Saturday, 16 April 2016

Shanghai Women - 1920s and 30s

Love Lane in central George Town is so called, they say, because in former times it was the district in which Chinese businessmen were inclined to keep their mistresses. Today it is a fashionable street of terraced ‘link’ houses full of boutiques, tea houses and coffee shops, many with a nostalgic theme invoking the romance of this former era. The present author is staying in a cheap hotel just around the corner and not far from the Sunrise Sweetheart CafĂ©, a venue famous for ladies of easy virtue. It is in many of these shops and cafes on Love Lane - such as the very commodious number 41, the entrance of which is pictured below - that one can find reproductions of posters, advertisements and calendars from the golden era of Shanghai fashion, the 1920s and 30s – Chinese nostalgia. This ‘Out of Phase’ post is accordingly dedicated to the same. George Town is not all Chinese temples.

It was the fashion designers of Shanghai who transformed female attire and the Chinese female image under the Chinese nationalist Republic during the 1920s and 30s. After the turmoil of the revolution in the 1940s these same designers shifted to Hong Kong and Singapore and other outposts of Chinese culture, such as George Town, but by then the transformation they started had been complete. The attire of the Chinese woman had been changed forever. Chinese women were brought into modernity. The communists tended to regard the new fashions as ‘Western imperialism’ and, ironically, female attire after the revolution reverted to older, utilitarian, and hence more conservative styles. This regression into dowdiness reached its peak during the catastrophic Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s. In more recent times, the increasingly open policies of the People's Republic have re-embraced the fashion revolution of the early XXth century, which is to say they have rediscovered style and good taste and the great sartorial revolution of the 1920s and 30s is at last widely acknowledged in mainland China.

At the centre of the Shanghai style is the garment called the cheongsam. This is a single-piece, tight-fitting full-body dress that became the characteristic garment of the modern Chinese woman. Contrary to claims that it was an importation of Western styles, its roots are in older Chinese garments and so is a continuation, or a modern adaptation, of distinctly Chinese traditions. The genius of the Shanghai design houses was to create a modern garment that is as Chinese as it is modern. Either way, the Moaists frowned upon it as bourgeois while, conversely, it has been a symbol of the anti-communist pro-capitalist Chinese, a badge of modernity and liberation. Here is a picture of the typical modern cheongsam:

Here is a picture of traditional women's attire - the forerunner to the modern cheongsam - from the period immediately before the Shanghai design houses reinvented the garment in its modern form:   

As still prevails in Islamic attire, the traditional Chinese garment was designed to completely obscure the female form and allowed no naked skin to be visible at all. The modern cheongsam, in contrast, is tighter fitting, accentuates the waist, makes a virtue of the feminine form, celebrating female beauty, and shows bare arms. The original Shanghai cheongsam is full length and goes down to the feet; later versions became knee length or three-quarter length.

The liberation of the female form from the dowdy sacks of past styles was then embraced and celebrated in Chinese popular culture. Women in the cheongsam began to appear in advertising and in items of popular visual culture such as wall calendars. Some examples:

Images from that golden era - China in the 1920s and 30s - are now highly collectible and are regarded as the finest fruits of early Chinese modernity. The blossoming of China, later interupted by the Moaist revolution, is on display in these images. They show the Chinese creating their own distinctive modernity. A similar blossoming occured in Japan too. These were closed societies, long insulated from modernity. Then - often with trauma and upheaval - they belatedly decided to embrace modernity on their own terms. This, finally, is what such images as these are really about. They are not just 'nostalgia' and even less are they 'soft porn'. They are a record of how the oriental genius came to terms with the realities of the modern mode, and even more so, confidently set out to forge a modernity of its own. 

There are many modernities. In some cases it is a mode imposed by European civilization upon others. The Chinese, like the Japanese, were never going to be content to receive modernity passively like that. After resisting modernity for a long while, when they finally opened their societies to the new modern world they were determined to do so in their own way, with their own aesthetic values. They were never going to be mere imitators. They were going to appropriate and transform. Insofar as these images show a Westernized sensibility, it has been appropriated and transformed.

Below readers can find a selection of pictures from the Shanghai golden era - advertising posters, calander girls, erotica - images that adorn the shops and tea houses of George Town, setting the high-point and standard of modern style in Chinese women's attire and conventions of beauty.

It is worth adding here that the Chinese (Asians in general) continue to have fine taste and that Asian women are undoubtedly among the best dressed in the world. This has been very noticeable to this present writer on his travels. The Indian/Hindoostani world has been nowhere near as succesful in creating its own modern aesthetic. Hindoo women remain beautiful in traditional attire but on the whole have not made a succesful transition to modern dress. There has been no equivalent to the modern cheongsam in India. (And Indian men, let it be said, are almost uniformly badly dressed, whereas the Asian gentleman's appropriation of the business suit has been entirely succesful.)


Harper McAlpine Black

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