In 2006, WESSIELING had two solo exhibitions and contributed to two group exhibitions. In her first solo show, WESSIELING presented ‘Mapping Motifs: An exploratory journey through fashion, cities and identities’ at the AVA Gallery in London. The work comprised six Chinese dresses (qipao); otherwise identical, each dress had the fashionable streets of different fashion metropolises printed on the textile. Another one, ‘Game on: The World Fashion Conquest’ (Exhibit, London) took up the topic of a globalised fashion world. In a rework of the classical board game RISK, the visitors of the show were asked to battle for supremacy in a contested global market. Rather than different countries, WESSIELING’s map showed the host cities of 85 fashion weeks. Her contributions to the London Design Festival and the New Directions in Fashion Research exhibition both played with the adaptation of Oriental styles in the West. WESSIELING is also a Senior Lecturer at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London.
The following dialogue will focus on two of WESSIELING’s solo exhibitions, Mapping Motifs and Game On, and will discuss these works in relation to broader questions of fashion, consumption, ethnicity and gender.
Christian Huck: All of your shows involve the presentation of clothing, yet they surely are no mere costume exhibitions. Could you explain the way you present clothing and fashion in your work, and how this differs from other shows?
WESSIELING: By accepting fashion as one of the major forces shaping contemporary social experience, what I attempt to present in my work is how it acts upon us on in our daily life, how it shapes our relation to other people and our environment, and in turn, how we are shaped by these relations. Following this conception of fashion, clothes are not simply sets of object in my work. Presentation of clothing may even be completely absent from my shows. To enable visitors of my shows to realise the cultural meanings and values connected with fashion, they play a central role by being part of it. Through participation, they contribute to the multiple forms of experience with fashion that shape modern society. Two of the central topics connected with my work on fashion are urbanity and identities. They link fashion to its indissoluble relation to modernity and the pursuit of the new. All my installations are thus made from a common will to address the complexity of such intriguing relations.
The Chinese dresses in Mapping Motifs are one of the examples to illustrate such complexity. The qipao is a Chinese dress that bears multiple layers of meaning to the Chinese communities. Yet, it was once regarded simply as a fashionable dress both in the East and the West. In MM (Mapping Motifs), six identical qipaos each representing a different fashion metropolis were presented by means of six different city maps (Paris, London, New York, Milan, Hong Kong, Shanghai) (Fig. 1). Some overlapping words appear on the otherwise nameless maps of the printed dresses. When viewed through a pair of ‘spyglasses’, street and designer names appear, revealing the cities and the designers that have included the qipao in their fashion collections (Figure 2). My central question in MM was how a traditional Chinese dress is perceived when it comes to be associated with fashion. Bearing in mind the fact that the qipaos in MM were made in traditional method and form by a Chinese tailor specialised in the qipao, I was astonished to hear some Chinese viewers denying them as the qipao, instead considering them to be ‘fashionable’ dresses.
Fig 1. Installation of MM, 2006
Photo: Paul Burroughs
Fig 2. Qipao through the spyglasses, MM 2006.
Photo: Paul Burroughs
Though the essence of MM lies in the perception of the qipao, presentation of clothes does not necessarily play a role in all of my shows. Game On: The World Fashion Conquest (GO), for example, is not about clothes but the relation of cities and fashion weeks. In view of the competition between cities, fashion week is used as part of the cultural strategy to brand a city. The ‘Risk’ – world domination board game – inspired game in GO extenuates the idea of cities’ competition. Although nearly one hundred cities are now holding fashion weeks, many of them have no mechanism in place to promote their fashion designer and/or products. My immediate question in GO is why so many cities hold fashion weeks, particularly those who are not traditionally associated with fashion? If fashion week is not about selling/presenting clothes/fashion designers, what is its purpose? Fashion week as seen in GO is part of symbolic production. Reference to this is the game set that comes with a game-board made of printed textile and compressed T-shirts as pawns (Fig. 3). These pawns feel and look like blocks of plastic, in fact, each contains an ordinary T-shirt. Many viewers spent hours playing the game without even noticing that they are holding pawns of T-shirt! While the majority of game players would stress the importance of physical contact and body language in playing a board game, many did not read the rules prior to playing the game and consequently remained clueless to the ‘magic’ of the pawns. Only when they found out about this, they were reminded that the game is not simply fun, but also fashion-related. Some even began choosing their favourite pawn/T-shirt, this time, on the basis of the fashion week and/or the city. As the board is installed on the runway of a catwalk, the players mimic the roles of first row occupants in a fashion show (Fig. 4). Here, high-flying editors, high-profile industrialists, celebrities and the VIPs join force with cultural policy makers and the executive board of tourist associations. During the private view of the show, performances were scheduled without giving much detail of the content. Many came hoping to see a fashion show (with models and clothes); however, the performances turned out to demonstrate how the game is played. Even so, viewers were at once enlightened by the invitation to play the game. Playing The World Fashion Conquest echoes widening participation in fashion weeks. Holding and participating in a fashion week no longer requires a fashion background, let alone presenting fashion designers and products.
Fig 3. The game set,The World Fashion Conquest, 2006.
Photo: Paul Burroughs
Fig 4. Installation of Game On:
The World Fashion Conquest, 2006.
Photo: Paul Burroughs
CH: In modern society, the pervading conception of fashion is that it is considered to be the realm of the female, whereas the producers (artists) and consumers (collectors) of high-art are traditionally cast as male. Most of the dresses you are re-working in your exhibitions are also female. Isn’t there a danger of re-emphasising the traditional connection between fashion and the female through such works?
W: As in art, the producers of fashion are predominantly male and glorified in the same way as artists, particularly in France. However, what distinguishes fashion from art is that it is made to be worn. It is not an object and cannot live without a body. It is through (an often female) body that fashion is brought to another level, comes to be associated with cultures and societies, and is injected with new meanings. The relation between fashion and the body is two-way, they feed each other for multiple effects. In this respect, the women who wear a male designer’s dress contribute directly to the making and meaning of fashion. This is also the case for the Chinese dress – the qipao – that I’m working on. The qipao is very personal to many Chinese women. It reflects their preferences and taste. These Chinese women are themselves part of the production process by choosing fabric, patterns, colours, and fitting for their dress. Only through a female body, the dress can represent an individual. It reflects the transformation of society as it stands for modernity. Its popularity waned following changes of women’s role in society but was on the up again when key figures throw it back onto their bodies. Watching Chinese women in the qipao is like reading a page in contemporary Chinese history. Nonetheless, this history is not limited to China because the qipao travels, and is then (re-)interpreted by various agents in different parts of the world. In MM (Mapping Motifs), some Chinese/Asian viewers told me touching stories about their memories of the dress. Ironically, other viewers, mostly Westerners, described the qipao in MM as sexy and associated it with the image of Suzie Wong – which was not at all my intended projection. Hollywood’s construction of its stereotypical image is partly responsible for this. The idea of the qipao is almost oppositional to the Chinese and the Westerners. The way Chinese women in qipao have been drawn into such associations interests me. I don’t have a full answer, but through MM I try to challenge these perceptions and hope to provoke questions. The One-Dollar Dress I produced for a group exhibition is also about such a perception. Here, the qipao is presented as a US dollar note in a well-travelled 1940s suitcase (Fig. 5). Again, this diasporic qipao is in transit but this time, the emphasis is on the production side, that is, the exploitation of cheap labour in China. To many, Chinese tailors are cheap, obedient and fast with reasonable quality. This image has been publicised over and over again. Even the local tourist association uses this to sell out their tailors. The term, One-Dollar Suit may seem familiar to the post-war generation, but this on-going practice continues with both old and young generation. To many visitors this work had huge reverberations as they came to see themselves in it. Perhaps the transnational and diasporic elements have gone beyond the topic of dress.
Fig 5. One-Dollar Dress, 2006.
Photo: Paul Burroughs
CH: I agree with you that historically fashion and the female are inseparable, and also that questions of ethnicity often overshadow questions of gender. But is the association of fashion and the female not a view put forward by males, distancing themselves from the ephemeral and transient nature of fashion, but also, I think, negating their own bodiliness? This distancing of the male from fashion has culminated in the academic pseudo-theory of ‘The Great Male Renunciation’, claiming that since the eighteenth century men have ‘renunciated’ from the fickle world of fashion. Would it not be interesting to challenge the equation of fashion with the female and show that men, and not only gay or queer men, rely on the embodiment of dress as well? Do men not have a body?
W: Precisely, historians like Patricia Cunningham, Christopher Breward, Joanne Bourke also argued that consumption was not solely a feminine enterprise and that male fashion positioned men at the forefront of modernisation. I can also see this argument through the qipao as it has an intriguing relationship with Chinese men. In Chinese societies, to be well-dressed is a social marker and is equally important for both sexes. Not only had Chinese men not renunciated from fashion after the eighteenth century, but many adopted Western suit after the collapse of the imperial dynasty in early twentieth century; not because they blindly followed Western fashion, progress and modernisation instead drove them to pair themselves with their Western counterparts. In the 1920s, many Chinese men, particularly those returning from their studies abroad, wore Western men’s suits from head to toe. While the traditional changpao (long robe) remained the favourite of many, they followed the revolutionist, Dr Sun Yet San, who fused their robes with Western men’s fashion; for example a Western men’s jacket over the long robe accessorised with a hat and a walking stick. On one hand, Chinese men increasingly accepted Western suit, on the other hand, their changpao inspired the qipao for women. The qipao in 1920s had roots in men’s changpao yet revolved around women’s emancipation at the time of social upheaval. The emergence of a consumer society in major metropolis alongside the rise of foreign merchandise was partly responsible for the modernisation of the qipao. The increasing use of imported fabrics for women’s qipaos was not uncommon. It was almost a gesture to match with Chinese men in Western-style fashion during that time. What interests me is these multiple dimensions with the qipao. Although most written work on the qipao has been on its relation with the female, its liaison with Chinese men further complicates the relation between gender and fashion. Its hybridity lies not only in the East-West relation but also in the relation between the sexes. It is this modern and hybrid nature that sets me off to continue working on the qipao for a new exhibition in the Hong Kong Arts Centre (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6 Fusionable Cheongsam, 2007 (book cover)
CH: I like your idea of the transnational/transcultural and the way consumer goods travel around the world and take on new meanings in the process. However, your emphasis seems to be very much on the interface between fashion and the observer/consumer. On the other hand, you mention Hollywood as a production site for specific meanings attached to certain clothes. How do you see the relation between institutional discourses (Hollywood, Vogue, etc.) and the consumer? Where is the power to define the meaning of a dress situated?
W: MM (Mapping Motifs) and ODD (One-Dollar Dress) focus on the wearer and the observer because the qipao cannot evolve without their input. The making of a qipao is a process of negotiation. The knowledgeable yet skilful tailor has to collaborate with the consumer for choice of fabrics, colour, form and fitting. The dress even requires discipline and manner to wear. Today, a traditional tailor will still lecture any wearer on how to move and walk in a qipao, on heels instead of flip-flops. Similar advice will be given to daughters from mothers in qipao. Further, these rules and advice have taken on new forms following migration or social and cultural changes in modern society. The evolution of the qipao is the effort of a collective comprising the producer, the consumer and the observer. In some sense, the qipao in ODD is not only a diasporic dress but also one of democracy. Imagine how it has been customised according to consumers’ wants and desires and their input in the process of making. Maybe this is another reason for the Communist Party to ban the qipao during the Cultural Revolution? To Chinese people, the qipao is always decent and respectful. Some years ago, in a local news column, a Hong Kong cultural critic accused a local designer of ‘raping Chinese dress and culture’ by means of his design – a qipao-inspired dress which is high-slit, tight-fitted and semi-transparent. Given that the creations of Hong Kong designers raise very little interest in both local and international markets, the incident died down quickly without much discussion. A few years later when Galliano released his qipao-inspired collection for Dior, the whole world admired his talent. Galliano’s version of qipao is by no means less sexy than that of the Hong Kong designer; even the ‘total look’ (make-up, accessories, postures, hairstyles, etc.) mimics the image of Chinese prostitutes in qipao. This time, no accusation was made but sounds of applause amongst the audiences. As such, institutional power comes not only from the media but also the hierarchy of cities, of fashion capitals. The idea of the six identical qipaos in MM is to question such a hierarchy. When qipao enters into this system, it is no longer the same Chinese dress that it is to the Chinese people. It is a fashionable dress equal to other forms of dress. Since newness is the essence of the fashion industry, sexiness and exoticism have been assigned to the qipao giving its distinctiveness to represent a trend. What is interesting is how the nature of fashion has been constantly exploited by institutional power. This becomes even more evident in GO (Game On), where the authorities use fashion weeks to brand a city. Fashion week generates publicity and tourism. The revenue generated from some of the new fashion weeks is significant to the economic growth of their host cities and nations. No wonder nearly a hundred cities sign up for it. Apart from economic values, the authorities have increasingly recognised other ‘benefits’ of hosting a fashion week. Fashion week is just a tool and is taken to serve beyond the fashion industry. For example, fashion week in Kingston unites local communities and gives their people a sense of pride. It breaks down traditional notions of fashion that is only designed for and enjoyed by the elites. While the motive of organising a fashion week, in many cities, is primarily an economic one, it is amazing to see how other values have been generated for people who are not necessarily interested in fashion.
CH: As it appears to me, cities play a second, but equally important part in your work, they seem to ground all questions about fashion, gender, transnationality, ethnicity and so on. Why do you think your work on fashion so often brings you back to the city?
W: Indeed, my work begins with the city. Both the city and fashion share a handful of characteristics. On first appearance, cities encompass changes and movement, so does fashion. In the city, people present themselves to others – through fashion. On closer look, fashion in its mercantile form cannot be produced and be competitive without central elements provided by modern cities – good thinkers, good makers, good traders. Following this view, can a successful city or a lasting piece of fashion be constructed? Without designers and their distinguished creations, can Paris claim the title of the world’s fashion capital?
This is particularly apparent in GO where fashion is central to the urbanisation of many cities from around the world. Fashion week contributes to their urban regeneration programmes where many have no related industry in place. Most interestingly, it is seen as an incredibly mobile cultural strategy implemented in various cities without constrain. Its symbolic form of production is the manifestation of the cities’ rejuvenated image and the server for their obsession to acquire the “world-class” cities’ status. It is unknown whether these new fashion weeks drive the fashion industry locally and/or globally considering many do not even serve the sector let alone contribute to trend setting and dissemination. Many argued that they have challenged the position of traditional fashion capitals (Paris, New York, London, Milan), however, it is inarguable that only designers or trends from these capitals are followed internationally. Rather, fashion week brings modernity to these cities. Hosting a fashion week signals their readiness to be included in the international calendar, to join global competition. Inside such competition is a gigantic network stretching from one city to another. Using fashion week as a backdrop, I use a game and mapping to illustrate this intriguing relation. The map in GO shows no territory, boundaries, regions and continents, only cities that hold a fashion week (Fig. 7). Respective latitude and longitude place the cities on the map geographically. One might see these crossing lines as competition, or as connection and/or network. Adopting the model of fashion week from established fashion capitals, these new rise fashion weeks are seen to have more in common with each other than with the ethos and tradition of their host nations – they become modern fashion cities.
Fig 7. The game board, The World Fashion Conquest © 2006.
1. Wessie Ling, Mapping Motifs: An Exploratory Journey through Fashion, Cities and Identities, Solo Exhibition. (London: AVA Gallery, April – May 2006a). Wessie Ling, Game On: The World Fashion Conquest, Solo Exhibition (London: Exhibit, November – December, 2006d); Exhibition travelled to MAK (Vienna: Austrian National Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art, June 2007). [↑]
2. Wessie Ling, One-Dollar Dress, New Directions of Fashion Research, Group Exhibition (London College of Fashion: The Fashion Space, September 2006b). Wessie Ling, Golden Link, Golden Lane Celebration, Group Exhibition (London: Exhibit, September 2006c). [↑]
5. cf. Wessie Ling, “Chinese Dress in The World of Suzie Wong: How the Cheongsam becomes Sexy, Exotic, Servile,” Special Issue on ‘Fashioning Society’, Journal for the Study of British Cultures, 14.2 (2007): 139-49. [↑]