Tuesday, October 9

On 1940's Shanghai fashion through Lust, Caution

I had been so wound up to see Ang Lee's Lust, Caution ever since we met the movie's Foley Editor at a bar downtown over the summer who described the film as "the soft porn version of Casablanca."

I did get to see an advanced screening a couple weeks ago at Columbia, and since then I have not been able to stop thinking about the east-meets-west fashion of Shanghainese high society during the Japanese occupation of China and 2nd World War. The garb was at its peak in reflecting the two polarizing political situations of the time that was transforming China - remnants of the last Chinese dynasty which fell three decades years earlier while the country was just a few years shy of the Communist takeover. In between this time, Shanghai was susceptible and open to many Western influences which allowed the city to compete with chic metropolises such as Paris and New York.

The costuming in Lust, Caution lent itself to a mixture of traditional Mandarin gowns (qipao) and Casablanca-esque trench coats and business suits. Women's looks were always accompanied with impeccably applied makeup, gem-incrusted jewelry and perfectly coiffed hair. In my opinion, it's one the most romantic time periods in fashion because it evokes the heartbreaking realities of the bourgeois Chinese during the war. Men and women rarely showed emotion, bit their tongues when making sacrifices, knew their roles and were always "put together," but on the sidelines, clandestinely experimented and discovered their sexual identity and power (or whatever it was that was being repressed) in the throes of the utter political turmoil of war.

That is usually the context of films depicting this time period anyway, and watching these epic stories unfold on the screen is the main reason my heart gushes over the costuming. I do not feel the same by just looking at photos. My love for the fashion of this era is derived directly from the dramatic narratives and sagas, and also the fact that my grandparents were students in China (as the protagonists were in Lust, Caution) during the Japanese occupation. Teased with crumbling photographs and oral histories lost in translation from Mandarin to English, I am always thirsty for the romanticized version of my grandparent's young adult lives through the eye of not only a historian or documentarian but of an artist and storyteller.

I didn't notice this while watching the film, but if you watch the trailer, the color concept is a cool palette running consistently throughout the movie. And traditional qipao, while quite often tailored in vibrant fabrics, were at most a faded sage or dark blue in the film, communicating an ominous fear prevalent for even the rich and powerful during this time. Warm notes of bright fuschias and deep reds hinting at the intense but short-lived passion between the main characters revealed itself in fleeting splashes here and there of small decorative details: flowers, textiles, wall colors, accessories, lipstick and nail polish.

How amazing it would've been to work on the costume design or art direction of this film!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:26 AM

    Alice how true...and how beautifully described!

    I too saw the movie and haven't been able to stop thinking about many aspects of it - none more so than the fashion. What a tragically beautiful period to live in. I would love to know where the stunning green trench coat can be found.