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

Image via Manhai (Flickr)

This post will discuss the life and fashion influence of Nam Phương, the last empress of Vietnam.

From a French Convent to An Empire

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 

Image via Manhai (Flickr)

When looking at her life, it appears Phoung and her husband had a strained marriage. What are typical marital problems may have been complicated with his multiple marriages or his political alliance with the Japanese during World War II. 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 

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.

Phương’s style moments noted by The New York Times highlights the public interest towards Orientalism. It also also gives credit to an Asian woman, a demographic who was rarely discussed in fashion publications.

The Life of Nam Phương


Image via Manhai (Flickr)

Phương was an educated woman who who challenged religious conventions through her dress. Politics aside, Nam Phương was one fascinating, and beautifully dressed, woman.



  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.

Zitkala-sa and the Politics of Native American Dress


Photography by Joseph T. Keiley (1901)

For months now, the protests of the Dakota Pipeline near Cannonball, North Dakota have swept both US and International news. Occurring near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, groups like the Standing Rock Sioux, other American Indian communities, and their allies have faced cold weather and police aggression to protest the incoming Dakota Pipeline.

The Sioux, an umbrella term for the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota, have a deep history with American oppression and tension. The most recent incident has reminded the US public of past events, like the Wounded Knee Massacre, which resulted in mass killings. It also recalls the colonization of American Indians, which began during the early years of the United States formation. One aspect of this colonization was the way American Indians dressed and adorned themselves.

The Politics of Hair

Before and during the US government’s migration to the West, Native people were encouraged to conform and adopt Western clothing. A popular method for colonization were boarding schools, which sought to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

By targeting Native youth, these schools forced children to speak English, move away from family, and adopt a Western way of life. This included cutting long hair and prohibiting traditional clothing, which are both symbols of Native identity.

These rules were meant to not only change the physical image of the children but also their spirit. They faced physical and mental abuse, alongside shame towards of their cultural heritage. One notable experience is of Zitkala-sa, a Yankton Dakota woman.

As a young girl, Zitkala-sa was sent to the White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana. “I was a wild little girl of seven. Loosely clad in a slip of brown buckskin, and light-footed with a pair of soft moccasins on my feet,” Zitkala-sa recalled in her book, American Indian Stories. “I was as free as the wind that blew my hair, and no less spirited than a bounding deer. These were my mother’s pride, – my wild freedom and overflowing spirits.” Early in her time at the school, she witnessed forced assimilation and experienced it first hand. “I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities.”

The Politics of Zitkala-sa

Photographed by Gertrude Käsebier (1898)
Photographed by Gertrude Käsebier (1898)


As she grew older, Zitkala-sa became a writer and advocate. She also was photographed on numerous occasions wearing both Dakota and Western clothing. In a series of photographs by American photographer Gertrude Käsebier, Zitkala-sa is documented wearing a Western long-sleeved, puff-shouldered dress with her long hair loose. In another, she is wearing a coat, loose layers, and embroidered accessories. This combination of two different cultures reflected her identity. Zitkala-sa identified as a Yankton woman from Dakota territory, but she was also educated in White social mores through her time at the boarding school

In 1926, Zitkala-sa co-founded the National Council of American Indians, an organization that lobbied for Native American rights. In 2010, 70 plus years after her death, she was named an honoree of Women’s History Month by the National Women’s History Project. She is remembered in American history for being, “The first American Indian woman to write her own story without the aid of an editor, interpreter or ethnographer.”

For more information on the current situation at Sitting Rock, visit

War Hero and…Fashion Writer? The Life of Edmonde Charles-Roux

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Fashion writer Edmonde Charles-Roux passed away at the age of 95. A noted author and journalist, Edmonde Charles-Roux lived a life that was full of adventure and fashion.

Charles-Roux was born in 1920 in a Parisian suburb in France. Her life changed dramatically during World War II, as she earned a nursing degree and volunteered in the French Foreign Legion as an ambulance driver. After being wounded during an aerial bombardment, she joined the French Resistance. She was later awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor for her work.

As the war ended, Charles-Roux became attached to the newly created fashion magazine, Elle. In 1948 she transitioned as a writer for Vogue Paris and by 1954 she was appointed as the editor in chief. Charles-Roux thrived in this position and is remembered for widening the publication’s cultural coverage. She is now cemented in fashion history for promoting the careers of many up-and-coming designers, like Yves Saint-Laurent and Emanuel Ungaro. She also included works by writers like Violette Leduc and photographs by Irving Penn and Guy Bourdin.

However, in 1966 Charles-Roux was dismissed from Vogue Paris. Although there was not any specific reasoning for the dismissal, Charles-Roux and many others believe that it was due to a cover she was planning for an upcoming issue. The photograph featured model of the moment, and Black American, Donyale Luna. Since the publication had never featured a model of African descent, Charles-Roux’s cover choice was shocking and may have lead to her disposal. Instead of using the initially planned cover, the magazine quickly replaced it with a photograph of two white models. Other factors, like Charles-Roux’s focus on cultural topics than fashion trends, may also have been a factor. “They didn’t like the way I was,” she told The New York Times. “For me, fashion has never been frivolous.”

Months after she was dismissed at Vogue Paris, Charles-Roux’s first novel, “To Forget Palermo,” won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. “When I was fired,” she stated in 1966, “I didn’t even know the book had been accepted for publication.”

“Chanel And Her World,” by Edmonde Charles-Roux; Image via Amazon

In 1981 next book, “Chanel: Her Life, Her World — and the Woman Behind the Legend She Herself Created” was published. “Chanel’s famous nostrils flared,” Charles-Roux said about speaking with the designer for the book. “She blew smoke. She would not supply information or photographs. I knew I would have to do it on my own. She would never talk to me again.”

Charles-Roux’s life was a constant theme of bravery and social justice, even when she didn’t understand the impact. Today, fifty years later after her dismissal, non-white models on magazine covers are still a rarity. It appears the fashion world still has a lot to learn.

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

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.


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.”


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).


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.


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.


(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).