Now, in my humble-yet-flamboyant-faux-fur-clad opinion, China Fashion isn’t always just about the brands and designing fresh fashion tasties, but also about the complications, controversies, technical trifles and (historical) influences that have shaped China’s creative dressing biz anno 2018. Come and sway away with Shanghai: China’s most popular fashion pivot.
(Not the Band. The Book. Though I guess Shanghai for a long time was, in a way, China’s Phil Collins…) In the beginning, there was a Pearl called “Shanghai”, also hailed as the fashion center of China from the late 19th Century onwards. The (we like to think so anyway) worldly China expat scene is divided into two camps: Beijing vs. (no, not “and”; “versus”) Shanghai. Despite my ever-fervent arguments that Beijing is a rougher diamond where edgier designs and their makers are located in the 21st century (as opposed to Shanghai being too polished or slick; I guess I like it rough), I too cannot deny that Shanghai was and still is the fashion capital of the Mainland.
During the Late Qing (1644-1911), China’s fictional literature regularly featured extremely detailed accounts of the characters’ dress and apparel, depicting not only the clothing, but gender, age, social status, national and even racial identities at the same time. So much for fashion being all superficial and la-di-da, ma very dear limited audience. Of course, this multi-layered aspect to clothing is no different from any of their peer societies in the world, true, but the Chinese just continually managed to give it that extra oomph; just that open-toed tad more visually overpowering feel compared to the frugal fashions of the Victorian Age in the West, if you will.
Whereas men had been forced to adopt their Qing rulers’ (Manchurian) clothing game from early on; women still had their own pick of the on-sale-basket. The Qing Dynasty saw a fine feline evolution from its earlier long skirts to a silk and embroidered loose-fitting trousers (worn with two pairs at a time) paired with traditional wide-sleeved jackets. Nevertheless, as the Qing encountered their curtain call; the good women of China (and Shanghai in particular) were ready to raise the fashion drapes. A new dawn, with higher hemlines, beckoned.
It’s the past indulgences that shape the current women’s wardrobe model — from the illusive to the allusive to the scandalous and the mystical. (Quote: Me, myself and I)
Shedding The Shackles
Moving into that allusive, scandalous and superbly sensual 1920s-30s “Shanghai Triad” (starring that superbly controversial Delilah aka Gong Li) era, women are shedding the shackles and bandages of fashion’s Dynasty trends in all shapes and sizes. You may take that quite literally given that footbinding wasn’t outlawed until 1902 and 1912 – and even then this torturous practice in the quest for ultimate beauty and sex appeal continued. Additionally, women had taken to binding their breasts throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties, using skintight vests and had worn these until the early 20th century. “Curvy” was not a word found in the dynastical dictionary. Nevertheless, come the 1920s, the Republic (1912-1949) had long entered the stage, Kuomintang rules overtook tradition and “liberalization” in all of its facets was at the order of the day. The government in 1927 even started up the “Natural Breast Movement” supporting (ironic, I know) the freeing of the bosom as it “deformed the natural body”. Liberalization, indeed.
(On that note, the Delta Pearl was the first in China to be introduced to the Western bra in 1930. Just a little “did-you-know” for the Christmas party season. Bound to be a hit.)
In the Republic’s early days, a high-collared jacket with the one-sided diagonal button-up option, much resembling the traditional Chinese getup, remained a staple in the women’s apparel. Accompanied by a Western-influenced long skirt, you’d be good to go on your daily market run. By the mid-20s, the jacket-blouse gave way to that all-too-well-known, used-and-abused qipao. Morals loosened up and so did fashion, in the way that the traditional Manchurian garment became infused with a daring shot of Western movie star allure and was tailored to suit the wearer’s individual taste. Form-fit, high slit (as opposed to the qipao’s looser fit and long sleeves of the early Twenties), the new upgrade was a significantly more modern and westernized dress. Unfortunately, but tit for tat perhaps, as the updated qipao version was soon rocked by women of all walks in life, the original silk embroidered fabrics were, in the wake of this fashionable westernization, also replaced with cheaper ones.
From Dawn ‘til Dusk
The days of being stuck indoors (due to physical, feet-wise, inabilities) were long gone and the Shanghai woman was putting herself out there. The 1930s saw her flashing the flesh, putting on the high heels, slicking on the lip-rouge and finger-waving the hairstyles. Traditional Chinese conventions were broken and women found themselves free to show off their figures with the help of the tightest-fit-to-date qipao. The Republican dawn for Shanghai meant a dirty-martini-fueled fiesta for all to clasp and run with (okay, I may be slightly exaggerating here, but it just al seemed so very glitz&glam). The 1930s also saw a global rise in clothing production improvements, enabling all levels of societies to emulate their silver screen or poster-pictured heroines.
Days at the racetrack for those with the money, watching the circus acts perform in the city’s French Concession, leisurely strolls around the antique markets or just having a jolly good afternoon tea sesh, 1930s Shanghai had it all. And all in good style. Fashionable men of the day would not set foot out the door without their trusted gentlemen stick and tobacco pipe; another fusions of West and East. To add a splash of status grandeur, a true gentleman could and would also bear the watch dangling from a golden chain. Speaking of accessories, the ladies could indulge in their jewelry boxes stacked with different bracelets, rings, necklaces and hats to match any season and occasion. The vast gallery of billboards and postergirls embodied the pursuit of beauty.
With flamboyance left behind in a time of peace and party, the WWII skirt-suits carried sleek and trimmed lines, yet still managed to accentuate femininity with their cinched-in waists.
Cue grim musical theme. Alas, all good parties must come to an end. Wartime anywhere means rationing, applicable to both the dress sense and the food intake. From January until May of 1932, Shanghai “threw the glove” and found itself on a battlefield facing Japan; during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the city was forced to take off its top hat and bow before Japan after the Battle of Shanghai. The era of Japanese oppression and occupation entered Shanghai in 1937 and a swarthy dusk fell over the once-glistening Pearl. Off came the blush and lipstick, painted on were the silk stockings; the Shanghai wardrobe went from liberalized to chastised. With flamboyance left behind in a time of peace and party, the WWII skirt-suits, as spotted across the West, carried sleek and trimmed lines and still managed to accentuate femininity with their narrow-belt cinched-in waists. I’d dare say they even radiated a more simple form of allure, one which I strongly advise many a celebrity to take note of.
We end this pivotal Part I with the occasional qipao in sight, albeit in a more trimmed down neater version of its prior floral and florid one: A lower collar, shorter sleeves and overall less “décor”. Either way, even in times of conflict, Shanghai expat and local ladies alike made, no: “strutted”, their way through the city’s bombed districts. Upping the streetstyle stakes, alright.
(And before the troops descend on my mailbox like a Manchu shoe on the pavement, I am not trying to trivialize the horrors of what went on in Shanghai during WWII.)
Images: Courtesy of all those unknown China-based street and ad photographers throughout the decades!
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