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Bondage in Time: Footbinding and Fashion Theory

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Abstract:

Cultural critics have sought to wrestle fashion away from its exclusive European heritage by redefining it as a dynamic between body and social habitus in which all people at all times partook. Ko states that this theory should not obscure the historical fact that the equation of fashion with Western modernity is centuries-old, and remains the dominant view among the majority of Chinese today. The article explores the terms with which European travellers perceived Chinese dress and bodies from the sixteenth to nineteenth century. Ko shows how the Chinese lack of fashion provided the occasion for Europeans to reflect on, criticize, or celebrate their own devotion to progress. But evidence that the Chinese found European fashion laughable is a reminder that China had its own agenda. A paradox is presented: beauty is more than skin-deep, for it informs treatises on bureaucracy and kinship; yet the meaning of beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. This paradox is poignant in the case of footbinding, which frustrated the foreigner because if could not be reduced to a core of absolute meanings. The foreigner has failed to learn that the meaning of footbinding is always constructed, hence a function of the values of the beholder.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/136270497779754552

Publication date: February 1, 1997

More about this publication?
  • Fashion Theory takes as its starting point a definition of “fashion” as the cultural construction of the embodied identity. The importance of studying the body as a site for the deployment of discourses has been well established in a number of disciplines. Until Fashion Theorys launch in 1997 the dressed body had suffered from a lack of critical analysis. Increasingly scholars have recognized the cultural significance of self-fashioning, including not only clothing but also such body alterations as tattooing and piercing.

    Fashion Theory provides an international and interdisciplinary forum for the rigorous analysis of cultural phenomena. Its peer-reviewed articles range from foot-binding to fashion advertising.
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