Differences Between Eastern And Western Fashion. And Why We Dress The Way We Do

We all have our own ways of dressing, our different tastes in fashion and clothes. Every day wear, and formal cultural attire and costumes, come in different styles around the world.

Going to school in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore meant I had opportunities to shop for clothes regularly in three different countries. As a kid, my Chinese-Malaysian mum took me to malls in these cities twice a year during the sales and pointed out clothes she thought looked good on me.

When we're comfortable with what we're wearing, we're confident. Model and businesswoman Heidi Klum | Forces of Nature.

When we’re comfortable with what we’re wearing, we’re confident. Model and businesswoman Heidi Klum | Forces of Nature.

Walking through clothing stores in Asia, we’re bound to see a sea of colourful clothes, be it colourful T-shirts with slogans or traditional sarees and cheongsams. That is, light coloured clothes usually outnumber the darker coloured ones. In Asian cultures, bright colours are auspicious. Red and yellow are symbolic of prosperity for the Chinese, the former signifying progress and the latter earth, farming and growth. During imperial eras, these colours were worn mainly by royalty, those with wealth and power.

Each time my hand brushed over a dark piece of shirt or pair of pants as I wandered stores in Malaysia and Singapore as a teen, my mum remarked, “Why all black? Black, black, black. Looks like you’re going to a funeral.” Death is taboo in several Asian cultures; anything associated with death is met with a blind eye. No surprise my mum hankered me to buy clothes of colour back then. On the other hand, Australians have a penchant for murky coloured clothes: Melburnians can’t seem to get enough of black garments and black is a common colour on the backs of many walking the streets of this city.

It’s not hard to find clothes with patterns on them in Asia. Certain patterns are lucky patterns – for instance batik designs are believed to bring Indonesian children luck. When we shopped together, my mum waved floral and checkered shirts in my face; tomboy me thought they made me look like a girly girl. When I moved back to Melbourne for high school, I was delighted to see “basic clothing” all the rage here (alongside animal prints): plain shirts and singlets on sale all year round at the front of bargain departmental stores like Target.

In comparison to Western dressing, Asian fashion falls on the conservative side. Modest dressing is the norm in some Asian countries because of religious standards that have been around for millions of years, or cultural values, which is the case with me. Plunging necklines and midriff bearing tops are clothing I don’t wear as I don’t see the need to show skin to feel good. In fact, I always feel cold when part of my body is exposed – my arms feel cold when I’m wearing a singlet when it’s 25’C outside. Historically, high necklines and voluminous floor-length dresses were popular with women in the west up until the world wars. Thereafter, exercise and fitness became popular, leading to more body-fitting attire on the market suited to active lifestyles – sparking fashionable trends in skimpy and tight clothing around us today.

There’s not forgetting the cute and kawaii look which never seems to go out of fashion in Japan and Korea. Bright coloured tops, stripy knee length socks and frilly hair accessories makes up a kawaii outfit for the ladies. For the men, bright tops and bottoms does the trick. Alongside fair skin, youthful and wrinkle-free appearances is something many Asians lust after desperately, so naturally some of us are obsessed with kawaii “teeny-bopper” styles. And some Asian girls reckon the kawaii look attracts the guys.

Heidi Klum, spreading the love in dark blue.

Heidi Klum, spreading the love in dark blue.

I’m guilty of dressing kawaii while grocery shopping. I’ve worn fluorescent pink and orange shirts with stars and hearts as I picked up raw, bloody chicken breasts and slimy fish at the supermarket, such shirts I found in the women’s clothes section in Malaysia. More often than not, these childish-looking tops are confined to the kids clothing sections in Australia.

How we dress tends to give away a bit about ourselves. As Lani over at Life, Universe and the Lani wrote, when we move countries, the way we dress may change. If we’re sharp, we might be able to tell which country someone is from judging by what they’re wearing. Right after I moved back to Australia, I had white Australians stop me on the streets asking if I was an international student, and a few of them told me my clothes looked “flamboyant”. Fair enough since more than half of my colourful wardrobe was accumulated whilst living in Malaysia.

The clothes on our back are a choice, a personal choice that says something about us. The clothes on our back are a form of self-expression, part of our identity and who we are as a person in a moment of time. Sometimes our outfits tell the world how we feel. After all, some of us decide what to wear depending on how we feel or pride style over comfort or vice-versa. My typical outfit I wear to get groceries is a light blue T-shirt and jeans (when I’m not in the mood to wear anything kawaii-looking, which is most of the time actually). Catching up with friends, preferably a blue T-shirt and jeans. Going to a fancy dinner, shirt and black-as-night jeans. Does that mean I’m a simple girl who doesn’t care much about following the latest fashion trends? Yes.

Some say the average Australian is laid-back and easy-going looking at what they like to wear. Loose fitting white shirt paired with chino shorts and flip-flops is the popular outfit of choice on a regular summer’s day here. For the longest time, I resisted wearing flip-flops, fearing my aunt’s words “stones, glass, anything can cut your bare toes” held true. Then one day my fancy slippers broke and I caved in, bought a $3 pair with the little money I had – and have worn them for the last three years. Easy as.

The clothes we wear say something about us. So does the way we act.

The clothes we wear say something about us. So does the way we act.

Going back to Lani’s post, sometimes we’re enticed to try and blend different elements of dressing because we want to understand and feel another culture…and think it’s cool. It’s a plausible reason why we see Asians appropriating Western standards of fashion and the other way round these days. Samfoo and jeans are a popular pairing in Asia. Australians are encouragingly more open towards wearing the hijab in a multicultural world.

Some reckon that as we age, our dress sense matures and we’re inclined to wear neutral coloured clothes. Not too sure if that will ever be me. Some time ago I went for a job interview in the corporate world, wearing a fluorescent orange top with ruffles down the chest. Fringe clipped to the side with a massive red butterfly clip. I looked twelve. I got the job.

At the end of the day, looks and what we wear only say so much about each of us.

What’s your favourite every day work/party outfit?

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165 thoughts on “Differences Between Eastern And Western Fashion. And Why We Dress The Way We Do

  1. I hadn’t read this older post of yours, Mabel! I could see how the shopping adventures would vary widely between the cultures. I personally rarely wear all black but interestingly enough tonight I was at a nice restaurant where all servers wore all black. I believe it was their “uniform” although they each wore their own take on it (skirt, dress or pant). I wouldn’t think “this is morbid like a funeral” but that’s because of where I am, in western society. By reading your article here, I found another way to look at it. You’re such a great writer 🙂

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    • That is such an interesting observation that you made at the restaurant you went to. Come to think of it, I think a lot of service or retail staff are required to wear black, or at least black pants as part of their job. I’ve always noticed the servers at McDonalds here in Australia always wear black pants and black shoes.

      Thank you so much for stopping by the older post, Christy. Hugs to you ❤

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