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Orientalism in Fashion

Orientalism in the fashion world was a largely successful attempt to choose elements of authentic Chinese, Japanese, and Turkish dress and then adapt the foreignness of those elements to make Western dress more exotic and exciting. Before the early twentieth century, Oriental influence in fashion was confined to the design of textiles.

The arrival of the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909 detonated an aesthetic bombshell in the West. Designs by Russian painter Leon Bakst used exotic patterns, brilliant colors, and lush fabrics. The combination of these three elements thrilled audiences and inspired couturiers, not least the great couturier Paul Poiret. The new trend in all the graphic arts was termed Orientalism.

One fashion trend from 100 years ago that is coming back is ethnic clothing. A friend recently showed me an old, out-of-print book on fashion history. I did a double take when I saw several pictures of Jean-Philippe Worth dressed in exotic ethnic costumes. Then I recalled how common it was among fashion cognoscenti of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to have collections of historic ethnic textiles; and to dress in them; and to party in them, e.g., "the 1002 Nights Ball" given by Paul Poiret on July 24, 1911 in his Paris house.

The fashion forward of the time were fascinated by ethnic textiles. Mariano Fortuny's collection of ethnic textiles was legendary. The ground had been prepared for the craze for Orientalism which hit Paris in 1909 with the arrival of the Ballets Russes. Understanding the role of fashion in Western culture takes us a long way to understanding the culture itself.

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