Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race. Sean Metzger. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2014; Pp. 300.
The 2015 theme for the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute exhibition and gala in New York was supposed to be “Chinese Whispers: Tales of the East in Art, Film, and Fashion.” Curator Andrew Bolton explained the construct in Women’s Wear Daily as an homage to the “influence of Chinese aesthetics on designers,” acknowledging that, “what often is created is a virtual China, a mixing of…anachronistic styles, which results in [this] pastiche.” With its evocation of seduction in susurration, fairy and folk “Tales,” and the Far East, the announcement met with enough consternation that the exhibit was rebranded “China: Through the Looking Glass.” The curatorial team cites Edward Said in exhibition copy but makes clear that it “neither discount[s] nor discredit[s]” Orientalism, instead proposing “a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity.” With unabashed commitment to a “virtual China” in the shadow of an economically ascendant China, the exhibition and gala reveal Western style as the anachronistic one.
To unravel this pastiche of power, fantasy, race, and fashion, Sean Metzger offers us an erudite guide in Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race. Chinese Looks provides both the historical underpinnings and theoretical framework to understand the ways that global power and cultural meaning shift along what he calls the “Sino/American interface.” By examining a transnational history of theatre and film through the circulation and consumption of four “looks,” the monograph examines the queue, qipao (or cheongsam), Mao suit, and tuxedo, as racialized and gendered fashions that have come to constitute “Chineseness.” Beginning in the 1870s with yellowface performance and moving through the early 2000s, Metzger mobilizes adornment and attire to index shifting attitudes and policies that have structured US-China relations. His use of the solidus in “Sino/American interface” marks the complex terrain that is both “a boundary and a connection between the world’s current superpowers, a field that enables an articulation of difference as well as a linkage through…mechanisms of global capitalist production” (5).
That difference is articulated through race, gender, and sexuality, and in attending to such differences, Metzger offers the book’s greatest theoretical contribution. Rather than focus on skin as the primary analytic of difference, he considers the “skein of race.” Metzger’s mode of critique builds off of Frantz Fanon’s work on dress and evokes Ian Haney Lopez’s racial fabrication to highlight fashion as an embodied practice that complicates both archive and repertoire. Much work on race oscillates between depth and surface, phenotype or blood and biology, asking us to look (only) skin deep or, to follow Joseph Roach, at the deep skin of racialization. To think through the “skein of race,” then, is to reorient racial surface and surface aesthetics toward a methodology that, according to Metzger, provides “a malleable apparatus for thinking about processes of racialization,” and “emphasizes bodily forms and surfaces but without immediate recourse to residual biologisms that have anchored much racial discourse” (12-13). And, “while a garment, like skin, orients the eye toward the body, clothing involves layers of intertwined and overlapping meanings produced through the psychic and material investments that enable everyday activities” (14). Vestments and the wardrobe present both an archive and repertoire that allows us to “think anew about epistemology and ontology of bodily performance, on both stage and screen” (6), such that the creativity that the Met Costume Institute assumes is the province of Western fashion designers, for Metzger, is actually the provenance of agency for Chinese/Americans on stage, screen, and in everyday life.
In three sections focusing on the queue, qipao, and Mao suit, with the epigraph on the tuxedo, Metzger provides a cultural history of attire, chronicling skeins of race, gender, and sexuality. Each of the sections is made up of two to three chapters that mark the shifting histories and politics around these Chinese looks. Metzger moves adroitly across time and media, primarily film and theatre, but also photography, law, and literature. Like a good (under)garment, the book is well-structured and the case studies hold their own as single chapters. However, there is immense pleasure in seeing both the warp and weft of a look. The section on qipao, in particular, bares the multilayered skein of race, gender and agency, moving from the political possibilities of a pro-capitalist Chinese/American consciousness in Anna May Wong’s qipao, to the commodification of femininity and coloniality in Suzie Wong’s qipao, to the diasporic nostalgia on display in the panoply of qipao in Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, indexing life after empire that is stuck in the ice storm of the Cold War. In terms of singular chapters, his analysis of yellowface performance in nineteenth-century American melodrama, based on archival research and deft analysis of plays, is a significant piece of theatre history, a necessary addition to the legacy of racial impersonation on the American stage. It broadens existing work on yellowface by Krysten R. Moon and Robert G. Lee, by focusing on embodiment through the queue in the evolution of Charles Parsloe’s Chinaman. Metzger’s illumination of yellowface’s skein of race is indispensable given the recalcitrance today of this racist performance practice.
A welcome addition to theatre and performance studies, film studies, Asian American studies, fashion theory, and gender and sexuality studies, Chinese Looks is poised to provide entrée into future conversations about China’s continued rise in geopolitics, the next chapter in the Sino/American interface.
University of Rhode Island