// by Athena Ng //
Being an Asian consumer of Western fashion often becomes an exercise in identifying what it misrepresents, rather than represents.
In the realm of fast fashion, oriental portrayals of fashion have been reduced to bastardised cheongsams in gaudy colours and shockingly-high thigh slits. In the realm of high fashion, the standard of oriental beauty is hyper-exoticised and one-dimensional, despite few Chinese people considering Western supermodels Liu Wen or Xiao Wen Ju as conventionally beautiful. Adding to this, social media in the East and West has developed in analogous but ultimately parallel veins, making it even harder to pinpoint what Chinese standards of fashion, style, or beauty are like. However, one Chinese mega-celebrity has been opening such a dialogue in recent years. Fan Bingbing’s style and image have arguably uprooted the anglicised portrayals of oriental aesthetics, and are steadily introducing harmony between what the West thinks the Asian beauty ideal is, and what it actually is.
Fan Bingbing is a mainland Chinese actress, businesswoman, philanthropist, and all-round mega celebrity, boasting around 62 million followers on Weibo. She has been #1 on the Forbes China Celebrity 100 for four years running, with a supposed pre-tax income of RMB 300 million (around 34.6 million pounds). As for her style credentials, in 2011 she scored what is affectionately known as the “Grand Slam” in Chinese fashion, gracing the covers of China’s top five fashion magazines: Vogue, Elle, Harpers Bazaar, L’Officiel and Marie Claire.
Not bad for a celeb you’ve never heard of.
Her iconic status in the style industry can first be credited to her role in making ethnic fashion relevant in a respectful and culturally sensitive manner. Fan Bingbing first started garnering Western media attention through her series of red carpet appearances, particularly at the Cannes Film Festival and Met Gala. The outfit that started it all was arguably the bold “Dragon Robe” (pictured below) she donned in the 63rd Cannes Film Festival back in 2010. Given that the only kind of oriental fashion the majority of the Western world was acquainted with were, as mentioned, bastardised cheongsams and vague patterns of waves and dragons, this was actually a very smart move on Fan’s part to introduce a dialogue on what ethnic fashion is, and the correct way to portray it.
The “Dragon Robe” was co-designed by Chinese designer Laurence Hsu and Fan herself, featuring two prowling dragons and crashing waves. The robe was actually inspired by the “Imperial Dragon Robe” worn by the Emperor Qianlong during the Qing Dynasty. The importance of contextual awareness in the artistic process, and the inherent power and grandeur imbued in the dress itself was a message to the Western world that oriental motifs should be treated with great respect, not something to be worn to your graduation prom or next sushi date at Tao. If you are interested in seeing the famed robe yourself, it was acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and can be found on display there.
These efforts were sustained in subsequent red carpet appearances. The next outfit worth mentioning is the “Four Beauties Robe” (pictured below), worn at the 65th Cannes Film Festival. Designed by her friend Christopher Bu, it was decorated in an ornamental way that resembled patterns on porcelain vases. More significantly, it was meant to be a visual storyboard about the “Four Beauties of Ancient China”, a popular folklore tale. She collaborated with Christopher Bu again in her 2015 Met Gala appearance, donning an intricate emerald cape that was again inspired by royal robes and The Forbidden City. The embroidery itself was reflective of the classic architectural style of the Qing Dynasty.
Again, context is everything when we consider interpretations of ethnic wear and patterns, and what was particularly significant about that appearance was that the 2015 Met Gala was themed “China: Through the Looking Glass”. I hope you could appreciate the great anxiety I had, as I anticipated how the overwhelmingly white guest list was to interpret the theme. And I urge you to consider how any Asian audience (especially those of the Chinese race) would have felt seeing the guests either completely ignore the theme or misinterpret it to the point of theatricality. Besides the obvious dragon embroidery and floral clichés (none of which were actually produced by Chinese designers), the likes of Rita Ora and Irina Shayk came in hyper-sexualised cheongsams, and Karolina Kurkova came in something that looked like a very badly-designed kimono (not the Japanese kind, the fetish-wear kind). In fact, only two celebrities wore clothes produced by Chinese designers at the event: Fan Bingbing (Christopher Bu) and Rihanna (Guo Pei). Therefore, this only bolsters the starlet’s central role in portraying – albeit to an uncaring Western audience – ethnic wear in a sensitive and sensible manner, and ultimately, standing against Hollywood’s complicity in distorting Chinese culture.
However, Fan Bingbing is not content with confining her contributions to Western style institutions to schooling them on sensible cultural interpretations. The most important part about Fan’s entire image is that it is subversive to Western ideas of Chinese and oriental beauty, and serves to defy cultural fetishism.
The importance of contextual awareness in the artistic process, and the inherent power and grandeur imbued in the dress itself was a message to the Western world that oriental motifs should be treated with great respect, not something to be worn to your graduation prom or next sushi date at Tao.
The West has portrayed a very peculiar and specific standard of Chinese, or with an umbrella term, ‘oriental’ beauty, that stands in very stark contrast to actual modern Chinese beauty standards. There is now an incommutability between the Western and Chinese vision of the latter’s beauty standards. The most prominent high fashion models from mainland China – Liu Wen, Sun Fei Fei, Xiao Wen Ju – are arguably chosen to showcase a singular standard of Chinese beauty that has only served to emphasise a certain exoticism, with their monolids, small eyes and a relatively flat facial structure.
However, what is curious is that hardly anybody in mainland China (and arguably in other Asian countries) consider them as conventionally beautiful. A cursory search on Weibo reveals that the most popular celebrities, like Vicky Zhao, Xie Na, Angelababy and Yang Mi, promote a beauty ideal that is very different, and is actually closer aligned to Western beauty standards than we think.
We are therefore in an awkward position because of this gap between Western portrayals of Asian beauty and the Asian portrayal of Asian beauty. This leads to a deeper criticism, that the Western cultural institutions have been complicit in serving a unitary standard that actually alienates said ideal into an ostracised liminal space that is rejected by the East and fetishised by the West. And perhaps this is where we see just exactly how important Fan Bingbing is, as the most prominent Chinese celebrity in the West who looks decidedly nothing like Western fashion’s mis-interpretation of the Chinese woman. Her image and appearance stands in defiance to Western attempts to monopolise beauty ideals. And given that she has gained favour with the upper echelons of the industry, having represented brands like Louis Vuitton, Chopard, Montblanc, and even closed the runway of Stéphane Rolland’s A/W 2012-2013 show, it seems like this institution is starting to take the hint.
So what about the liminal space? Unsurprisingly, Fan Bingbing has offered an answer to that as well. By introducing an alternative Chinese beauty standard, she has brought diversity into this field. Despite pitting Eastern and Western beauty standards against each other, the only point to be made is on the issue on incommutability, and it is not to be misconstrued that Fan Bingbing therefore represents the ‘better’ beauty standard. It is a truism that there is no uniform beauty ideal, and what Fan Bingbing is doing, alongside the aforementioned supermodels, is to demand how long the West, with its one-dimensional portrayal of Chinese beauty and femininity, thinks it can continue to sweep that under the rug.
Fan Bingbing’s contribution to the fashion world cannot be understated. She has brought the spirit of her country and its people to the Western fashion institution and served it some very important messages. It is no wonder that she is known in China not by her formal name but by the honorary title of 范爷 (Fan Ye), or loosely translated as “Sir Fan”/”Master Fan”. The very title speaks of something that runs deeper than respect: it shows deference, and implies that her fans have ascribed to her an almost paternalistic image. She has shouldered a heavy responsibility and has fulfilled it without having to speak a word and, as such, her iconic status is utterly deserved.