ethnic costume


ethnic costume
Ethnic costume, specifically that of China’s fifty-five minorities, has seen significant reinvigoration under the impact of market forces. Prior to the Maoist period, many minority groups, especially when isolated in rural areas, wore clothing particular to their ethnic traditions on a daily basis. This was especially true of minority women, and included hair and head pieces as well as modes of styling hair. During special occasions, such as ethnic festivals, more men’s costumes would emerge, and women’s costumes might be extremely elaborate, in some cases the products of years of handiwork. Handmade materials and handcrafted ornamentation was common, and included fabrics, dyes, embroidery, brocade, batik, metal jewellery and other forms. Except for specialist products such as silverwork and embroidery designs, it was uncommon for ethnic costume components to circulate widely through markets.
A significant proportion of such practices of customary dress persisted throughout the Cultural Revolution, albeit often in muted form. Then the 1980s inaugurated a boom in the production of costume components due in part to policies of cultural liberalization and also to the sharp rise in domestic and international tourism. The market presented two types of opportunities for minority groups to profit from costume. First, they could produce, develop and wear costumes in traditional or embellished style to attract visitors and audiences seeking ethnic tourism experiences. Costumes tended to be showcased and promoted as photogenic, especially at major tourist events such as village festivals. They also were key to cultural performances in urban venues such as ethnic theme parks, theatres, minority institutes, provincial trade fairs, television shows and nightclubs. Not only tourists but also media producers revelled in the visual potential of diverse costume styles. In response, a great deal of embellishment took place in the production of costumes for performance, including the intensification of colour through synthetic fabrics and dyes, and the use of other mechanically produced ornaments such as sequins and glitter.
Second, minorities and brokers developed a variety of means to transform costume components into commodities for sale. Sometimes minority women would bring their handiwork to market, and sometimes brokers would visit them in villages and buy their older pieces. This market in antique work coexisted with a demand for newly designed merchandise. Often as their only vehicle for entry into the market, village women began making costume fragments for sale either as is or in the form of new products such as pillow covers and handbags. The success of these sales in turn gave rise to a range of production relations. A local villager would contract with other locals to produce items in a kind of cottage industry format. An outsider, sometimes a state agency, might establish similar contracts, or organize a small shop in a town where women, and sometimes men, would come to work for wages or doing piecework. In some cities, small-scale factories were established with professional designers and industrial materials added to the production process, with certain forms of specialized craft being sent back for skilled villagers to execute. Customers included international tourists as well as Han urbanites. With the solidification of these diversified production relations, intensified polarizations of gender and class also emerged.
By the later 1990s, the diversification of craft production had further extended. Developments included the incorporation into high fashion of ethnic designs or handicraft fragments by minority, Han and foreign designers. In the name of modernizing, minority performers elaborated syncretic styles that borrowed from mediated cosmopolitan cultures incorporating miniskirts, bare midriffs or bellbottoms into ethnic fashion. In tandem with the rise of modelling culture, runways and beauty contests showcased all these new developments.
Meanwhile, concerns have been voiced within and beyond China about the disappearance both of the actual older artifacts, which have been completely sold off in many villages, of the dress customs in the rural areas, and of the skills for making these traditional styles. Conservationists are working towards establishing archives and museum collections. Some seek to organize minority elders to pass on their skills and to ban the use and sale of antique crafts as commodities. International NGOs have initiated projects of poverty relief that rely on the production and maintenance of handicrafts. Concomitantly, some local governments in heavily touristed areas have sought to implement guidelines as to dress practices in the hopes that the quest for modernity will not discourage locals from continuing to look marketably ethnic.
Corrigan, Gina (2001). Miao Textiles from China. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Oakes, Tim (2002). Dragonheads and Needlework: Textile Work and Cultural Heritage in a Guizhou County. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Baptist University Centre for Urban and Regional Studies Occasional Paper Series 22 (June).
Schein, Louisa (2003). ‘Minzu fuzhuang, wenhua ji fazhan’ [Ethnic Clothing, Culture and Development]. In He Zhonghua (ed.), Shehui xingbie, minzu, shequ fazhan yantaohui [Proceedings of the Conference on Gender, Ethnicity and Social Development]. Guiyang: Guizhou minzu chubanshe.
Swain, Margaret Byrne (2001). ‘Ethnic Doll Ethnics: Tourism Research in Southwest China’. In Valerie Smith and Maryann Brent (eds), Hosts and Guests Revisited: Tourism Issues of the 21st Century. Elmsford, NY: Cognizant Press, 217–31.
LOUISA SCHEIN

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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