Kristen Loring Brennan
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Soft power
Guo Pei and the fashioning of matriarchy
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When the Chinese designer, Guo Pei (b. 1967­), catapulted into the world of Parisian haute couture, critics embraced her embellished styles and grand scale of production – a match of materials and labor that seemed possible only in China. They pondered her bold leap over the austerity of the Mao years to the iconography of imperial China. Such romanticism reinvigorated discourses of Orientalism, a cause further amplified by celebrity clients and museum exhibitions. However, the project of disentangling her work from its audiences has obscured a broader issue: Guo Pei’s pivotal role as a woman designing global fashion. This chapter explores Guo Pei’s fascination with two muses, the Qing dynasty Empress Dowager Cixi (1835­–1908) and the contemporary American model, Carmen Dell’Orefice (b. 1931), as an alternative to the femme fatale presented in fashion from the nineteenth century through the present. Rather than portraying the woman as a sexualized commodity or cunning consumer, Guo Pei’s designs visualize power as an amassing of resources and relationships. Coupled with theatrical imagery, her works invert the ephemeral world of fashion’s femme fatale and challenge notions of age and tradition as antiquated. By leveraging dignity and dominance through soft power, Guo Pei offers an image of a woman of means – a matriarch who defines history.

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Threads of globalization

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