The "exotic" is an idea, a perception of some object or motif as being from far away-something different and strange. The exotic appeals because it is perceived as residing at a distance. Fashionable western objects express exoticism through the imitation, adaptation and direct borrowing of silhouettes or garment parts, and textile techniques and patterns from a host of "far away places." The most prevalent type of exoticism in western textiles and dress is known as Orientalism. In the late eighteenth century the term "Orientalism" referred to the British policy in India, including the study of Indian culture to facilitate British administration of their colonies. Orientalism also describes a specific kind of exoticism in paintings using Middle Eastern and North African subjects. In addition, it characterizes the influence of the East, including Asia, on patterns, textiles, ceramics, furniture and building styles. More recently, Edward Said's book Orientalism critiqued western manipulation of oriental imagery in written texts and art. He argued that such borrowing shaped the way the west perceived the orient and thus oppressed people in those regions of the world. Richard Martin, Harold Koda and others have defended orientalism and all cultural borrowing in art and dress saying that it plays a significant role in changing artistic canons within the west and the east.
Primitivism is a second idea associated with exoticism. The current definition of primitivism is the interest of modern artists in tribal art and culture as revealed in their thought and work. Art historians have considered primitive art only since World War II, however, explorers and travelers have returned home with decorative objects from tribal cultures for centuries. Artists at the end of the 19th century, stifled by the salon art of the day, used words like "primitive" and "savage" in an admiring way to describe non-western art which ranged from that of Egypt, the Aztecs, Japan, Persia, India, Java, Cambodia, to Peru. The international expositions in Europe and America in the late 19th century, intended as showcases of western colonial power, displayed people and their cultures. Interest in these people and their art grew among western artists and filtered into their work. Artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Gauguin of the early 20th century eventually adapted elements that became a part of modernism, including abstraction, flattened forms, and subject matter.
Westerners come into contact with the exotic through trade, colonization, recreational travel and the immigration of peoples into the west from exotic lands. Once they have contact with exotic dress, they interact in a myriad of ways. They might copy a textile motif directly or wear an unchanged piece of clothing. They might borrow elements from the garments, like the kimono sleeve, but not address the rest of a kimono. Over time they might integrate the exotic so completely into familiar uses that the influence is disconnected from the exotic context. In other words, the exotic element acculturates into western vernacular dress: the bandana exemplifies the Americanization of an exotic textile.
The themes in this exhibition display Exoticism through a variety of imitations, adaptations and borrowings. Resist textile techniques demonstrate how popular and personal exotic textile practices can become. Objects from and inspired by Africa and the Near East illustrate how orientalism and primitivism can coexist and intertwine. Tourist trade objects demonstrate how traditional motifs often are adapted to western garments, accessories and textile forms. Designer blouses from the late 20th century incorporate the printed structure of scarves built around exotic textile motifs. The popularity of Asian motifs, silhouettes and aesthetics since the 18th century is displayed through textiles, shoes, menswear and women's apparel. The recent history of the now ubiquitous American bandana is shown through two early 19th century examples and an array of contemporary garments and accessories.