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August 11, 2009

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Can fashion save ethnic culture?

A Disney cartoon introduced the world at large to the fashion of the Miao nationality, but there's a growing debate over how best to preserve the cultural traditions of China's ethnic minorities. Some say modernization will destroy them. In the hills of southwest China, centuries of isolation have led the people of Miao nationality to cultivate a unique culture and dress style that few outsiders would recognize - unless you saw the Disney animated film "Mulan 2."

While ethnologists fret over cultures endangered by the encroachment of modern life, many ethnic skills and motifs are being reinvented and incorporated into global culture - particularly in the field of fashion.

"From 2004 to 2006, I mailed many embroidery pieces of the Miao ethnic minority to my friend Theras Shneider, who was a costume designer for 'Mulan 2,' the Disney animated film based on the eponymous Chinese heroine, and he put the patterns on the heroine's sleeves," says Pan Shouyong, a professor at the Beijing-based Minzu University of China, formerly known as the Central University of Nationalities.

While Disney brought Miao designs to popular culture, haute couture brands were taking them upmarket.

"I remember many designs of the Japanese fashion brand, Issey Miyake, were inspired by the pleated skirts of the Miao people," says Theng Sau Mei, president of the Fashion Designers Society of Singapore.

"I love to use Chinese ethnic flower patterns and openwork cloth in my designs," says Theng. "The casual wear and evening suits I've made are quite popular in Singapore."

They are following a well-trodden catwalk route.

Designer John Galliano, of Christian Dior, once wove a huge Chinese dragon image on one of his creations.

He showed a range of dresses with ethnic embroidery, batiks, tassels and Chinese knots at fashion shows in Paris from 1998 to 2002.

Yves Saint Laurent chose ethnic jacquard weaving, brocade and embroidery to create a brilliant style at the 2004/2005 summer and winter show, says Li Hong, professor with the Museum of Chinese Women and Children (MCWC).

An ethnic clothing exhibition on the sidelines of the 16th World Congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences in Kunming, capital city of southwest China's Yunnan Province, sparked a debate over the best way to preserve traditional dress.

Professor Georg Pfeffer, of the Freie Universitat of Berlin, says modernizing ethnic culture will destroy its originality.

"Traditional clothes should not be kept in museums of big cities. Their hometown should be the only place where people wear them."

But others argue that the catwalk acclaim is breathing new life into disappearing cultures.

"I strongly disagree with his idea," says Yang Yuan, an MCWC researcher.

With the need to wear traditional garments dying out in ethnic areas, the most effective way to protect a costume culture is to adapt it to the modern world, she says.

"Young people in my village don't know how to make a suit now. The only ethnic garment I have was made by my mother when I was a little girl," says Wang Zhifen, 39, of the Yi ethnic minority.

Wang, who works at the Wumayao Anthropological Museum in Kunming, says people only wear traditional costume to celebrate festivals or attend religious ceremonies in her home in Mile County in Honghe Autonomous Prefecture of Hani and the Yi nationalities in Yunnan, home to 25 ethnic groups.

"The clothes of China's 55 ethnic minority groups are unique in terms of their patterns, weaving, embroidering and dyeing techniques and are of great value for academic research," says Yang Yuan.

"Carrying forward the intangible cultural heritage will play a significant role in preserving China's cultural diversity," she says.

Clothing cultures are not meant to be museum specimens or living fossils, says Li Hong, of the MCWC.

They should actively move with fashion trends and tastes.

Style-setters instinctively return to the past for inspiration, particularly to traditional cultures, she says.

Theng, who has taught costume design at the Northeast Normal University in Changchun, capital of Jilin Province, encourages her students to create their own styles.

"Many world-class brands have their products made in China. China has all the clothes-making techniques - what it needs most is design skills," Theng says.

She says Chinese designers have a responsibility to establish unique brands and take them to the world.

Pan agrees. "While keeping the living fossils in the museums, we should also find a good way to revive the centuries-long cultures in everyday life."


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