From Costume to Fashion: Visions of Chinese Modernity in Vogue Magazine, 1892–­1943


Articles and images depicting China in the American fashion magazine Vogue demonstrate that the belief in a hierarchical divide between fashionable societies and costumed ones was unstable. Over the years 1892 to 1943, Vogue began to treat China as part of a transnational modern community defined by fashion rather than as a static nation. Such content detailed China’s unique fashion, which encouraged readers to reevaluate whether, in order to modernize, China needed to imitate the US or European powers. The magazine also began to include Chinese perspectives on modernization and gave Chinese writers opportunities to influence American ideas about China.

In 1924, Vogue magazine published an article titled “The Celestial at Home: A Member of the Chinese Aristocracy Shows Her Occidental Cousin How Delightfully the Other Half Lives.” The author, Betty D. Thornley, challenged her American readers to see the world through the perspective of her guest to New York, a Chinese woman from Shanghai named Spring-­Branch. Spring-­Branch wore out-­of-­fashion clothing to New York because, according to her, “so far as real life went, the place didn’t matter . . . one might as well wear out one’s old clothes!” Thornley remarked, “Chinese women had [fashion], then? I had imagined theirs was an unchanging mode.” It was a revelation for her. Thornley also informed Vogue’s American audience that in Shanghai, “bound feet are not the only thing that we expect to find—­and don’t.” But “has Shanghai adopted our shoes? By no means.” She treated Chinese women and American women as friends in the pursuit of their respective fashions.

Articles such as Thornley’s reveal that the contents of Vogue could destabilize American ideas about China. Vogue used fashion and dress as a lens through which elite white Americans could imagine their relationships to the rest of the world. Portrayals of Chinese dress could express differences between China and America—­or bridge them. This paper addresses the process through which Vogue used to dress as a way to gauge China’s modernity from the beginning of the magazine’s publication in 1892 through 1943, when the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed.

Vogue’s depictions of China reveal the evolution of American beliefs about China’s stage of development. In the late nineteenth century, Americans recognized China as one of the world’s oldest civilizations, but not as a modern nation. Imagining China as an ancient but stagnant country, Americans credited Western countries with ending China’s isolation and initiating its modernization. Additionally, America was one among several countries that siphoned economic and political control from the Qing Empire and enforced foreign access to China in the mid-­nineteenth century. Scholars have used the terms “colonialism,” “semi-­colonialism,” and “informal empire” to describe the ways multiple foreign powers sought influence over China (without any one of them taking complete control), or to describe, in the words of historian Kwang-­Ching Liu, “control exercised indirectly for the sake of trade and of missionary enterprises.” At the time of Vogue’s founding, domestic American policies had inhibited the Chinese presence in the US. The Page Law, passed in 1875, ostensibly to prevent prostitutes from entering the country and to discourage the inhumane coolie trade, in practice virtually barred Chinese women from immigrating to the US. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act further limited Chinese immigration by banning the immigration of Chinese laborers, on the premise that they threatened opportunities for white laborers and could not be assimilated.

As a historical source, Vogue provides perspectives on China mediated by feminized interests: domesticity and fashion. The magazine began in 1892, as a society sheet for wealthy Americans. Until the mid-­1900s, many of the people contributing to—­often anonymously—­and designing the magazine were recruited from socialite circles. By 1899, Vogue was available in more than fifty US cities. In 1904 it had a circulation of twenty-­six thousand, but by the time Condé Nast purchased Voguein 1909, its subscribers had dropped to fourteen thousand. Under Nast, Vogue became a semimonthly magazine primarily focused on women’s fashions. In 1914, when Edma Woolman Chase became editor, she formalized the way Vogue reported on fashion, and the magazine’s staff began to produce most of its content. During the interwar years it established itself as one of the major fashion magazines for a wealthy, white, and female American audience.

Figure 1. “Boudoir set of embroidered jacket, skirt and shoes.” Vogue, December 15, 1911, p. 94
Figure 1. “Boudoir set of embroidered jacket, skirt and shoes.” Vogue, December 15, 1911, p. 94

This paper focuses on Vogue’s editorial content, omitting the substantial portions of the magazine that were advertisements in order to examine ideas about China circulating among elite Americans rather than to recreate the Vogue reader’s experience. I focus on fashion in the areas of both dress and beauty to examine the ways in which depictions of clothing, accessories, and cosmetics affected American images of China. In this paper, “fashion” refers to a social process that generates rapid changes in styles in any aspect of culture. To Americans in the late nineteenth century, fashion was generally understood to be a European and American phenomenon, and even in the present day, the belief that Europeans invented fashion remains prevalent. Modernity must also be understood as a construction. In accordance with Frederick Cooper’s assertion that historians studying modernity must examine “how [modernity] is being used and why,” I will demonstrate that the way elite Americans thought of modernity changed over time, in response to the visibility of a class of women in China who seemed to have fashion. I also will illustrate that Vogue’s interest in Chinese attire could destabilize a singular vision of what a modern, civilized country should look like.

Because Americans associated fashion with modernity, they used to dress to gauge other societies’ stages of development. To understand the relationship between fashion and American ideas about China’s evolution, I draw on Kristin L. Hoganson’s arguments about fashion creating communities, outlined in her book Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865–­1920. Hoganson focuses on the consumption practices of “native-­born, white, middle-­class to wealthy women” who had the “financial resources to lavish large sums on their houses, wardrobes, and entertainments.” Such women were Vogue’s target demographic—­and many of the magazine’s writers from the start. Readers also included women with less disposable income who could afford to purchase the magazine as well as ready-­to-­wear clothes. In an argument parallel to that of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Hoganson proposes that American women’s fashion choices were a way for them to create an imaginary transnational community that linked them to aristocratic European circles. This community was Eurocentric in that it upheld the belief that urban centers in America and Europe (New York, Paris) generated the latest fashions; it was imagined in that it was subjective and existed only in the minds of particular Americans.

The flip side of the fashion world was the costumed world. “The fashion-­‘costume’ divide,” Dorothy Ko has stated in her research on foot-­binding, “separated the Europeans from the Chinese not only visually, but also by placing them on disparate locations on a linear time-­line.” Anthropologist Sandra Niessen has argued that fashion is inherently an Orientalist concept; the absence of fashion was one way in which European cultures articulated difference from and domination over Oriental Others. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, non-­European or non-­white American peoples were generally excluded from the Eurocentric fashion community, and, to Americans, Eastern European and Scandinavian ethnicities also lacked fashion. Educated, wealthy people from costumed cultures could become fashionable in American eyes by replicating the same Eurocentric fashion trends; at the same time, costumed cultures were potential sources of inspiration for new fashions. Americans purchased or imitated European fashions (that, in turn, drew inspiration from the foreign dress) because consuming European fashion was symbolic of high socioeconomic class. The act of dressing as a foreign person, with a costume worn to a party, had a somewhat different meaning; it was a way to perform and assert knowledge about foreign cultures.

I will demonstrate in this paper that in the early twentieth century China crossed the fashion–­costume divide in American minds and challenged American ideas about modernity. The way Vogue treated China was unstable and contradictory; its writers both excluded the Chinese from and included them in a modern, fashionable community at different times and in various ways. An examination of how an American fashion magazine characterized China provides insight into unofficial American discourses on China’s modernization process.

National Costume and International Modes: China and the American Fashion System

There were obvious differences in the styles of dress that dominated China and those prevalent in America during the nineteenth century. European and American attire favored garments that could accommodate the contours of the body, with close-­cutting pieces and features such as darts. Western garments could purposely exaggerate body parts with ruffles, corsets, and bustles. Clothing in China tended to be loose, using the entire width of a piece of fabric. These pieces required less shaping, as can be seen in figure 1. The vast majority of Chinese people would have worn hand-­sewn clothing during the years covered by this study. Sewing machines, developed in America beginning in the 1850s, only became popular in China during the Republican era (1912–­49), as Western styles of dress became more common.

The wide garments described above were particularly fascinating to Euro-­Americans, who often treated them as symbols of Chinese culture. White Americans could create hierarchical relationships between themselves and foreign peoples by owning foreign goods, such as garments and accessories from China. Hoganson claims that consumption of foreignness was a means of empowerment for America women, a way to “[participate] in the formal empire of US political control, the informal empire of US commercial power, and the secondhand empire of European imperialism.” Verity Wilson has written specifically on Euro-­American consumption of Chinese dress and has argued that possessing Chinese garments, whether secondhand or manufactured in China for foreign markets, was a way for Euro-­Americans to imagine a connection to China. Euro-­Americans were especially interested in possessing symbols related to the Qing court, as nostalgia for an imaginary, decadent China grew in the face of a real nation that was becoming increasingly modern. Euro-­Americans treated Chinese garments as “tangible evidence of a myth”—­as “texts” that revealed truths about Chinese culture prior to Western influence. In early Vogue articles, China’s role in the American fashion system was as a source of goods, raw materials, and inspiration, but Chinese people were not participants who had fashion.

An examination of how Vogue described Chinese goods in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries shows that the appeal of owning Chinese garments and accessories was found in their nostalgic quality. Some of the earliest mentions in the magazine of Chinese accessories sold in the US were about lotus shoes, made for bound feet. A 1900 edition of the regular column “On Her Dressing Table” encouraged Vogues readers to use lotus shoes as perfume displays:

The little shoes in which [the perfumes] are incased are imported from China, especially for this purpose, and are the actual articles made and worn by the high caste Chinese families . . . the type grows more and rarer each year with the gradually increasing influence of European custom.

The text contrasts “European custom” with a disappearing Chinese example to persuade readers that the shoes would be a worthwhile purchase. The threat of the total disappearance of the shoes would have reminded readers that as Europe’s influence on China grew, such goods would become more difficult to find. Secondhand ownership was also part of the appeal, as it connected American buyers with “high caste” Chinese people. The article also positioned privileged Chinese families as producers of commodities for American women’s boudoirs. A later 1901 article provided photographs of Chinese shoes for sale but described them as “boxes” that were “a perfect imitation of the shoes worn by high caste women in China” (fig. 2). The photographs show two shoe-­and-­perfume sets; the lotus shoe set has a retail price of $1.85, and the other, most likely based on a child’s shoe, sells for only $1.65. To retailers, the exoticness of bound feet justified a higher cost to the customer. Regardless of whether the shoes were used or not, the appeal of lotus shoes lay in their foreign origin, the strangeness of foot-binding, and the impending disappearance of foot-­binding.

Figure 2. “Fancy-­boxed perfumes.” Vogue, December 5, 1901, p. xviii
Figure 2. “Fancy-­boxed perfumes.” Vogue, December 5, 1901, p. xviii

As with lotus shoes, the importance of aristocratic connections and nostalgia are apparent in Vogue’s articulations of the appeal of Chinese clothing. Aside from the use of China-­made fabrics and embroideries, in the 1900s Vogue frequently recommended Chinese robes for loungewear or evening wear. Writers described the robes as secondhand or closely resembling those worn in China. For example, Vogue’s Paris correspondent noted in 1908 that a Mrs. Hart O. Berg, staying at a certain hotel, was “archly beautiful” in her dishabille; she wore a “Mandarin’s best-­go-­to meeting robe in lieu of a bathrobe.” In 1911, Vogue recommended shopping in Chinatown for a “boudoir set” that was, in fact, a Chinese woman’s commonplace combination of a long upper garment and a skirt (see fig. 1). Items looted from Beijing by foreign troops during the suppression of the Boxer Uprising (1900–­1901) appeared in one 1907 article on places to shop in Paris. The author described the garments as “imperial robes,” although it is unclear what criteria he or she was using to identify them. For Euro-­Americans, the desecration of the Forbidden City after the suppression of the Boxers led to the dispelling of ideas about fantastically wealthy Qing monarchs: the Forbidden City appeared to be in a state of decay. The apparent decline of China and the sale of looted Chinese robes in the world’s fashion capital served to reaffirm the value of the country’s looted goods as pieces of a receding, untouched China. For those who could not afford such loot in Paris, a 1910 “Smart Fashions for Limited Incomes” column told readers that one could purchase a Chinese robe for thirty-­five dollars at an Asian import store. The author claims, “people who do not know [the coat’s] moderate cost will never suspect that the wearer is not garmented in one of the best Oriental coats,” attesting to the imagined connection between Chinese robes and wealth. The same article suggests that a Chinese robe was a worthwhile item to own because of its timeless beauty—­as a representation of China’s past, it would never go out of fashion in the West.

Drastic changes in American dress that occurred during the early twentieth century can be partially attributed to Euro-­American fashion designers’ use of China and other nations beyond the borders of the Eurocentric fashion world for inspiration. Vogue framed China as contributing aesthetic inspiration to global fashions. A 1916 article, with illustrations of two women and a child wearing Chinese-­inspired outfits, described Chinese skirts from Yunnan Province as having a fashionable silhouette. The magazine’s writer specifies that the forms of the garments, and their decorations, were identical to those of actual garments from Yunnan. Western-­made outfits with straight skirts, made from one piece of fabric, and flared sleeves could provide a silhouette that evoked Chinese inspiration to Americans in the early 1920s. A 1923 report on new fashions introduced in Paris listed China, Brittany, Algeria, Egypt, France, and Indo-­China as influences on French couturiers.

At the same time, the Chinese and other peoples were excluded from wearing the “international modes” that they shaped. The author of the article that called Yunnan’s women’s skirts “in accord with the mode of to-­day” also said, “in all probability [these women of Yunnan] have not varied their costumes in some hundred years.” This exclusion is also apparent in a 1924 shopping feature that highlights an uptown shop where jewelers recycled Chinese jewelry to make “earrings that would shock Peking and delight Paris.” The author notes that Chinese people might sell their property to the store for five dollars, but the store’s modified versions sold to Americans for fifty. In this narrative, China and Chinese people supplied the materials and aesthetics for American fashions, but it was Western, non-­Chinese designers who translated Chinese costumes into fashion. The contributing peoples remained fashion-­less and lacked a criterion for modern status.

Although the general consensus among Vogue’s contributors was that China was beyond the boundaries of the fashion world even into the mid-­1920s, writers’ opinions differed on the degree to which the Chinese were developed or undeveloped relative to Americans. Contradictions concerning China’s civilization appear especially in discussions of foot-­binding. Ko has demonstrated that as early as the fourteenth century, “footbinding was construed as the ultimate sign of China’s uniqueness and Otherness, and has continued to fuel the Euro-­American’s imagination of a mysterious, exotic, and barbaric Orient.” Because bound feet represented Chinese barbarity, the magazine’s writers sometimes invoked foot-­binding to prompt readers to reconsider their stances on the quality of women’s lives in America. In 1902 an editorial concerned with women being banned from higher education commented, “it is a monstrous injustice to propose as a cure for these national tendencies [toward ambition and restlessness] to cripple the girl mentally. And yet we feel so superior when we reflect on the Chinese practice of crippling women’s feet!” Other articles used a more complex approach than invoking bound feet to make a point. Even as early as the 1900s, writers questioned whether the two countries had more in common than Americans assumed by locating the end of foot-­binding as part of a global movement toward women’s emancipation. The anonymous author of a 1904 “Haphazard Jottings” column opposing the idea that motherhood is a woman’s destiny stated, “the girl, all over the world, is emancipated or in the process of emancipation—­even the Chinese women may now grow normal feet.” Just over a year later, Vogue described female infanticide in China, sati in India, and the story of Eve among Christians as comparable forms of “masculine cruelty” against women. These articles reveal that writers identified the oppression of women on both sides of the Pacific. Another “Haphazard Jottings” entry on foot-­binding, from 1905, recognized China’s ability to reform on its own initiative. “There is now progress . . . for the higher education and the greater freedom of the upper classes . . . there are large societies, composed of men, pledged not to permit foot binding in their families,” it stated, not mentioning the efforts of missionaries and other foreigners in China to ban the practice. In contrast to the 1900 article on lotus shoes as perfume holders, which attributed the end of foot-­binding to European influence, the 1905 “Haphazard Jottings” treated the Chinese as possessing the agency to reform without Christian moralizing influence or foreign intervention.

Annie Estelle Paddock’s 1923 article “The Chinese Beauty Doctor,” on Chinese beauty practices, also plays with the idea that China was less developed than America. She brought to readers’ attention that what Americans saw as in fashion could converge with the practices of supposedly primitive cultures. By the time Paddock wrote her article, the idea that a face could be styled with makeup the way a body could be dressed with new fashions had become prevalent among Americans, and visible makeup had become acceptable, a change from Victorian standards that valued a natural appearance. Because of this change in American practices, Paddock claims, “beauty, adorned and perfumed, links the East with the West in a sisterhood of sympathetic understanding.” As a result, “cosmetics are now the basis on which civilization, feminine civilization, is to be judged. By this measure, the women of the Orient are swept by one verbal wave into the tide of the highly civilized.” She notes the irony that white Americans’ beauty practices had become more like Chinese ones that they had disdained as gaudy. Paddock went so far as to tell white American readers that the Chinese woman “was using paint and powder, hair lotions and perfume when our ancestors were limited to the refining influence of bears’ grease and tallow.” American women possessed the dynamism to change their fashions and take to making up their faces, but, coincidentally, had started acting like the Chinese women they saw as less civilized.

The articles discussed above were written in an era of rapidly changing styles of dress in China. By the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, the wide-­hemmed and wide-­sleeved outfit pictured in figure 1 was no longer in favor among wealthy, urban Chinese women; both men and women in Chinese cities had begun to wear more narrow garments. Because imported clothes rarely fit the proportions of Chinese consumers, ready-­to-­wear Western garments (such as dresses and suits) had only limited popularity. Rather than shop in department stores for imported clothes, Chinese people from families with some means could have their clothing tailor-­made in the latest fashions.

But until 1924, only one Vogue article treated China as having fashion itself. The outlying article regarded “militant” Chinese feminists. Its text focuses on the activities of Shen Pai Chen, Chan Chao Han, and Hwang Ma Ying; all three were pictured so that readers could see examples of a “modern Chinese woman.” Shen Pai Chen appears posing in a facsimile car, with an unnamed woman and two children. All four adults wear narrow-­sleeved Chinese tops with tall standing collars. Such garments might have been paired with long pleated skirts to create a fashion-­forward outfit in 1914. The article itself does not comment on the apparent changes in Chinese dress, but the caption for the photograph of Hwang Ma Ying, who was shown from the shoulders up, makes an explicit association between fashion and her political activities, stating, “Hwang Ma Ying, poet and woman of fashion, is a leader of the new movement.” Here again is the idea that Chinese women and American women were involved in similar stages of struggle against oppression. In this article, Vogue acknowledged that at least these revolutionary Chinese women were modern and had fashion.

Although most writers prior to the mid-­1920s treated the Chinese as merely producing goods for international fashion rather than as having it, the examination of Chinese dress could push authors to question ideas about civilization and difference. As I will demonstrate, the appeal of Chinese goods to American consumers became less about owning nostalgic symbols of a past China than about imagining new relationships with fashionable Chinese women.

Chinese Modernity as Seen in Vogue

The concept of Chinese fashion did not reappear in Vogue’s pages until 1924, with Thornley’s article “The Celestial at Home.” Her treatment of Chinese women as fascinated with fashion brought them into the folds of an imagined fashion community that encompassed both China and America. This and other articles that acknowledged Chinese fashion increasingly began to characterize the Chinese as similar to Americans, based on shared interests in fashion, a turning point that coincided with the Asian-­inspired images of beauty upheld by America’s vision of its own Modern Girl. This Asian inspiration is apparent in the caricatures of an American woman and a Chinese woman that accompanied a 1924 article on shopping in Beijing (figs. 3–­4). The captions note that in “Peking or New York—­their ladies look not unlike,” and each illustrated woman wears jewelry from China or from Gaza. Both women have exaggerated slanted eyes, similar noses, and small rouged mouths. According to this article, to be “ultra-­smart” was to dress and look Chinese, and vice versa.