Shanghai Glamour: New Women 1910s-40s at MOCA

As I said in my review of Front Row: Chinese American Designers , the Museum of Chinese in America was one of the highlights of my recent trip to New York.  Two fashion exhibitions plus an excellent permanent exhibition made for a great morning being immersed in a multi-faceted learning experience.

Even though the museum’s focus is the Chinese  in America, Shanghai Glamour was all about the emergence of the modern woman in Shanghai, China.   After the end of the Opium War in 1842, the British victors were able to dictate the creation of “trade cities” in China.  These cities were made to tolerate a Western presence and were to allow trade with them.  Shanghai was one of the trade cities.  By the 20th century there were large British, American and French populations in the city.  It was an increasingly cosmopolitan place.

The exhibition shows how the women of Shanghai created their own distinctive style of dress, which was based on Chinese traditional dress but incorporated elements of the West.  The look was feminine, but modern.

In my top photo, on the right is a ensemble worn by a Shanghai courtesan in the 1910s.  The pants were cropped to expose a bit of leg, and the geometric pattern was a “foreign” element.  By that, I mean it was not traditionally Chinese.  Also the use of buttons on the jacket was a Western element.  That high collar was called a sycee collar.

The green dress is a 1920s dancing dress.  You can see the influence of 1920s Western dress, but the fitted bodice and high collar are uniquely Chinese.

These two dresses are both qipao, which some would call cheongsam.  The qipao came into being in Shanghai in the 1920s, and by the 1930s it was floor length and well established among the modern women of the city.  The qipao on the right is trimmed with metal-thread embroidery that used traditional Chinese motifs such as the dragon.  The dress on the left is made from a semi-sheer fabric, and would have been worn with a slip beneath.

The blouse and skirt on the right is typical of that of a Shanghai student of the early 1920s.  Picture this on a young woman with bobbed hair.

The qipao in the center of the photo dates from the 1930s, and shows a departure from the traditional cut of the sleeves in that the sleeves are set-in instead of being cut in one piece with the bodice.

The qipao on the left is from the early 1940s and is made from an embroidered silk.

The garment on the right is a 1920s  vest worn over a blouse.  Look carefully to see the art nouveau design of the textile.

The light colored qipao is made from devore velvet on a georgette foundation.

The purple qipao was the latest style in 1932.   What made it so fashionable was the decorative trim that was applied to all the borders.

In the 1940s the qipao returned to calf-length and the sleeves were generally longer.  The embroidery trim on the black qipao uses traditional symbols of prosperity and longevity.

The shoes worn by the Shanghai modern woman were the fashionable shoes of the West.  Foot binding was on its way out, having been outlawed in 1902.  These shoes are not Chinese, but are from the collection at FIT.  Photographs and drawings of the period show the women of Shanghai wearing similar styles.

The Chinese title of this magazine was Xinzhuang tekan, or New Dress Special Issue and it is dated June 1926.  In it are both qipao and styles that are more Westernized.  There does not seem to be any relation with the American or the French Vogue magazines.

The exhibition has more dresses, accessories and items in print, and gives a clear picture of how this modern woman emerged.

Shanghai Glamour is on display until November 3, 2013.  It really is a rare chance to see modern Chinese garments of this era in the US, as the majority of them are from the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, China.

I’m sorry about the photo quality, but the room was dark in order to help protect the textiles.  Click to enlarge for a better view.


Filed under Museums

13 responses to “Shanghai Glamour: New Women 1910s-40s at MOCA

  1. Diana Coleman

    I think my days of going to NY are over…but I love seeing the exhibits from the Met and this one from the Chinese Museum. Beautiful garments.

    Thank you,
    Diana Coleman


  2. Wow your detailed captions are awesome! Thank you! How beautiful are these clothes! And how jealous am I of your NY trip. My niece-in-law has just started her internship with Marc Jacobs/NY. She is at the Webster Apartments, a place for working women/interns/students/businesswomen in NY, either on a visit or living in NY. Check it out!! You could prob stay there next time! Luv you Lizzie, Juliet


  3. Beautiful garments! It’s so interesting to see some of the 20th century styles of the East – it’s a whole different fashion history that isn’t as familiar to me. Thank you so much for sharing!

    And those shoes! I want them all!


  4. So it’s Charles James for the Costume Institute’s exhibit next year, and in new galleries to boot, hooray! Were they listening to you and me? The Brooklyn Museum gave the Met such a fabulous collection of Charles James’ work and I’m glad they’ve decided to show it. I think this exhibit will be a hit! I can’t wait to see the red “Tree” dress again!


  5. Irene

    I’m so glad you could take some pictures! I only brought my phone with me when I went to see Shanghai Glamour and the room was too dark for the camera. I’ve always been fascinated by Asian culture, but only started learning more about China when I married my husband, who is from Shanghai. Fashion is such an amazing tool to learn more about history, and I found this exhibit the perfect example -how the Chinese woman modernized herself and adapted elements from Western fashions into her own style. Last year there was a beautiful exhibition on similar subject at the Japan Society in NYC, “Deco Japan”, about the “moga” (modan gaaru/modern girl), or the Japanese flapper in the 1920s:


  6. Teresa

    Beautiful! It’s so interesting to see the history of Eastern fashion, as it’s not something I’m really familiar with.


  7. Carol

    Thanks for the interesting post. I also loved your commentary on the fashions. I so enjoy your blog, your Southern posts take this Michigan resident back home.


  8. I had no idea this museum even existed! It’s on my must see list next time I am in NYC.


  9. Pingback: Exhibition Journal: Shanghai Glamour | The Vintage Traveler

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