Made in China

In these modern times of off-shored manufacturing, most of our fashions are made in China. The wages are lower there, with less worker protections meaning that here in Australia (and other Western countries) we can benefit from the reductions in retail price and have more of what we want.

Sadly, it’s resulted in a culture that values cheapness over all: quantity, not quality. The term “Made in China” has become a by-word for poorly made, but the factories of China are no different to anywhere else: it’s not that they aren’t capable of making good products, it’s that they’re not being asked to. If the customer wants to pay a lower cost, inevitably the quality will be reduced.

When it comes to vintage fashion there is an idea that “Made in China” means you’re looking at a modern garment – but that’s only half true. The Chinese factories opened up in the early ’90s for mass manufacturing to Western countries, so for most “vintage” with a “MiC” label it will be no older than that, but there were always items made for the tourist market, and those that have survived prove that the Chinese seamstresses and artisans are some of the most highly skilled in the world.

Asian culture has often had a big part to play in influencing Western fashion – you see it in Victorian times through the expansion of the British Empire (Indian culture lending the paisley design, for example) and in the early 20th century it was the Ballets Russes with lush coloured costumes with fabrics borrowed from the exotic East that moved our culture away from the soft pastels of the Edwardians.

If you watch the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries you’ll have noticed how Phryne has a thing for Chinoiserie too: in particular, beautiful hand embroideries.

Here’s a piece from my own collection – a 1920s Chinoise embroidered silk coat. This photo is of Frankie Valentine by Dominic Deacon and is from my book “Style is Eternal”.

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Photo copyright Melbourne University Press.

The cream design is entirely hand embroidered, and would have taken a long time to work – it was expensive then and they’re still sought after now.

Chinoise coat
Chinese embroideries in the ’20s are exceptionally fine and make good collectables too. The crane was a popular symbol, representing longevity and happiness and the peony represents wealth, power and class.

You may recall there were a couple of nice Chinese embroideries in yesterday’s blog post.

You can find more lovely hand embroidery on this nightgown, including a fine satin stitch around all the scallopped edges.

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Although you can find Chinese made nightgowns in the ’30s and ’40s, the tags and rayon jacquard fabric give this one away as being from the ’50s – fashions didn’t change as fast in the tourism end of town. It’s new and unworn – perhaps a souvenir or gift that wasn’t needed once home. I do like when people look after their things for us.

Once you get to the 1960s there’s a positive explosion of Chinese products made for the tourist market – mostly from Hong Kong (which was still a British colony at the time, look out for labels that say something like that) and Shanghai.

Made in China 60s label
Here’s a label from a ’60s cotton dressing gown – there’s that paisley again too.

As well as fine embroideries, the Chinese also produce lovely crochetted items like this summer cardigan.

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crochet label 60s
Here’s the label – apologies for the detail being yellow, that’s instagram’s filters for you. You can tell it’s made for the foreign market because it’s in English as well as Chinese.

Remember all those lovely beaded cardigans and tops you get in the ’50s and ’60s? We can thank the Chinese artisans for those too: here’s a nice example in black (so much work in a heavily beaded piece like this)

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sequin cardigan label

The label from a sequinned cardigan – these were shipped in standard designs and appear under many Western fashion labels.

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3 comments

  1. Thank you for this fabulous post…and for speaking out against the misconception held by many. I try to write about the tailoring of the Chinese Qipao (Cheongsam) from time to time….as I know one day it will become a lost piece of art. If one questions the skillfullness of Chinese tailors then one just has to look at the simple knotted button on a mass produced Cheongsam today. Chinese tailors have been adapting designs as well as tailoring learnt from Western tailoring since probably 1910 and definitely through the 1920s…with the most advance being in 1930s. Sorry for the rant…hope you don’t mind. Have a lovely start to the year and thanks again,
    May
    http://www.walkinginmay.com

  2. You’re welcome May: I’m glad you enjoyed it. Cheongsams are so incredibly well made, I agree that they’re an artform and it would be a pity if we lost those skills.

  3. What a great read Nicole! It really does give some perspective to the Asian involvement in vintage fashion history. Thanks for writing 🙂

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