From Queen Alexandra to Jillian Mercado: The Changing Views of Physical Disabilities In Fashion

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Before there was Lady Diana, Duchess Kate, and even Elizabeth II, Alexandra of Denmark was considered the top fashion icon of the Commonwealth of England. The Queen of England from 1901 to 1910, Alexandra is remembered in fashion history for her dust-colored, high neck and tightly corseted gowns bejeweled in sparkling baubles. She was a visual break from her mother-in-law Victoria, who favored darkly colored clothing in the English tradition of mourning. However, with all of her beauty and power, Queen Alexandra used her appearance as a way to hide a secret: her physical disabilities.

Beginnings

Born into a Danish royal family, Queen Alexandra became an English princess after her marriage to Edward VII in 1863. She then became Queen in 1901 after the death of her mother-in-law, Queen Victoria. King Edward and Queen Alexandra’s entry into the English throne brought in the Edwardian era, an opulent time in English cultural, technological, and social history.

Queen Alexandra was seen as an influencer within English fashion for her tightly corseted, S-bend gowns that came to be known as ‘Queen Alexandra dresses’ (“Fashion: The queenly figure,” 1939). Much of Queen Alexandra’s evening wear was designed by the House of Redfern, a British fashion house that found success in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In her 2013 academic article, Fashioning Alexandra: A Royal Approach to Style 1863–1910” Dr. Kate Strasdin states that Queen Alexandra was aware of the public attention toward her clothing and as a result, she used fashion to emote an image of femininity and well being. The Queen fit the mold of an English societal woman: she was wealthy, titled, and was dressed by an haute courtier.

According to Strasdin (2013), Queen Alexandra was rumored to have had a tuberculous infection, which was due to a small scar on her neck. This rumor occurred shortly before her marriage to then-Prince Edward, and if proven right, it would have stopped the courtship due to worries of inherited diseases. This fear developed into a habit of her wearing high neck gowns, ribbons, and dog collars to hide her scar (Strasdin, 2013). Although this was an attempt to hide an imperfection, these neck coverings became an evening wear trend in British fashion.

In 1867, the Queen contracted rheumatic fever. This sickness caused impaired hearing and gave her a knee injury that resulted in a walking limp. According to Strasdin (2013), Queen Alexandra used her ornamental evening gowns to steer attention away from her bad hearing. She also altered her evening gowns to reduce a visible curve in her spine. An example is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a curved center back at the bodice that hid her body’s arching shape. Although Queen Alexandra found methods to hide her disabilities, she continued to walk with a limp. This is said to have caused a trend among fashionable women, who copied the Queen’s stroll.

Jillian Mercado

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Although Queen Alexandra went to great lengths to hide her body, there is now a growing presence in the fashion industry that advocates for visibility of disabled persons. One example is seen through the work of American fashion model Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy. Mercado is signed to IMG and has become a figure in fashion in both her modeling and Instagram photographs. Mercado has appeared in major advertisements for brands like Diesel and in singer Beyoncé’s “Formation” merchandise tour.

The stigma against physical disabilities in the fashion has been dubbed by critic Vanessa Friedman as the industry’s ‘newest frontier.’ As more figures like fashion model Jillian Mercado grow in popularity and adapted clothing lines become more available, the preference for ableist bodies may shift. To learn more about fighting the stigma of ableism in fashion, visit MIT’s Open Style Lab.

Resources

Fashion: The queenly figure. (1939, May 01). Vogue, 93, 72-72, 73.

Strasdin, K. (2013). Fashioning Alexandra: A Royal Approach to Style 1863-1910. Costume-The Journal Of The Costume Society47(2), 180-197.

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 artist 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, tan 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)

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 

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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 

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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.

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

 

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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.

 

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.