The West has looked to the Far East for inspiration for decades, and understandably so: Oriental style is structurally striking and heavily embroidered, an eclectic canvas on which to build.
In 2015, Anna Wintour hosted the annual Met Gala with the theme ‘China: Through The Looking Glass’, a celebration of half a millennium of Oriental style's influence on European fashion. From the intricacy of Japanese designs to the offbeat shapes of Samurai uniforms, Far Eastern fashion has had an enormous influence on our wardrobes.
Simple Shapes & Socialism
Since as early as 1920, Oriental dress has taken hold in the West. Heavily embroidered silks and cottons were considered the height of luxury. From opulent dragon-shaped embellishments to delicate cherry blossom prints, the aesthetics and striking colours of the Far East were considered elegantly exotic and enviably luxurious.
China’s national dress for women in 1929 was the cheongsam. A simple shift with cap sleeves and an asymmetric front, the outfit evolved to suit the times. Inspired by the West, it became sleeker to show off the feminine silhouette and was incidentally associated with women’s liberation until the Communist Party curtailed its popularity in 1949.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the zhongshan tunic worn by Chairman Mao Zedong became a popular shape for Western men. The simple cut of the longline suit reflected China’s communist ethos and appealed to left-leaning, coffee-drinking youths. Much later, in an innovative new direction for the queen of punk, it inspired Vivienne Westwood for men's Gold Label SS12 collection with its boxy shape and utilitarian hue.
Hathaway & Haute Couture
Imperial China boasted bold, beautiful colours and rich decoration, all of which lends itself to opulent evening attire. In fact, the cheongsam has been reinvented for the red carpet on numerous occasions. Pierre Cardin often cited the design as inspiration for his exotic evening dresses, while Anne Hathaway wore a midnight blue cheongsam-inspired sheath in the 2011 film One Day.
For his AW04 collection at the helm of Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford sent a vibrant yellow silk and satin evening dress down the catwalk. Inspired by royal robes, the form-fitting gown entranced the fashion industry with its ancient symbols and intricate embroidery.
Roberto Cavalli famously takes inspiration from China, while Alexander McQueen dresses offer an offbeat take on the same theme. Using Eastern porcelain as a starting point, both designers have produced evening gowns fit for the Imperial Court.
Haute couture has been awash with Oriental dress for years; hand-sewn beading and delicate laser cuts evoke an old-world Chinese aesthetic. Gaultier produced a backless dress with a high neck and fit reminiscent of the cheongsam for AW01. The dark satin design showcased a sublime collection of 3D butterflies.
Zuhair Murad is another designer with a tendency to look East. He creates flowing, embellished pieces with a Chinese-inspired twist, which are sought-after for red carpet events.
Porcelain & Pyjamas
The 2015 Met Gala offered an in-depth insight into Oriental fashion. Most notably, Rihanna's regal cape – covering a dress by Chinese designer Guo Pei – engulfed the Metropolitan Museum of Art's steps and made waves in the media for weeks afterwards. Actress Emily Blunt in Prada channelled the cheongsam, but the powder-blue creation offered a more modern, boxier silhouette. The indomitable Grace Coddington, creative director at large of Vogue US, was as avant-garde as ever in a Michael Kors pyjama suit.
Wintour’s 2015 theme launched a revival of Oriental fashion. Elegant kimono gowns and cheongsam shifts were spotted on several womenswear SS15 catwalks, while imperial jades and porcelain blues coloured the menswear shows. J.W. Anderson combined an Eastern palette with the English countryside, creating androgynous, tapestry-esque separates in sculptural forms.
The fashion industry’s obsession with Oriental style is yet to wane. AW16 saw Christopher Kane send his male models out in kimono-style jackets and wide-legged trousers, while Dolce & Gabbana fused its Sicilian heritage with Shanghai for SS16. Painted blossoms were draped across suiting, while birds of paradise swooped across sportswear.
The Far East, with a particular emphasis on China, offers endless inspiration for designers. From imperial style to cultural and societal markers, the fashion industry will continue to find inspiration in the nation's rich history. Its decorative elements are still making their way into numerous contrasting trends: we’re seeing dragon motifs adorning track jackets, while the cheongsam shape is being used for Céline-style minimalism. And each season, an entirely different take on Oriental style appears.