The word ‘exotic’ can be defined in many different ways, spanning many cultures and different periods of time. Every single persons definition is different, depending on where they live; their nations’ relationships with other countries; and their own family’s particular ideologies. The focus of this essay, is to outline the differences between Western and Japanese methods of design, (including their design philosophies); the shocking reaction from Western culture after the Japanese debut in Paris in 1983, and the impact they had. It is also to provide a comparison with the very different ideas of fashion coming from Paris during that time; the perceptions of gender in each culture; and how today, they have overlapped to create a new understanding and appreciation of each cultures perceptions of fashion. Referring to the exhibition catalogue: ‘Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion’ and ‘Excess: Fashion and Underground in the 80’s’, this essay will display extensive knowledge of historical and contemporary practices in each culture. It will thoroughly analyse the relationship between both cultures, defining the term ‘exotic’ in both its negative and positive connotations, ultimately expressing ‘exoticism’ as a culturally enriching notion.
In the 1980’s the Parisian fashion world saw the arrival of three Japanese designers; Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. With them came new foreign insight into methods of designing clothing. These were Japanese philosophies of design inspired from their own cultural history. The focus is on rich spirituality, which is very prominent in Japan, rooted in their culture for centuries. The philosophy known as ‘Ma’, looks at the relationship between fabric and the human body:
‘Japanese designers were free from European couture methods, because of the notion of the kimono in their minds. The kimono, in contrast to the construction of Western clothing, is an assemblage of rectangular pieces of fabric; as a result, when not worn, a kimono is flat.’ (Fukai, 2010:16)
Different dimensions play a huge part in this philosophy, the garments are a work in progress: ‘Only when they are worn, do they take their final form’. (Fukai, 2010:16) The clothing lacks shape, concealing the figure. The concept of ‘Ma’, is the idea that taking a length of cloth and draping it on to the human body, created excess ‘space’ (rough translation from ‘Ma’ to English). This form of excess was never considered as a weakness in design, but rather an expression of the universal approach to design: Breaking down the barriers in gender, age, and body shape. It harboured rich spiritual energy that was integral to Japanese Lifestyle.
With the notion of ‘Ma’ in his mind, in 1999 Issey Miyake unveiled his ‘A Piece of Cloth’ collection. A collaboration with Dai Fujiwara; the method was to ‘develop a weaving process that produced fully finished garments without the need for sewing. Material, form and function are independent of each other yet at the same time strongly integrated, hinting at a new couture process.’ (Fukai, 2010:18) This method of design could be perceived as a futuristic approach, coming from a country with rich traditional heritage. Although the approach is not futuristic in how Western society may perceive it, from their cultural perspective, the innovations in the creation of the fabric, may well be celebrated in that way.
During the 80’s, designers such as Thierry Mugler were dominating the fashion industry, creating collections that built up the female form in way that could be described as the ‘superbody’ (Jencks 2004) clothing that enhanced the female form reminiscent of the 19th century corsets: large shoulder pads, small waists and womanly hips, it was a celebration of the female form in a tailored manner. It enhanced a woman’s power through provocative clothing, idolizing the female form. The work of Japanese designers, contradicted this trend. By concealing the female figure, gender became insignificant.
The influx of Japanese fashion in Paris was arguably revolutionary in terms of fashion. During a time of huge economic growth in Japan, their fashion culture grew also. In 1982/83, Kawakubo and Yamamoto presented their first collections in Paris. They pioneered a new aesthetic: where garments were torn, loose and seemingly nonsensical. So shocking were these garments to the Parisian critics, they sparked mixed reviews that sent a shockwave through fashion culture, In response to Kawakubo’s collection a reporter for Le Figaro wrote: ‘Her apocalyptic clothing is pierced with holes, tattered and torn, almost like clothing worn by nuclear holocaust survivors.’ (Unknown, cited in Fukai, 2010:14). Similarly, Yamamoto’s clothing was reported as ‘clothes for the end of the world that look as if they have been bombed to shreds’ (unknown, cited in Fukai, 2010:14).
However, this new wave of fashion was more widely celebrated than berated. The New York Times wrote: ‘ The fashions that have swept in from the east to the west represent a totally different attitude toward how clothes should look from that long established here’ (unknown, cited in Fukai 2010:14) This exotic new insight had a huge impact on Western perceptions of Japanese culture, it was quite disorientating in way, this whole new concept of design was so alien to the west, that in way it was baffling. It’s as if Japanese designers, burst through in a whole new league of their own, dragging the fashion industry along with it. They completely revolutionised how we perceive fashion, and how fashion is created. This particular movement in fashion stripped back the grandeur of high fashion, promoting the idea of equality throughout society.
But the success of Japanese designers in Western culture wasn’t because they were foreign concepts; it wasn’t as simple as that. They challenged Western ideologies: In a way, they retaliated - like a debate. There isn’t necessarily a concrete structure when it comes to creating fashion, the Japanese simply ‘designed back’ (Vinken, cited in Fukai 2010:27).
Gender played a big part in the differences between eastern and western culture, as previously stated, western fashion celebrated the female form, whereas the Japanese seeked to conceal it. The notion of loose fitting clothing in European culture was perceived as practical and shapeless, their design methods sought to curve and enhance the female form using design methods such as darts. To the Japanese, it was ‘Ma’. Shapes in the fabric were defined through the movement of the garment while it was worn, creating a more subtle form of beauty. (Fukai, 2010:16) It could easily be described as a form of androgyny, concealing any idea from eroticism from
The garments. Where western civilisation saw the décolleté as the classic sign of eroticism: For Japanese, it was the back of the neck. They saw clothing as a form of ‘second skin’, where there was space between the body and clothing; the way it was softly draped, created a more delicate form of beauty, which many would consider as a characteristic which was much more attractive, as there was a sense of mystery, leaving the imagination to ponder the female form. (Vinken cited in Fukai, 2010:28)
The rise of Japanese culture in western civilisation can be traced back to the times where women wore restrictive corsets in the nineteenth century. Japan had as much purpose in revolutionising fashion as the work of Coco Chanel. With the same objectives in mind; to liberate the female body from its un-natural form, constricted with corsets that sharply defined and highlighted the curves of the body. Harking back to pre-Raphaelites, The Japanese, like Chanel, seeked to create a much more comfortable aesthetic, where women can work and live freely without constriction through fashion. Similarly the notion of ‘deluxe poverty’ (Vinken, cited in Fukai, 2010, 28) creates a huge link between Chanel and Japanese Designers, the only difference being the methods. The outcome is aesthetically much different, but the underlying theory contains similarities.
The links that these two cultures shared created a new form of language in fashion, where each culture embraces the other in certain ways, to the point where they are inspired by one another. Japanese society like to dress in western designs, particularly men, who once wore kimono to work, but since have changed to the western tailored suit, as it was considered more practical. The Japanese fashion magazines have Western models in them, sparking a desire for western clothing, as it is considered aspirational.
Western designers such as Martin Mason Margiela have adopted the Japanese aesthetics of fashion, creating clothing with bizarre silhouettes, Using a very simple palette of blacks, greys and browns: there is a clear Japanese aesthetic that designers have been inspired by. Arguably the appreciation that is shared for one another could cancel out the idea of exoticism all together. As time evolves, we become more accustomed to the Japanese lifestyle, and vice versa, making the culture not as foreign as it once was. Some may have previously considered the idea of exotics uncomfortable, as it is ultimately a way of defining the unknown. But today, with ever boosting economies, it’s much more familiar territory, making the term ‘exotic’ more of a descriptive word rather than defining certain cultures to foreign territories.
But designers are taking this relationship between the two cultures even further:
‘I realised these two wonderful advantages I enjoy, and that was when I started to experiment creating a new genre of clothing, neither Western nor Japanese but beyond.’ (Miyake, cited in English, 2011:17)
A prominent concept in Miyakes design process is to make clothing that is beyond nationality, making it universal. It promotes equality, by lacking cultural definition, the clothing can be seen purely for its beauty, rather than forcing it into a genre, which in turn would limit it to a selective market.
Exoticism is relevant today as only a descriptive term, through the evolution of technology and commerce between different nations, it has eliminated many cultural complexities, creating an understanding and appreciation of different cultures. In some cases, it has led to countries embracing and adopting many of different practices. Fashion, is merely an example of many different ways that these nations have come together. Through the exploration of different lifestyles, it has helped each country to become more culturally diverse, and in turn, creating a much richer civilisation for people to live in.
Western society has a misconception that Geisha are at the mercy of men. We believe they are ‘playthings’, who do as they are told, with almost no limits as to how far those demands may go. This judgment is absolutely invalid, as western society does not have an equivalent to provide a comparison. How then, can we fully understand Geisha?
Prostitution is not a similar vocation by any means. And ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is not an accurate representation of Geisha; it is merely a western romantic fantasy. The flower and willow world is a society that is renowned for its mystery and secrecy. The world of Geisha is respected, admired and sophisticated, full of traditional skills that date back hundreds of years. The very refined and tasteful aesthetics that Geisha treasure may be disputed by outsiders, but for those who share similar values and tastes, the flower and willow world is considered paradise. It is a Geisha’s custom to serve clients, in various different forms, through performance, conversation, and the tea ceremony. Geisha are there to entertain customers, usually businessmen.
It is not difficult to see how western culture may have developed a derogatory view of Geisha; some of their previous rights of passage from Maiko (apprentice Geisha) to full Geisha could be considered as questionable. Maiko would auction off their mizuage (virginity), as a coming of age requirement in order to become full Geisha. However in 1959 that practice became illegal, as after World War Two, the Americans were welcomed into Japan, and with it they brought more conservative attitudes towards sexuality. The man who won the auction for a Geisha’s mizuage was considered a sponsor, as his money was used to help a Geisha pay her debts towards the ‘Mother’ who has trained her. Debts would include hair maintenance, food, accommodation, and kimono.
A Geisha’s wardrobe is very expensive, it is one of the more desirable things about becoming Geisha. When fully clothed, a Geisha’s full outfit is worth approximately £30,000, with the kimono costing £5,000 alone. She is a symbol of luxury and beauty in Japan. If she is not wearing the most beautiful garments and jewelry, she is not considered beautiful.
In Japanese culture, completely concealing the figure was considered attractive, as there was mystery and secrecy involved. At the height of 1980’s fashion there was a particular trend led by Thierry Mugler, which was a direct contradiction of every method of design that the east had been working with: Figure enhancing silhouettes, consisting of a large bust, tiny waist and curvy hips, all intertwined with a futuristic aesthetic. However during that same time, the work of designers like Yojhi Yamamoto and Issey Miyake worked traditionally, creating work that, like the kimono, completely concealed the body. The methods of tailoring were different in each culture: where western designers used darts to curve, form, and enhance the figure, eastern designers used methods, which derived from the construction of the kimono. They used rectangular pieces sewn together to create a completely flat garment when laid out on the floor. This method doesn’t flatter the body in the way that western culture would find appealing, but in Japan, it was considered beautiful. The garment created space between itself and the wearer. The space, known as ma, was incredibly important. For Japan, a country with a strong spiritual culture, it harbored a very rich, strong energy that was so appealing.
This method of design, creating clothing that when laid on the floor was completely flat, has been explored thoroughly in Japanese modern design. Flatness was a concept explored by designer Rei Kawakubo in his collections for Comme des Garçons. The idea of completely covering the body in huge lengths of fabric was completely alien to western designers, creating quite a large divide in fashion between the two cultures. Completely shrouding the body in fabric to hide its shape was important and carefully considered. The idea was to create garments that weren’t gender biased.
Flatness was also an idea studied by Issey Miyake, exploring the idea of dimensions. In a very recent collection created by the design house, the exploration of different dimensions all depended on the cut of the fabric, the asymmetry and its effect on the body. ‘A piece of flat material becomes a three-dimensional structure (3D). The structure, in turn, becomes a two dimensional shape with the addition of straight folding lines (2D). When the new shape is put on the human body, it becomes clothing (5D)’ Miyake design studio, 2010.
What may have seemed so alien to western culture has now become a very important factor amongst its designers. It seems that we have become inspired by these methods of design, embracing them, and making them our own. In fashion today, clothing isn’t just made to flatter the figure, but rather manipulate it, creating new silhouettes and exploring the boundaries between fashion and art.
The coming together of these cultures however, has had a detrimental effect on the world of Geisha. When in the mid 20th century there were over 80,000 Geisha, today there are approximately 5,000. It is an unfortunate reality to be faced with, but with their traditional values and methods of entertainment, it seems Geisha is an occupation, which doesn’t belong in the modern world. Although they still exist, and are still an important factor within the Japanese culture and heritage, the strict nature and exclusivity of Geisha means they have diminished. For those that admire Geisha, one thing we can all take solace in, is that they are still hugely influential in modern day design, and this is evident all over the world.