The Secrets of the East. Western Fashion and China
The Secrets of the East. Western Fashion and China
April 28, 2017 — October 22, 2017

The Secrets of the East. Western Fashion and China

This new exhibition has been created in conjunction with the Foundation of Alexandre Vassiliev. It is devoted to the Far East and specifically China. It focuses on China because the Chinese culture has always tempted and influenced artists and fashion designers from all countries and throughout time.
The Silk Road that ran from the Chinese Empire to Constantinople carried long caravans which delivered items from China to Europe. They transported the finest silks, ornamentations made of jade, porcelain and other items lacquered and varnished in enamel. Marco Polo, the famous Venetian adventurer, travelled the same path, backwards and forwards, to bring valuable fabrics and spices home. However, it was the Portuguese who were the first to reach China by sea and set up a fortress-colony in Macau in that far away country. They became the major importers of Chinese goods throughout Europe in the middle of the 16th century.
The Dutch established the East India Company of the Netherlands at the beginning of the 17th century which laid the foundation for large imports of Chinese porcelain, furniture, fans and embroidery. This in turn created fertile ground for the creation of a new fashion direction – chinoiserie or the Chinese style. This style manifested itself mostly in interior design at the beginning, including many baroque style palaces such as Charlottenburg in Berlin, Oranienbaum in Petersburg, Aranjuez in Spain, Schoenbrunn in Vienna as well as Rundale here in Latvia. These palaces boasted rooms and halls decorated in the Chinese style with endless porcelain vases, varnished furniture and even wallpaper made of Chinese silk.
This style was at his height in the late 17th century and the first half of the 18th century. This exhibition displays fans from the Rococo period in the chinoiserie style, lacquered boxes to store men’s wigs, powder cases, artificial beauty marks and tobacco pouches with stylized Chinese drawings. Chinese silk was especially widely used in many ways; to sew men's waistcoats and ladies' dresses as well as in the making of shoes.
The arrival of the Empire style diminished interest in China and Chinese styles, but interest in the Far East and China was re-awoken and became fashionable again during the Romantic period of the 19th century – from the 20’s to the 40’s. There were not only cosmetic accessories and traditional fans but also small bottles of perfume and nankin fabric.
In the 19th century many European super states seized the reins of colonies near the sea in China. The seizures included the ports of British Hong Kong, French and British Canton, German Cindao, Russian Port Arthur and Dalniy. All these trade centres encouraged a vast influx of Chinese goods in the western market: Chinese traditional costumes, headwear, parasols, Cantonese fans, Manila shawls, shoes, furniture, porcelain and even small lap dogs were available to buyers around the world.
A passion began for collecting authentic Chinese court and theatrical costumes as well as puppets. It became especially fashionable to smoke opium and to create smoking rooms in bourgeois mansions which contained lacquered Chinese-style furniture. It was also fashionable to wear Chinese robes embroidered with dragons in leisure time.
The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century saw the introduction of another Far Eastern style – this time from Japan. The enthusiastic interest regarding the Land of the Rising Sun led to the opening and development of Japanese trade, following many centuries of seclusion. Collaboration with the West increased! The Japanese style became the major basis for the creation of Art Nouveau in the world.
A new wave of interest around Chinese motifs was caused by Igor Stravinsky’s Nightingale Opera in 1914. The opera was staged by Sergei Diaghilev and featured the outstanding and picturesque costumes of Alexandre Benois. The Art Deco style became very popular following the First World War and it also increased the effect that China had on the world. Shanghai became the city of sins and the epicentre of entertainment and temptation with its unusual architecture, fashion houses, casinos, nightclubs, dancers and opium dens.
Interest in China was vividly manifested in the 20’s by evening dresses embroidered with beads and based on Chinese motifs, Chinese-style handbags and bijouterie with nephrite. Items like this will be exhibited in the exhibition. The peak of this interest was the opera Turandot composed by Giacomo Puccini. It was composed in Italy and was first performed in 1926.
Starting with the 30’s the cinema industry both in Hollywood and Europe began to use Chinese themes in thrillers and detective stories. The Chinese American actress Anna May Wong (3 January 1905 to 2 February 1961) was especially popular within this genre. She was the first Chinese actress to gain worldwide fame and recognition. This was also the time when Shanghai's famous silk costumes – qipao or cheongsam – gained its fame; these dresses became a symbol of the time.
In the 30’s and 40’s there were many Russian immigrants in Harbin and Shanghai; some of them were linked to the world of fashion and beauty. Larisa Andersena, the poet and dancer gained a reputation for her beauty in Shanghai and her costumes, preserved from the Shanghai period, are now in the collection of Alexandre Vassiliev. Another Shanghai beauty was Lidija Vinokurova who owned two fashion houses in this far-off city – Altaj and Femina. The dresses of these fashion houses are also shown in this exhibition. One of the stars of the fashion world of Shanghai was Aleksandra Gramolina, the owner of the Modern Woman Fashion House; she moved to Riga in the 50’s and became Fashion Director of the famous Riga Fashion House. Her dresses can also be seen in this exhibition.
Changes in the state system and the rise to power of Mao Zedong affected the fashion world of the 50’s and 60’s. Chinese silk dresses and straw hats became popular. In the 50’s the USSR imported many goods from China – embroidered purses, sandalwood fans, suede shoes with platform soles, gabardine coats and pyjamas which were produced in the Friendship Factory.
The Chinese fashion theme has endured up to the present time and many fashion designers have drawn inspiration from the Far East. You will see in the exhibition how this inspiration is reflected in their work.  


individual, unguided tour 7€

groups 6€

pupils, students and seniors 5€

guided tour 20€

children under 5 years – free admission