Dressing the part: Today’s fashion and cultural influence

The number of toes on a dragon, the modern evolution of saris, the importance of colour, where khakis came from –Richmond Museum’s latest exhibit Interwoven World (Identity and Fashion) takes guests on a whirlwind fashion history tour. At the end of the short journey, a floor-to-ceiling mirror offers a look at how clothing and where it comes from plays a major role in personal identity.

The exhibit is a snapshot of how different parts of the world have influenced fashion (particularly western fashion) and how the fusion of fashion from one or more cultures speaks to identity and expression. Clothing from China, Japan, South Asia, Central and South America, and North America is represented.

“It is about how our cultures influence each other, the synergy and the overlap,” says Sheila Hill, curator of exhibitions at the Richmond Museum.

Stories behind the clothing

Inside each display window, there is a brief explanation of the garments and accessories. There are modern adaptations of a qipao (Chinese traditional dress), and a centre display of mannequins with different types of saris; some with traditional Indian influence and others with a more contemporary style.

Hill says the topic of fashion and cultural identity is fitting in modern times.

“Each culture has something to offer. Other cultures have appreciated this, taken elements from it and made it their own,” says Hill, who gives the examples of Japanese school uniforms adopting a ‘Mao-styled’ jacket and every day women’s clothing that draws influence from Greek and Persian fashion (a peplum dress and tunic top with harem pants).

Khakis are another example of an intercultural clothing item, originating in India before becoming popular in Europe. In fact, the name of the well-known pants is derived from the Urdu word meaning dust.

At the back of the exhibit is a section where kids can dress up, learn about different textiles and materials and become more aware of the clothes’ ecological footprint.

There is also information about the importance of colour in clothing and how colour has different meanings in different cultures.

“White is truce in many cultures but in Muslim culture it is blue,” says Hill.

In addition to colour, symbols or artwork on a garment have special meaning. A large, red Chinese opera costume hangs on the wall where the number of toes on the dragon symbolizes one’s status in society; the emperor had the most – five.

Traditional Chinese classical opera costume. | Photo by Alison Chiang

Traditional Chinese classical opera costume. | Photo by Alison Chiang

Bringing together fashion and culture

About 17 pieces in the exhibit come from fashion historian Ivan Sayer’s vast collection. Sayers’ love for textiles and fashion goes back 50 years.

Sayers sleeps in the living room of his three bedroom house because his collection of personal artifacts has taken up all available space.

“That shows commitment,” says Sayers about his living arrangements. “I’m quite aggressive; I’m always on the hunt looking for things.”

Sayers says the world of fashion is benefitting from global togetherness and the sharing and adopting of clothing and dress from other cultures that has been going since the beginning of time.

“People who are wearing something from another culture, it should be viewed as compliment. It’s all about the attitude of the person,” says Sayers.

He also says fashion is an extension of our relationship with one another.

“As time goes by, the world is getting smaller and smaller. We have to get along. Show each other respect and admiration. There isn’t a culture that doesn’t have something to be proud of and something to be embarrassed about,” says Sayers.

Interwoven: Identity and Fashion runs until July 2015 at the Richmond Museum www.richmond.ca