Chanel’s new take on coolie hats. Photo from http://www.telegraph.co.uk
The world of high fashion headed by perpetual cool dude Karl Lagerfeld blew into town last week for the Chanel Paris-Shanghai fashion extravaganza on the Bund. With China’s past and present as a giant inspiration board for this collection, we expected a lot of luscious red and gold details, Mandarin collars, delicate embroideries and slim waist qipao gowns coming together to evoke Chinese glitz, glamor, and romanticism. The show had all of that, but then out came… the coolie hats. Yep. Coolie hats, which looked more than a little out-of-place when combined with lace camisoles, embroidered jackets and strappy high heels.
Oh, high fashion. As much as we love ogling new creations and keeping up with what’s hot, there are times when we’re confuzzled by the things designers come up with and the cultural influences they choose to be inspired by.
Like these coolie hats. The modest versions worn by many a Chinese laborer are made of straw, light and hardy to protect the mobile wearer from overexposure to sun and rain in the fields. One could argue that taking inspiration from peasant life shows that high fashion isn’t as snotty and exclusive as it’s usually perceived to be. Except, perhaps, for the fact that Chanel’s version is made of cashmere, and we wouldn’t even be able to guess at the prices.
We may want to bring out the firing squad, but Chanel is by no way the first designer house to turn coolie hats into luxury fashion items. In 2007, Dior produced a raffia New Look version for that year’s Autumn/Winter collection, which we think is way funnier/weirder than the ones in the newest Lagerfeld series. Couture coolie hats were also favored by designer Valentina in the 1940s-50s, becoming her signature style – apparently she had them in all shapes and sizes, enough to fill a special exhibit. Now that’s coolie hat dedication.
With this fashion history in mind, it looks like Chanel’s coolie hats aren’t just a one-off thing that will disappear from the high fashion trail anytime soon. At the moment, appropriating coolie hats as a fashion statement seems like the result of a continuing Western Orientalism, embraced by foreign designers with an exotic imagining of the East.
We don’t believe this updated peasant wear could ever be appealing to Shanghai’s new class of discriminating fashionistas, and since the Chanel Paris-Shanghai collection isn’t even available for purchase by the general public, we won’t be seeing cashmere coolie hats on the streets anytime soon. But considering how young and volatile the fashion market is here, we might have to eat our words. If the day comes when designer coolie hats do become hot items, China would have sadly caught up with the rest of the world, where the rich fork out large amounts of money to dress fashionably poor.