Prêt-à-Preposterous: Taiwan’s Fashion Evolution

Those who know me best, know me to be a fashion-forward, trend-setting, gadfly (comment here). As a devout fashionista, it should surprise no one that I’ve spent a lot of time observing Taiwan’s fashion trends.

With the expansion of globalization and free trade over the last couple decades, fashion has become a bit more uniform around the world. When I first arrived in Taipei, twenty years ago, the Taiwanese were definitely reading from a different fashion script than the rest of the world. It was the period in Taiwan typified by what I call Haute Clown Couture. Taiwanese women were dressing like clowns. No joke. It was not odd to see a woman wearing a puffy and frilly wide-collared white blouse with giant primary color polka dots, and a pair of flared bell-bottom flood pants striped in discordant colors of puce, deep purple, and neon green. The overall effect resembled nothing so much as a colorblind clown.

A favorite memory from that time is of standing at an intersection one evening waiting, with a group of Taiwanese, for the walk light to cross the street. Suddenly a scooter driven by a foreign man screamed to a halt in front of us, and his girlfriend riding pillion whipped out a camera and fired off 4-5 quick pictures of the women around me. The rapid fire flash stunned the women. They gazed out dumbstruck like deer in the headlights. It was a drive-by paparazziing and the poor women had no idea what the was going on. I did. They were dressed in the ridiculous fashion of the day, and the foreigners, undoubtedly on their way back home, wanted to show their friends what was being worn in Taiwan. Of course, they could have simply tried to describe it—but who would have believed them? I smiled my wry little smile and nonchalantly walked across the crosswalk while the women around me struggled to collect themselves. The fashion really was that ridiculous.

While clown couture was at its height, trends in footwear were likewise extraordinary. It was like every shoe manufacturer was dumping their tackiest remainders from the 1970s, along with their failed prototypes, on the Taiwanese market. Shoes were so bizarre that when I had free time in the evenings, I would sometimes head over to the Main Train Station and sit at the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi building, then a popular gathering area, and watch the shoes go by. There were knee-high boots that seemed to have been directly copied from KISS’s stage gear. Tall platform heels with the clunky overall shape of moon boots detailed in the gaudiest ways. Even women wearing conservative lace-up flats managed to find shoes that were in some way bizarre. The trend toward shoes with very wide toes that narrowed to normal dimensions at the heels were a particular favorite. Essentially they were clown shoes—but not so long. It gave the women a retarded Orphan Annie look. Though, when worn with Haute Clown Couture it did complete the ensemble appropriately. There were also the extra-long very pointed shoes that overtime rolled up at the toes, since the last 2 or 3 inches of shoe had no foot in it, giving that timeless Aladdin look. I never got bored in Taipei. There was always a lot to marvel at.

There doesn’t seem to be such a high level of gaudiness in Taiwanese clothing anymore. As a long term resident I struggle to recognize whether Taiwan has changed, or I’ve just gotten used to the weirdness and don’t recognize it anymore. As regards fashion, Taiwanese norms have shifted. A trip to the current favorite hangout for the young and cool, the Hsinyi shopping district around Warner Village, rarely reveals any giggle-worthy ensembles. You could be in Tokyo, New York or Paris. Taipei is just another major center, conversant with world-wide trends, and a part of the fashion world’s conversation.

There are still some small local fashion design shops that go their own way, and champion Taiwan’s traditional embrace of fashions that make you feel a little sad for the wearer. Whipple is one such design shop. They are the current purveyors of the Retarded Orphan Annie look. They built their name on baggy knickers in ugly cuts and colors, paired with blouses that look like the Little Lulu cartoon character accidentally misbuttoned her dress. Even Whipple has toned it down and offers clothing more in line with world norms, perhaps just adding a small misshapen element for accent. It seems that fewer Taiwanese women want to look like that special little cousin who has both oars in the water, but on the same side of the boat.

It’s a bit sad. During the time I’ve been here, Taiwan has increased its global trade relations, and receives a higher proportion of its consumer items from abroad. The advantages are manifold (here), but as uniformity between Taiwan and the West has increased something has been lost. The street scenes are noticeably less colorful. When I first arrived, fashion provided visual proof that you’d landed in a place distinctly different from where you’d left. Was it tacky? Sure. But, it was also unique and fun. I love to face the world with a wry grin, and Taiwanese women kept me smiling. Now when I go out people watching there’s much less to smirk at—I have to be satisfied with just watching the hot girls.