducing art to the level of knick-knacks". Oriental goods became synonymous with consumerist values - of dreaming, waste, desire and indulgence - all traits thought of as non-Western. When the British Consul condemned the sale of such items as they had been "tainted by Chinese bodies" it enhanced the attitude of the East as inferior. The West used the exploitation of the East for solely economical profit and social stance, "At the very time that Chinese society was going through a series of disastrous dislocations, dragon robes were held up as symbols of an ordered empire, static and wisely ruled."

The Orient was viewed as a mirror of the West with a laxity of morals and hidden illicit aspects, stirred by modern painting of erotic sex slaves and exotic nudes in Harems. Ironically "The Orient was almost a European invention, and had since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.". These hyper-real and enticing ideas were enhanced by World Expeditions in the 1900's such as the Chicago morocco exhibition which portrayed the middle Eastern life of "belly dancers, Bedouins, camels, and donkeys". Here Westerners were onlookers on this 'other world'. Hollywood Screen Style in films such as 'The Sheik' popularised the style further, with fashion and makeup styles breaking cultural boundaries in popular culture. A trend for throwing 'Arabian Nights' parties where homes were decorated ornately and guests dressed up "like Rajas or Harem dancers" became an element of this Western escapism.

A nostalgic attitude towards the exoticism of the Orient was further heightened by the Russian artist Leon Bakst's innovative costume, choreography and set design for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes in 1909, particularly the popular shows Cleopatra, Firebird and Sheherazade. The rich Oriental opulence of the costume inspired modern couturiers such as Jeanne Paquin and Paul Poiret, associating Orientalism with the modist fashion at end of Victorian era. "Turbans topped with aigrette or ostrich plumes and secured with jeweled ornaments were paired with neo-classic and classic and exotic silhouettes". The 20th century saw the adoption and imitation of many East Asian garments, incorporating vibrant colours inspired by Fauvist artists e.g. Henri Matisse. The House of Callot adapted the Japanese Kimono into bohemian style free-flowing opera coats and evening dresses that "Swathed the body like Bat-winged cocoons." - a factor in the demise of the restrictive corset before the First World War. Paul Poiret was one of the leading revolutionary couturiers in the 1900s. He used vivid colour and dramatic silhouettes to explore the potential of Orientalism in clothing the modern woman. His "harem" pantaloons (1911) and "lampshade" tunics (1913) reflected the fantasy of the mythical East, as did the lavishness of his iconic fancy-dress party, called "The Thousand and Second Night". After the First World War, attitudes had changed and fashion was overshadowed by utility and function. When Poiret reopened his buisiness and continued his aesthetic of exotic orientalism his popularity diminished, and following this his business closed in 1929. Poiret had, however managed to place Orientalism on the fashion map in a society of modernity that has been reiterated by many contemporary designers today.

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Orientalism had faded out during the World Wars, with luxury and extravagance being replaced by efficacy and convenience. It became popular again in the 1960s as a disenchantment with popular Western culture but really returned again during the 1990s with the International fashion industry from high-fashion to the mass-market began referencing exotic perceptions of the Orient. Asian fashion became a popular trend peaking in 1992/93 with films such as Madame Butterfly and Indochine making box office hits, as well as music videos including Madonna's "Zenned-out minimalism". This mass-media did not do much to change the negative traits of orientalism as ignorance in popular cuture - trends such as 'Ethno-chic' and 'Indo-chic' are so broadly defined that they are rendered virtually meaningless. In 1997/98 the change in immigration and globalization meant that when Princess Diana wore out a Salwaar-Kameez it was acceptable because it was seen on the UK streets by South-Asian migrants. Japanese traditions such as Yoga and acupuncture had became fashionable, and Western designers introduced sarongs and kimonos into a wardrobe staple, popularized by the release of Orient inspired films and books such as Memoirs of a Geisha. Manga and Anime became popular, producing a new view of techno-orientalism as it isn't a realistic part of life in any Eastern culture - figures from these media inventions have even replaced such iconography as the samurai and geishas in the exoticism of Japan.

Many popular designers such as Lacroix, Valentino and Donna Karen draw reference from the orient, but the prime example has to be John Galliano, who shows how Orientalism functions today just as it did 100 years ago. In his first Haute-couture collection for Christian Dior (SS97), Galliano pulls elements from a visit to Japan to create a fashion spectacle of exotic fantasy reinforcing the divide between East and West with white Geisha-style makeup, modern anime eyes, Japanese Obi inspired sashes and sculptural origami inspired clothing. The models are not of Asian origin, enforcing the West as the dominant culture, and heightening the 'otherness' of the Orient. Galliano steps out on to the runway dressed as the colonialist explore in a "British or Spanish military jacket, tricorn hat, gold braid and red sash, white trousers and over the knee boots". Showing how the Western stereotype of the East still wholly functions today. "The comparison is so blatant it is almost funny". Galliano's oriental-inspired bodice 'Nagasaki' could be viewed as bad-taste. The 'unruly garment' it was named after the 1945 atomic bomb in which around 80,000 people died and led to the Japanese surrender in WWII. Another insult is that it is actually reminiscent of a divergence of cultures that the West associates with the East; China, Japan, Korea and other parts of Asia. Galliano draws on orientalism again in his SS98 Haute Couture collection "A Voyage on the Diorent Express" where again, he plays with nostalgia and exotic fantasy (to the empires and nineteenth century World fairs), using "'dialectic images' which combine past, present and future, cultures, continents and centuries. He creates a "Jumple of native-American and sixtheenth-century European dress, juxtaposing feather-headresses and beads with Medici princesses, female pageboys and Henry VIII outfits" grabbing references from all over the world and "throwing them together with an irreverent abandon that remains unparallalled despite having spawned a million imitations."

In the modern age, parts of Asia are seen as being a new economic, cultural and military threat, and viewed with speculation - "A Japanese corporate powerhouse threatening to out-complete Euro-American industry and a Chinese military machine capable of rejecting and defeating the forces of Western democracy". It could be suggested that Western attitudes have tried to reduce these nations to a fashion style statement to counter this, rendering them emasculated, effeminate, androgynous and passive. Even though it is a highly successful industry, the world of fashion, since targeted at females, "appears obsessed with surface appearances over hard, cold realities such as finance". It is a trade populated by men but they are viewed as homosexual and the exception to the rule. For instance, the suited Oriental businessman with his mobile phone has been rendered "not as hyper-masculine, but as anonymous and effeminate. No longer a threat to the West, but an unsuccessful mimic of it, either a corporate drone who did what he was told or a duplicitous, unethical competitor." China, although a growing global identity with a fashion capital able to compete with the quality and prestige of New York, Paris and Milan, is viewed with degradation by the West. 'Made in China' has being synonymous with cheap, mass-produced goods and labor exploitation, "Cheapness could be a marker of the cultural different and power relation between East and West as well as class identities within the metropolis".

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Film is a huge influence on popular culture, helping to shape the Western attitudes of the East. The Western interpreted Mandarin collar of Imperial China is used in high-fashion oriental and minimalist style clothing, combat uniforms of the US Army, and also futuristically, showing evil antagonists in film and theatre, for instance Dr No parodied as Dr Evil in Austin Powers. The Middle East has been a popular backdrop used in film over the past 50 years, producing such classics as Lawrence of Arabia. The wealth of Arabs became a popular film theme, partularly during the 1970s oil crisis, and in the 90s the Arab terrorist became a villain to Western audiences. Even Aladdin, a popular children's Disney film, is influential on modern Western attitudes towards orientalism. Summed up by the lyrics in the opening song, "Its barbarous but hey, its home". In the cartoon, Arabic merchants are portrayed as untrustworthy and manipulative as they try and swindle you into buying broken goods such as broken hookahs, and the character Jafar is a the epitome of a power hungry evil dictator. All the characters have the stereotypical features of people of the Middle-East - large noses, dark skin and grumpyness of nature, with the exception of the 'diamond in the rough' Aladdin, with lighter skin and angular features more typical of a Westener.

Sex and the city 2 is another film highlighting preceding attitudes of Westerner prejudice towards the East - an "'Arabian Nights' with a makeover from Valentino". The film is set on the four protagonists holiday to Abu Dhabi (which was actually filmed in Morocco) and depicts the Middle East in two lights; as a lavish Utopia where the "imperialistic Barbies" escape into temporary material hedonism, with vulgar limos, hotel suites and picturesque camel rides, and when this is all taken away; as a repressive and un-liberated prison for the women who live there, veiled and unspoken, submissive to aggressive men. It is full of the most stereotypical clichés about the exotic fantasy land of the Middle East, and double entendres that make a mockery out of their culture and its sexual hypocrisy, such as "magic carpet" and "Lawrence of my Labia". The film furthers the divide between West and East by highlighting the Middle East's 'otherness' and the characters as the 'onlookers' who do nothing to try to properly understand the nations values and cultures, it is purely superficial, "Forget the oppressed women of Abu Dhabi. Let's buy more bling for the burqa!".

Orientalism is an increasingly wide expression, and Western attitudes towards the East are shaped by history, popular culture and current events. On the one hand, orientalism dismissively speaks of Western privilege, exploiting art, design, film and fashion as a commodity consumption and embracing the past days of imperialism. On the other hand, it is used merely as a façade, over which popular culture and art can borrow and from the East to create interesting design and imitation with no additional importance. It is important to note that orientalism is not a factual representation of the East, but a hyper-real Western view on it, built up from various events, "Asia is indeed and invented construction. One that says more about the unmarked West than it does about any particular culture or nation in the region called Asia, but it is nonetheless a very real construction". Recently, increasing cultural and diplomatic contact with the East, and the tragedy of September 11th 2001, has given way to a necessity of a genuine appreciation and understanding of other cultures and their unique qualities. Who knows how these attitudes will change in the future?