I have been looking forward to seeing the last Merchant/Ivory film ‘The White Countess‘ for a while now. Namely because it has a formidable cast made up of the delightful Redgrave clan and also because it’s set in one of my favourite costume periods – 1930’s Shanghai.
The city that was once known as ‘Paris of the East’ is slowly living up to it’s namesake again but I like to reminisce and think back to those heady times when East and West collided amongst bright lights and glamourous decadence. I seem to have a sick fascination with those pre-war times when everything was still extravagant and care-free – the era of ‘Bright Young Things’.
I conjure up icons like the 1920’s-30’s silent actress Ruan Ling Yu, known as the Marlene Dietrich of Asia who committed suicide at the age of 35. Her expressions, her grace and that inner melancholy, I find very moving. Her very groomed but not showy style is something that I also want to experiment with.
From all of these influences, style wise I have been meaning to venture into my so-called roots and bring that 1930’s dress style into the 21st century. This is difficult however for a Chinese girl to wear a qipao or cheong sam without looking like a waitress on shift at the New World restaurant or something. Du Juan and Lu Yan fare very well here in China Vogue Feb 2006 as does Maggie Cheung in the Wong Kar Wai film ‘In the Mood for Love’. Of course, their whippet thin figures helps a lot! These dresses certainly aren’t made for the curvy girls….
I think the key for me would be to find a qipao that is made of non-traditional fabrics and is a bit surprising. I think the East – West balance is very important and I would probably use that contrast heavily to achieve the right effect (as opposed to looking like I’m off to an Oriental costume party!). My cousin Elizabeth Lau used to make cheong sam dresses in French/English fabrics which are very cute looking, without looking too gimmicky. Shanghai Tang and Vivienne Tam supposedly redress this East-West balance successfully but sometimes I’m not so convinced. Oh well, and so my quest continues to step back in time to this extravagantly decadent period but at the same time remain in the 21st century.