Clothing and body decoration have always served to distinguish, identify and protect members of the human race. Like language, music and art, the clothes we wear mark ethnic, national and geographical distinctions. Colonisation and now globalisation have removed some of the distinctions in daily dress and use of fabrics, but all cultures talk about and write about dress. In the creation of the latest catwalk marvel, the exploitation of technology which oﬀers better, cheaper and more beautiful garments, and in the reproduction and re-use of traditional garments and fabrics, designers, manufacturers and conservators are using language. Like many other facets of life, costume is an area that appears to have been almost destroyed by globalisation yet, unusually but not uniquely, has also been revived by globalisation. As societies become aware of the uniformity brought about by international commerce, they may ﬁnd some way to exploit and emphasise the characteristics that mark them out from others. The top Chinese designers make unashamed use of stereotypically Chinese motifs, to the delight of their international customers. In most parts of the world traditional costume is no longer worn on a day-to-day basis, but lives on in drama, re-enactments, museum displays, cultural and religious ritual, working uniforms and, at its most sublime and vigorous, on the catwalk. Costume and fabric have always been a core element of Chinese society and culture, and it is a ﬁeld that is written and talked about extensively in business, industry and the arts. Translating clothes requires understanding that spans centuries and encompasses a wide range of specialist vocabulary, from engineering, through design and aesthetics to economics. ‘A dress is a dress is a dress’ some people would say, and add proudly that they are not ‘interested in’ clothes. But who cannot be interested in clothes as protection, warmth and a means of identity? The comfortable, washable synthetic fabrics that billions of people wear
have an evolutionary and aesthetic history that mirrors and complements the history of art and of industry. Historic clothes, not only those worn hundreds of years ago, but also those worn quite recently, such as Marilyn Monroe’s dresses and Michael Jackson’s stage costumes, are conserved, catalogued and displayed as important historic artefacts. In greater China it is Zhang Ailing
(Eileen Chang) who has become a focus of attention for her love and analysis of fashion, documented in her novels and articles.