While fashion designers today reach the heights of celebrity status, the roots of the phenomenon lie in fin de siècle intellectual salons in Paris, where fashion first became an autonomous discourse and a vehicle of contemporaneity. As popular haunts for bohemia and artists alike, literary salons favoured the cult of personality and, along with parties, performances and gallery openings provided artists with the opportunity to socialise with peers and potential buyers. This new necessity also reflected a shift in the production and dissemination of art. Its creators were increasingly forced to embrace democratisation and to negotiate their position within mass culture.
Orientalism, and the related appellation orientalist, opens up to a wide debate on Western visions of the East, and has been used as an all-inclusive term to denote ‘the impact upon Western dress and fashions of the clothing and customs of oriental nations across many centuries; Turkish, Indian, Chinese and Japanese fabrics and forms of dress influenced Western ideas of design and construction’. When fashion’s orientalist interpretations are paired with risqué baring of flesh or distorting of the proportions of the body, it creates ambiguous and haunting images of otherness that trespass the loaded terrain between the shameful and the shameless.
While some would argue the format of the freak show never gone away, the scopophilic frisson of the American sideshow, coupled with the message that internal depravity rather than physical disability is the true marker of the ‘freak’ has largely been absent in popular culture since Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ was filmed in 1932.