FUSIONABLE CHEONGSAM AND THE MÊLÉE OF FASHION [Extract of Chapter 4 of Fusionable Cheongsam]
Christian Huck, 2007
The world mêlée came into the English language via the Old French meslee, itself based on Medieval Latin misculare, ‘to mix’. In Middle English it denoted ‘hand-to-hand combat’, but also ‘cloth made from variegated wool’. It is this double connotation, the colourful mix of fashion on the one hand, and the struggle over the meaning of particular dresses, that Wessieling’s work on the cheongsam brings to the fore. In the cheongsam, tradition fights with modernity, costume with fashion, culture with economy. The male intermingles with the female, the West opposes the East.
The ‘mêlée’ involves a constant movement. Like fashion itself, the cheongsam is never standing still, but constantly incorporating new differences and drawing new distinctions. It is these mixings that Wessieling enables us to see. And like fashion, this mixing never ends – stagnation and homogeneity are the death of fashion. The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, therefore, stresses the difference between mêlée, and other forms of more static mixtures, like the mélange: ‘The mélange, therefore, is not. It happens; it takes place. There is mêlée, crisscrossing, weaving, exchange, sharing, and it is never a single thing, nor is it ever the same’. And so is the cheongsam – ‘crisscrossing, weaving, exchange, sharing, and it is never a single thing, nor is it ever the same’. I will follow Wessieling on her retracing of the ever-changing cheongsam, extricating some of the threads woven into its history. Roland Barthes famously declared that a text is a tissue – a tissue of signs, of words, of citations – and that a theory of the text would have to be a ‘hyphology (hyphos is the tissue and the spider’s web)’. A theory of the tissue, then, has to unravel the spider’s web of signs and citations in which fashion is caught.
Wessieling started her investigation of the cheongsam in Mapping Motifs: An Exploratory Journey through Fashion, Cities and Identities, an exhibition first shown at the AVA Gallery of the University of East London in 2006. Fashion and the city have always been closely related. Cities offer the shopping arcades, the creative environment, and the production complexes without which no fashionable garment could be designed, produced, or purchased. At the same time, cities provide the stage on which the individual negotiates its identity between performance and recognition.