The Seductions of Imperialism

Imperialism, which in the modern usage of the term usually involves influence on another country or culture but not direct colonial control, can have a powerful effect on the clothing of the subject culture. The effect is usually voluntary (as opposed to the actual imposition of new forms of dress by missionaries and colonial administrators), but it can be seen as a form of cultural coercion in which voluntarism is compromised. The effects can take a wide range of forms.

In Japan during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the government energetically promoted modernization as a way of strengthening the country, with a twofold goal: to prevent Japan's being taken over as a colony by any European power, and to prepare Japan to compete on equal terms with Europe as a colonial power itself. The effort to emulate the strength of the West included a promotion of beef-eating (formerly nearly unknown in Japan) and a wholesale adoption of Western-style clothing, at least by urban elites.

In China at the end of the nineteenth century, a deliberate effort was made to design a new-style military and school uniform that would be "modern" but not too "Western." The result was an early version of the Sun Yat-sen suit (later to be known in the West as the Mao Zedong suit), based on the Prussian military uniform but with a collar derived from that of the traditional Chinese long gown.

A third example, one so ubiquitous as to be part of the common wisdom about the modern world, has been the worldwide spread of sartorial markers of Western popular culture: the T-shirt, jeans, and running shoes. No one has forced any teenager in the Third World to wear these garments; almost no one (short of fanatical religious dictatorships such as the Taliban in Afghanistan) has succeeded in preventing them from doing so. Denounced by nationalists and cultural conservatives as "cultural imperialism," the trend nevertheless seems irreversible.

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