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UAL Research Online

Selling China: Class, Gender and Orientalism at the Department Store

Cheang, Sarah (2007) Selling China: Class, Gender and Orientalism at the Department Store. Journal of Design History, 20 (1). pp. 1-16. ISSN 09524649

Type of Research: Article
Creators: Cheang, Sarah

This article explores how luxury Chinese items were sold in London department stores between 1890 and 1940, and is the result of a comprehensive survey of the catalogues of Liberty, Whiteley’s, and Debenham and Freebody held at Westminster City Archives and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Previous studies of the department store have looked at issues of gender and class, but where representations of the Orient have been addressed, there has been a tendency to reinscribe a masculinist Orientalist discourse that aligns the Orient with negative tropes of femininity and shopping (Rappaport 2000). My article re-examines this area, taking into account the historical specificity of Sino-British relations, and the socially exclusive nature of some of the Chinese goods being marketed. The article uniquely centres upon the goods that were being sold, rather than focussing on social comment, in order to generate a discussion of shopping and social identities. This work also adds to a growing body of literature that reads London’s West End shopping space as imperial space (Rappaport 2002), where the notion of colonial nostalgia is shown to be especially significant.


In the late nineteenth century, while China was being subjected to various forms of Western imperial expansion, luxury Chinese items such as embroidered robes and carved wood furniture were widely available to British shoppers through the Oriental section of department stores. This article explores how such Chinese things were sold in London department stores between 1890 and 1940, in a survey of the catalogues of Liberty, Whiteley's and Debenham and Freebody. In a re-examination of the way in which theories of Orientalism have been applied to department store histories, the specificity of Sino-British relations during the early twentieth century, and the socially exclusive nature of some of the Chinese goods being marketed, reveals the multivalent role of Chinese products in the generation of a range of British identities. The femininity of the department store context is mapped against notions of the Orient, and notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design, where London's West End shopping space was also imperial space. In particular, the notion of a colonial nostalgia for ‘old China’ becomes especially relevant in the articulation of a dynamic set of British class identities, constructed through the ownership of culturally elite Chinese products.

Official Website: http://jdh.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/20/1/1
Additional Information (Publicly available):

Sarah Cheang's work focuses on cultural exchange between East and West, with a special interest in Chinese material culture and the articulation of gender. My current research centres on two projects, both of which enable me to explore histories of cross-cultural identity, fashion and material culture. The first examines twentieth-century fashions for Chinese things in the West, from garments and hairstyles to wallpapers and Pekingese dogs. The second concerns cultural identity, fashion and corporeality, in a study of ethnic identity, dress and concepts of fashion.

Your affiliations with UAL: Colleges > London College of Fashion
Date: 1 January 2007
Funders: Arts and Humanities Research Council
Digital Object Identifier: 10.1093/jdh/epl038
Related Websites: http://www.fashion.arts.ac.uk/sarah-cheang.htm
Related Websites:
Date Deposited: 02 Dec 2009 21:14
Last Modified: 11 Aug 2014 10:54
Item ID: 1734
URI: https://ualresearchonline.arts.ac.uk/id/eprint/1734

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