STYLE APPRECIATION: ANNA MAY WONG
We take a lot of inspiration from legends of our past: culturally, politically, fashion-wise, and sometimes, in rare cases, all of the above.
Those with the capacity for such an inspirational image and storyline for themselves are qualified as Icons. They come in all shapes and sizes, all backgrounds, ethnicities, time periods, and genders. Contrary to common thought, our opinion is that stars don’t live forever. Sometimes they are lost along the way; we forget about them. We take the duty upon ourselves to reignite their flame and their shine, and to continue appreciating and discussing their timeless allure.
Our first instalment goes to Anna May Wong. At a time where Hollywood was still a factory of dreams -in a still very segregated USA- Anna May Wong, an actress originating from Hong Kong, became one of the best dressed women in the world, showing us that fashion can also become a tool for social claim and change. Fashion may easily be misconstrued as a superficial hobby, but Miss Wong is proof of fashion’s unpredictable strength that carries with it the potential for cultural impact.
A child of Chinese immigrants, she grew up in Los Angeles and would sneak into the film studios, as if she knew she would become one of the most watched actresses of her time. Quickly remarked by producers upon the first time seeing her, they knew she would have a successful career. Yet they did not know how short it would be.
Anna May was very vocal about hating certain roles that were generally offered to her: the China Doll, the exotic mistress guided by grudge, the Machiavellian Dragon Lady, the sensual opium-smoking Asian woman… Representation of Asian women in the film industry was extremely degrading and caricatural at the time (and within Asian subcultures, it unfortunately still is), yet her style and engagement outside of the screen was a way for her to truly represent her culture through a modern lens, not dictated by producers or casting agents.
A lot of her garments were inspired by traditional pieces from Chinese culture, such as the qipao. The use of floral patterned silks in western-shaped garments is one of her signature styles alongside the high neck collar (Zhongshan suit, renamed Mao suit in Occident) that she largely popularised in the wardrobe of Hollywood starlets. Making the Asian traditional wardrobe appealing for a western eye was not a simple thing. Magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar featured her intriguing unconventional beauty that questioned the beauty standards of the late twenties. During the span of her career, she will break barriers and show the world that her style and ethnicity is not unconventional and exotic, but actually fairly traditional and lively. She adapted the make-up base of the thirties, with thin arched eyebrows and rich colour lipsticks by adding a thick black eyeliner unveiling her beautiful eyes.
The use of opulent headpieces and hair accessorise is also present in her style, as is her signature half-bang. Anna May Wong created herself an aesthetic very personal and refreshing and will be voted the most well-dressed women in the world by the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York in 1934. Unafraid of showing her ethnic pride through fashion, she will become a style icon in the thirties, being copied by some of the world famous starlets such as her long time friend Marlene Dietrich (they even share the screen in the blockbuster classic Shanghai Express).
Text by Marien Brandon
Images Courtesy of Eugene Robert Richee, Paramount Photos, Criterion Collection