Book Talk- The Art of Useless: Fashion, Documentary, and Contemporary China’s Consumer Culture

March 10, 2022

Book Talk- The Art of Useless: Fashion, Documentary, and Contemporary China’s Consumer Culture


10 March 2022, Thu, 10:30 am, HK time|
9 March 2022, Wed, 9:30 pm US Eastern Standard Time

Venue: ZOOM (Online meeting link will be sent upon registration)

Prof. Calvin Hui (College of William & Mary, US)

Prof. Jia Tan (CRS, CUHK)


Conducted in English. All are welcome.
Please register by 8 March 2022


My research focuses on gender, fashion, media, and consumer culture in contemporary China. In this book talk, I present an aspiring Chinese fashion designer Ma Ke and her fashion exhibit Useless (2007). Ma intends to draw attention to the loss of the emotional bond between the maker and the user of clothes in the age of industrialized mass production and consumption. To help fashion recover this lost memory, Ma buries her apparel under dirt for a period of time. When the garment is unearthed, she reasons, it will find itself imbued with the imprint of the time and space of its soil. Presented at Paris Fashion Week in February 2007, Ma’s fashion exhibit Useless was intended to be a critique of modern consumer culture. My analysis then turns to Jia Zhangke’s documentary film Useless (2007), a transmedial dialogue with Ma’s fashion exhibit Useless. What characterizes the Useless documentary is its tripartite structure. Contrary to the second part of the documentary, which focuses on Ma’s middle-class fashion, the first part features a group of laborers in a garment factory in China’s Guangdong Province. These workers produce Ma’s first fashion line, Exception. Linking consumption to production, the director emphasizes the fact that Ma’s fashion is manufactured by the Chinese factory workers. The third part of the documentary turns to the working class in China’s Shanxi Province. With the rise of the market economy, the local tailors cannot compete with factories and department stores. To make a living, some tailors have to work as coal miners; thus, their expertise is rendered useless. In this talk, I argue that Jia’s documentary engagement with Ma’s fashion is double-edged: although he embraces some parts of Useless, he critiques other parts of her design. I demonstrate how the director brings a new level of visual complexity to the designer’s antifashion and anticonsumption gesture through the use of montage.

Calvin Hui is a Class of 1952 Distinguished Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at the College of William & Mary in the United States. His book, titled The Art of Useless: Fashion, Media, and Consumer Culture in Contemporary China, was published by Columbia University Press in 2021.

This event is organized by the Centre for Cultural Studies, Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, CUHK