The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion
(Duke University Press Books, November 2010)
The release of Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s latest study on fashion and culture, The Beautiful Generation, coincided with the recent Chinese New Year, an event that exemplified issues addressed in her book. The holiday was celebrated throughout China (indeed, worldwide), and yet halfway across the globe it inspired something closer to panic in a small demographic in New York. Many garment factories in China were closed for the celebration, which fell during the fashion industry’s most chaotic period: the weeks leading up to Fashion Week, when designers’ collections are presented to the world. That a significant number of garments consequently didn’t arrive for the shows illustrates not only the global character of the fashion industry, but also the intricate relationship between garment production in the East and design production in the West.
Central to The Beautiful Generation’s investigation is the enormous divide, both symbolic and physical, that exists in the fashion industry between the designer and the manufacturer. Tu addresses this separation on two fronts, the first largely ethnographic, and the second reliant on modes of visual analysis. The text alternates between interview excerpts and copious background information on the fashion industry, and she eloquently dispels any lingering illusions we may have about the equity of the rag trade. Her primary concern, however, is with the relationships formed between Asian-American designers and the New York-based immigrant garment workers who manufacture their designs (she titles this framework an “architecture of intimacy”). This social structure stands in stark contrast to the majority of design-manufacture relationships that are typically characterized by their social, symbolic, and physical distance.
Tu’s analyses of these relationships are grounded in her interviews with designers and manufacturers, as are her theoretical postulations on the industry. Invoking Marx’s theory that all commodities are made through the masking of social relationships as objective relationships, she argues that, in the case of many Asian-American designers, any such objective nature in the designer-manufacturer relation is stripped away. As a result, the boundaries between design and construction become less distinct, revealing a close rapport between the designer and the manufacturer. While the interview excerpts do not provide a concrete reason for this unique bond, they do present an image of the complexities inherent in these relationships. The Vietnamese-American designer Thuy Diep recounts how her designs were frequently revised and guided by her Chinese patternmaker, and she describes their working relationship (including the unsolicited design revisions) in terms of a mother-daughter dynamic. Despite the fact that the patternmaker was Diep’s paid employee, their alliance bore witness to the reprioritization of social concerns over those economic.
As Tu launches into her second major focus—the concepts of “Asianness” and the 1990s “Asian chic” trend—the interpretation of fashion imagery (primarily advertisements and magazine editorials) becomes her primary source of study. In comparison with her interviews, which have a definitiveness that allows her to treat them as case studies, fashion imagery proves to be problematic as a basis for analysis, since its abstract nature becomes only more conceptual with further theorizing.
The Beautiful Generation relies on numerous sociological and critical studies to support Tu’s claim that it is not an actual garment or item that creates a trend (or stereotype), but the written and visual discourses surrounding it that ultimately form such perceptions as “Asianness” and “Asian chic” (and “hipster” or “preppy” for that matter). Tu concludes that, by commodifying Asia and thereby rendering it less threatening, the emergence of “Asian chic” offered a therapeutic aesthetic for Westerners’ anxiety in the face of the East-West manufacturing competition. This makes for some fascinating insights, but her theory ultimately proves unsound. While the “Asian chic” trend may have addressed the social and political atmosphere of the time, the reliance of Tu’s assessment on fashion imagery alone undermines her efforts: what of television, film, art, and non-fashion advertising? Fashion imagery is far from the only visual media that would have betrayed a threatened Western consciousness. Elsewhere in the chapter, Tu describes “Asian chic” in general terms as the “expression of vague cultural anxieties,” and this is perhaps the closest we can get to a conclusive explanation for the trend. Fashion can and does reflect the zeitgeist of a society or culture, but not in such definite terms. Moreover, Tu’s conclusion seems to disregard the fact that fashion is a business first and foremost, constantly in search of new material and imagery, and that the primary concern of those involved (be they designer, advertiser, or patternmaker) is to generate revenue, and not to make statements.
Tu’s prioritization of the creative, meaning-bearing aspects of fashion over those related to business and money is exemplified by her semiotic analysis of the designer Vivienne Tam’s 1994 collection “Fashion Mao,” which constitutes one of the most engaging sections of the book. Tam collaborated with Chinese artist Zhang Hongtu on a series of Western-style garments cut from fabric printed with multicolored versions of Mao’s iconic portrait. Tu insists that despite the commercialization of the Chinese cultural icon—for many, a truly charged image—the collection demands a historical perspective. Through proliferation alone, however, Mao’s image has lost much of its original meaning, gaining the same pop cultural status as Warhol’s portraits (of which his is included) as it becomes untethered from its historical context.
One of the more interesting points in Tu’s discussion on the aesthetic production of fashion is her reference to the anthropologist Arjun Appardurai’s theory of the “cultural economy of distance,” though it also illustrates the limitation of her approach. Appardurai’s theory supports Tu’s claim about Asian chic, but it also complicates it. He states that consuming exotic, desirable goods in fact distances the consumer from the culture he or she is supposedly consuming. By Tu’s postulation, wearing “Asian Chic” clothing and absorbing its imagery in magazines represents this consumption, and allowed Westerners to simultaneously separate themselves from and consume a culture that presented a threat. However, it is in the nature of fashion to engender in its consumers a sense of distance from the product consumed by offering visions of unattainable fantasies (much like the Western advertisements Tu describes in her book that portray idyllic and entirely fictive depictions of “Asian” life). Fashion’s visual discourses, like the consumption of exotic goods as argued by Appardurai, create a certain amount of distance between the consumer and the product, and this is essential to its appeal. One might say that in fashion, everything is exotic, and that no matter which culture is being exploited in a Vogue editorial, the same system of distancing is at work.