The Fashionable Women of Pan Yuliang

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Self-Portrait (1936), Pan Yuliang via Artnet.com

Pan Yuliang (1895-1977) was a Chinese Modernist known for her female nudes. Although Yuliang’s work is often praised for its lack of clothing, some of her artwork and self-portraits feature feminine fashions from the early to mid-20th century. These images not only display clothing but also reveal two cultures that identified the artist, one of birth and the other of refuge.

Early Life

Yuliang’s life began as an orphan who was sold into sex slavery at the age of 14. She was then ‘bought’ by a general who made her his second wife. The man encouraged her to paint, which lead her to attend the prestigious Shanghai Art School.

Yuliang found success after returning to China, but the nudity in her artwork caused some scandal. She left China in 1937 after the Japanese invasion and sought refuge in Paris. There, she continued to work as an artist until her death in 1977. She left a legacy as a renowned artist whose work continues to garner exhibitions and international auctions.

The Yuliang Beauty

Yuliang’s art was noted by art historian Phyllis Teo as a “flux of transformations where conflicting dichotomies of East and West, tradition and modernity, male chauvinism and emerging feminism co-existed.” Her clothed figures were feminine and were created in an idealized image: well-manicured young women in brightly colored qipao blouses and dresses with heavily applied makeup.

Beauty ideals before Yuliang’s departure from China went from Western-inspired Hollywood actors to the farm workers popularized by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. As Mao gained power, the farmer became both the political and cultural ideal. Bare face, tanned skin, and the utilitarian Zhongshan suit became the new way of adornment for Chinese women, which was meant to deconstruct notions of class, gender, and Western influence.

Yuliang’s Women

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Girl Playing Violin, Pan Yuliang via Artnet.com
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Jeune Femme au Kimono, Pan Yuliang via Artnet.com

“In Girl Playing Violin” (no date), the seated young woman looks upward with a closed smile while holding a violin. The woman has a chin-length hairstyle and lightly applied makeup. She is wearing a Western, billowy white blouse and black ensemble that appears as either a black jumper or sleeveless dress.

“Jeune Femme au Kimono” (no date) also portrays the image of a seated young woman, but she is adorned in Eastern fashions. The woman is wearing a black, embroidered qipao jacket over a sea green, silver-flecked dress. Her hair is curled and pinned, and her face is heavily rouged with over-plucked eyebrows and painted red nails.

Yuliang’s Self-Portraits

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Self-Portrait Dressed in Black (1940), Pan Yuliang via Sothebys.com 

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Window Self-Portrait, Pan Yuliang via Artnet.com

Similar to the figures she created in her artwork, Yuliang also presented an international wardrobe of both Eastern and Western pieces in her self-portraits. Her “Self-Portrait Dressed in Black” (1940) features the artist in a black qipao gown with dragon detail along the shoulders and collar. She styled her hair in a half pinned, bisected style with makeup that evokes a formal or special occasion.

Yuliang’s “Window Self-Portrait” (no date) contrasts the previous piece with a short-sleeved red day dress and a contrasting pointed collar. She accessorized the look with a red pearl necklace and hair styled in victory rolls. The outfit appears in a 1940s Western style, which corresponds with her refuge to France in the late 1930s.

Since there is a lack of information concerning both her self-portraits and her other work, there is no way to make an assumption that she chose to forgo Eastern dress after her asylum to France or vice versa. What can be seen is that Yuliang and her women appear as stylish figures who have power and confidence, no matter the origin of their dress.

An Ao Dai and A Jumpsuit: The Fashions of Dang Tuyet Mai

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The third and final subject of Vietnamese First Ladies Fashion, Đặng Tuyết Mai, was not the wife of a President, but that of a Prime Minister, and later, Vice President. A stylish figure photographed during the Vietnam War, Mai’s clothing choices mirrored the style of another political wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Both chose clean lines in stylish late-1960s and early-1970s silhouettes that complimented their youthful, but confident, beauty.

Early Life

Đặng Tuyết Mai’s was born in 1942 to an academic family in Bac Ninh, and later, Hanoi. In the 1950s, she became one of the first air hostesses of Air Vietnam Airlines. An Air Vietnam stewardess wore an Ao Dai, matching cap, and high heels which honored Vietnam’s heritage while referencing Western fashion.

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Image via hoanghaithuy.wordpress.com

In 1964, she married Vietnam Air Force Chief of Staff Nguyễn Cao Kỳ. Despite his military occupation, Kỳ was known for his penchant for flash. In 1965, the couple was photographed wearing matching military jumpsuits, which was a visual sign of solidarity with military troops. Đặng Tuyết Mai wore her jumpsuit with a chin-length bob, oversized-square eyeglasses, and a leather handbag.

Fashion Sense

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As the Prime Minister’s wife, Đặng Tuyết Mai was photographed wearing both Western and Vietnamese fashions. When in Western attire, she chose elegant eveningwear ensembles, like cap-sleeved ball gowns accented with a hand fan or a sleeveless dress with panels over black trousers. For daywear, she was photographed wearing sophisticated French ensembles that embraced texture and color.

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Image via Life by way of Elle Vietnam

She also wore Aio Dais, which connected her sense of style to national pride. Her ensembles included a beige, pastel floral silk gown and a pink and white piece with a strand of pearls. Her hair was styled in a sweeping bob or bouffant, and her eyes were lined in thick, pointed eyeliner with rose petal lipstick.

As she aged, Mai’s style became expensive with daring flair. She showed more skin in tight-fitting dresses and displayed brightly colored jewels, all while keeping a well-coiffed face and hair. Before her death in 2016, she was photographed looking ageless in a black bikini and gold accessories.

For more on Vietnamese fashion, visit these articles of Madame Nhu and Nam Phuong.

The Nhu Look: The Fashions of Madame Nhu

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Although she was born Trần Lệ Xuân, Madame Nhu was a woman known under many names. She was also called “Tiger Lady” and “Dragon Lady,” which the latter was based on a racist Asian character from the U.S. cartoon, “Terry and the Pirates.” These names were due to her blunt personality and cutting remarks, but also her glamorous appearance.

Nhu was the de-facto First Lady of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963, which was the early years of the Vietnam War. She was a feminist who supported women’s rights, but also a fierce Christian who promoted laws that restricted females. She was protective of her people, but then made scathing statements about Vietnamese Buddhist monks who self-immolated in protest.

The Nhu Life

Nhu was born in 1924 to a wealthy, royal Buddhist family in Vietnam. Her life consisted of rare privilege during the 1920s and 1930s, she took French and ballet lessons and was assisted by several servants.

As a teen, she rebelled against her controlling family by refusing an arranged marriage and dropped out of a prestigious school. In 1943, she married politician and archivist Ngô Đình Nhu. In order to marry, the young bride converted to her husband’s Roman Catholicism and changed her name to Madame Nhu, which went against Vietnamese tradition.

Early in the couple’s marriage, Vietnam fell to Communist power. Nhu was captured and held against her will. She faced harsh and restrictive conditions and was allowed one coat to wear. According to Nhu, the coat was “a very fashionable wasp-waisted number from Paris.”

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The Nhu Law

In 1955, Nhu’s brother-in-law Ngô Đình Diệm became the first President of the Republic of Vietnam. Since Diệm was unmarried, Nhu became the de-facto First Lady. In this role, she was not afraid to voice her opinion about her critics or on American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Nhu’s fierce persona often overshadowed the change she initiated in Vietnam. She developed a female militia and proposed the Family Law in 1958. The Law banned polygamy, gave women the right to joint property ownership, and made divorce difficult to attain. Although the latter would be seen against women’s rights in Western eyes, divorce at that time in Vietnam stigmatized women and could ruin their future.

However, Nhu’s Roman Catholic views drove her to promote laws that also shamed women. She attempted to outlaw padded brassieres, abortion, and called the popular dance “The Twist” an unhealthy activity.

The Nhu Look

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Like many public figures, Madame Nhu had a signature uniform. She wore a modified ao dai (Vietnamese national dress) that was fitted at the bodice with boatneck or Mandarin necklines. Like her statements, her clothing was considered controversial because it accentuated the female form.

Nhu complimented her look with other 1950s trends, including a beehive bouffant, winged eyeliner, and feminine accents like a purse in snakeskin, pointed nails, or pearl jewelry. Madame Nhu’s ultra-feminine look only strengthened her fierce persona, which was a rarity for any First Lady during the mid-twentieth century.

Nam Phuong, The Woman Who Wore Silver Trousers To Meet The Pope

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

Marie-Thérèse Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan was born in the French colony Cochinchina, which is located in a southern portion of modern-day Vietnam. Lan grew up in a wealthy Roman Catholic family and was educated overseas in France (1). In 1934, she ended her schooling in a French convent to marry Emperor Bảo Đai. According to the 1934 The New York Times article “Will Renounce Faith To Wed An Emperor,” this union required her to renounce her faith for her husband’s Buddhism. This pleased Vietnam’s general public, but was at the dismay of the Vatican.  The marriage also required her to change her name to Nam Phương, which translates to “Direction of South.”

During the four days of the marriage ceremony, Phương was described by Time Magazine (2) in, “…A great brocaded Annamite gown, she stepped into an automobile and was driven to the Emperor’s Palace, followed by the Imperial princesses and the blue-turbaned wives of the mandarins…On the fourth day a battalion of mandarins led in musicians and the bearers of the royal insignia. The new Queen, her hair elaborately wound about a tiara encrusted with precious stones…”

Leaving the Emperor 

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

When looking at her life, it appears Phoung and her husband had a strained marriage. By 1947, the Communist takeover of Vietnam caused Phương to take her children to a family home in France, which was bought by her maternal grandmother. Phương then separated from her husband and continued to live in France until she passed away in 1963 (3).

The Empress Goes to Europe 

Aside from her role as wife to the last Emperor of Vietnam, Nam Phương was a fashion influencer who wore both traditional Vietnamese and Western clothing. During her first trip to Europe in 1939, the Empress’ outfits in Paris were noted by The New York Times in the 1939 article, “By Wireless From Paris.” The article explained how her apparel inspired others by stating, “Already some élégantes are adopting trousers and embroidered tunics for evenings; pagoda silhouettes, revers or sleeve forms are also in evidence.”

In the “Footnotes” section of a July 23, 1939 edition of The New York Times, Phương was noted for breaking tradition of wearing an all-black, conservative gown and veil when meeting Pope Pius XII at the Vatican. She wore a “gold, dragon-embroidered tunic, red scarf and gold hat” with a pair of silver trousers.

Orientalism in Fashion 

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

During the time Nam Phương visited Europe, fashion was embracing “exotic” or “orientalist” designs. Orientalism in design and fashion traces to an Eastern idealization created by the West when trade between the two hemispheres introduced silk textiles and new styles of clothing like kimonos and shawls. This interest in Eastern aesthetics was not based in understanding the cultures of Japan, Algeria, or China; rather it was created around a fabrication imagined by the West.

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Image via Manhai (Flickr)

Sources

  1. “Annam Ruler to Wed Commoner 20 March; Daughter of Wealthy Cochin-China Family Will Be Bride of Europeanized Emperor”, The New York Times, 9 March 1934, page 21.
  2. “Wedding and Thanks”, Time, 2 April 1934.
  3. “Nam Phuong, Wife of Ex-Annam Ruler”, The New York Times, 17 September 1963.

A Taste For Style: The Innovative Career of Cleopatra Broumand Birrenbach

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Image via CBB413 (Flickr)

Fashion designer Cleopatra Broumand Birrenbach was a woman who made her own opportunities. Today she’s living a quiet life, but during her heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, the likes of Vogue and The New York Times often reported on Birrenbach’s successful womenswear line. Birrenbach was also one of the first Persian fashion designers to find success in Western fashion.

Beginnings

Birrenbach was born into a wealthy family in Iran. At 15, she left the country for Indiana to join her brothers. After graduating high school, the designer attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (1). She then worked for a fashion house but quickly discovered her passion for creating her own line. “I soon realized that I had to follow my dream and told my boss that I would like to start my own business, but did not have the necessary capital to do so,” Birrenbach told Voice of America. “He had a splendid idea and responded: I will fire you so that you can start your business with the unemployment money.”

Fashion had always been a prominent feature in Birrenbach’s life. In the Voice of America interview, the designer recalled her early intention to dress the world. “Already at age eight, I asked my mother if I could attend a special school to learn how to design and make clothes. I intended to be the next Christian Dior.”

 Rise

When beginning her career in the 1960s, the designer gained access to one of the largest department stores in the New York City, Bergdorf Goodman. “When they saw my designs, they placed a substantial order. In reality, Bergdorf Goodman was my first investor. From then on, all went very well…,” Birrenbach recalled. The designer’s relationship with Bergdorf Goodman was so strong that her designs were featured in the store’s windows.

As her name grew in the industry, Birrenbach developed a reputation for her “East Meets West” aesthetic. Her first design inspiration was based on her father’s 150 year old abba, but she then transitioned to a 1970s bohemian aesthetic, and later, a broad-shouldered 1980s silhouette.

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“The American Eagle with Silk Lame Skirt by Cleopatra” Image via CBB413

During the 1970s the designer married Thomas Birrenbach, a German steel executive. Thomas Birrenbach’s occupation led to opportunities to travel the world. While abroad, she developed a number of projects that ranged from being an advisor to the National China Textile Corporation (2) to introducing Western merchandising to the Russian Ministry of Light Industries and Textiles (3). Birrenbach promoted this initiative of Western manufacturing in India, China, and Scotland. Scottish knitting manufacturer Peter Scott lauded Birrenbach for her efforts and stated that she “advanced their industry a decade in technology” (4).

Return

After years of traveling the world, Birrenbach returned to the United States to relaunch her fashion design career. Her designs were sold on New York’s Seventh Avenue and consisted of eveningwear, ready to wear, accessories, and even menswear. She continued her “East Meets West” aesthetic with collections inspired by crescent moons and starbursts (Fall 1983), Marcos Grigorian’s “Earth Work” (Fall 1984), and 16th-century miniature illustrations of Persian writer Ferdowsi’s poetry (Fall 1985). The designer embraced embroidery, quilting, pleating techniques, and digital computer designs, which was considered a new innovation (6).

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Image via CBB413 (Flickr)

Alongside her fashion design career, Birrenbach entered the food industry. She was one of the first to create coffee associated with a high-end name and sell it in major speciality stores.

Legacy

Cleopatra Broumand Birrenbach had a natural ability to create her own projects, find her own opportunities, and build an empire that may not have been available otherwise. For more on Birrenbach’s life and career, check out this Voice of America interview and these series of photographs on Flickr.

Sources

(1) “INDIANA AND CLEOPATRA” by Sheryl Fitzgerald, Newsday, New York, February 23, 1984

(2) “INDIANA AND CLEOPATRA” by Sheryl Fitzgerald, Newsday, New York, February 23, 1984

(3) Cleopatra for Moscow and New York” by Oleg Ivanov, First Editor in Chief, Sovietskaja Kultura Newspaper, Moscow, USSR (translation), August 22, 1988.

(4) “Fashion designer girdles the globe” by Gwen Salley-Schoen, The Spokesman-Review Spokane Chronicle, June 2, 1987.

(5) “Looking at the earth, stars and beyond” by Marty Primeau, The Dallas Morning News, August 26, 1984.

(6) “COMPUTER FOR A DESIGNER.” Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), 1985., F4, Biography in Context, EBSCOhost (accessed October 4, 2016).