Journal Article

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

Sarah Cheang

in Journal of Design History

Published on behalf of Design History Society

Volume 20, issue 1, pages 1-16
Published in print January 2007 | ISSN: 0952-4649
Published online January 2007 | e-ISSN: 1741-7279 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jdh/epl038
Selling China: Class, Gender and Orientalism at the Department Store

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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.

Keywords: cultural nationalism; gendered consumption; nostalgia; second-hand goods; social exclusivity; women

Journal Article.  10431 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Art ; Art Forms ; Industrial and Commercial Art ; Art Styles

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