Photoshoot: Pre-Disko Nouveaux, July 2012

Daniel and I did a little photoshoot last month before heading to my monthly dance party with Wren, Disko Nouveaux. I had just gotten a new cut at Vidal Sassoon :-)

I haven't had a chance to write much, but I need to get back in the habit! I have so many new projects in the works, and a whirlwind of a fall schedule planned for Dances of Vice. Between show business, cosmetics business, film business, and plans to start a family, I'm not sure how everything is going to work - but I always make time for the things and people I love. Full of optimism and excitement for the future.

I hope everyone is having a marvelous summer!

Carmen Miranda's Ethnic Masquerade in The Gang's All Here (1943), dir. Busby Berkeley

If you're in New York, you have until tomorrow to watch The Gang's All Here (1943), the amazingly over-the-top wartime musical by Busby Berkeley on a movie screen at Film Forum. You will laugh, cry, and burst into applause at the end of each routine because it has the power to transport you to such a wonderful world of surreal beauty.

With every scene, at every party (and there were many), I found myself thinking: I wish I could be at this party! Except… practically everyone in the movie was white. With the exception of Portuguese-born Brazilian performer Carmen Miranda, who, in one "comical" scene of the movie, was actually referred to as a "South American Savage". 

Like most stereotypes of foreign women, the popular press described Miranda in physical herms--as wild, savage, and primitive, like an exotic animal, "enveloped in beads, sawing and wriggling, chattering macaw-like…skewering the audience with a merry, mischievous eye." This primitive, ignorant stereotype of the foreigner who can't speak English is made worse by the few scenes where she's depicted with somewhat of an obsession with money.

Miranda's role was popularized partially as an advertisement for Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy. Hwoever, the 'exotic locales' fantasy contributed to the depiction of "harmonically exploitative relations between the US and Latin American countries." The opening number of the movie portrays American sailors unloading sacks of coffee and colorful fruit from a ship returning from Brazil. The friendships between Miranda and the other female actresses were also meant to translate into an illusion of international, economic and personal harmony between US and Latin America. However, film studios made her Otherness extreme, so that viewers couldn't relate with her. It was even difficult to understand her speech, and many of her songs were sung in nonsense syllables. Without a voice, she was purely an ethnic spectacle. Even more ironically, the language in the scenes where Latin characters were speaking to each other, were not Portuguese or even Spanish--they spoke gibberish.

Miranda played a great role in developing her own character as a parody and understood the advantage of her own ethnic burlesque, and the fantasy is so appealing even sheerly on an aesthetic level. This double masquerade raises many questions about feminine and foreign stereotyping during the wartime era. But as much as I loved this movie, a part that stuck with me is where some of the girls are joking about Miranda's character Dorita, and how she's "up to her clowning again", or something like that. And Miranda rolls her eyes sarcastically, and says, "Yes, clowning…" At that point, I felt it could have been the voice of genuine expression that slipped through her comic burlesque.

Although the film was undeniably racist and reductive of her character, Carmen Miranda's "spectacle of ethnicity" provides the oomph really steals the show, and I loved her performance as burlesque. Interestingly Roberts notes that her image was so popular that fans who perceived themselves as different or "foreign", and identified with her in this way, also mimicked her feminine and ethnic masquerade. Are you starting to see a trend in this blog? Fantasy, race, gender, propaganda, and power...

On a lighter note, if you're a fan of the Tex Avery Red Hot Hiding Hood cartoons, you'll see where the inspiration for Riding Hood's grandma came from! And I loved the music - Alice Faye really blew me away, especially her performance of "No Love, No Nothin'". I love the deep voice sirens of that era, along with Peggy Lee, Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich. I'll end this post with the epic Carmen Miranda performance, "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat". Feel free to leave your comments.

"Baby Love" 1960s Style Editorial in V Magazine

Chinese models Ju Xiao Wen and Wang Xiao, with Japanese model Rila Fukushima, channel one of my favorite bands, The Supremes, in the August 2011 issue of V Magazine. Unfortunately the models don't really show much personality here and don't channel the fun vibe of that culture (imo), but I love the wardrobe, colors and styling (maybe except for those sneakers in the first image.) It's fun to see the proliferation 1950s and 60s American pop culture influences in recent Chinese fashion trends.

Chinese Designer Guo Pei Creates Fashion That Is Not Fashion

There are times that a work of art stuns the viewer to silent awe, where you feel you've come into contact with the divine - and that is certainly my feeling when viewing the fantastical work of Chinese couturière Guo Pei. 

Many of her designs draw inspiration from the mystical splendor of ancient Chinese empires, artifacts from the decadent Ming and Qing Dynasties, and images of nymphs and deities from Chinese fairy tales. They are re-imagined with a futuristic flair, and extravagant in their embellishments. I love this dress, the folds of which remind me of the lotus flower.

As European fashion houses have subtly begun cutting back on handwork due to rising labor costs, Guo Pei takes the opposite approach. One dress, made entirely of golden panels, logged over 50,000 hours in embroidery work. Guo Pei was raised during the time of the Cultural Revolution, when the only fashion being worn was the revolutionary uniform. Now, 40 years later, the Chinese fashion industry is experiencing a revolution of its own, as if to make up for those decades of political dress, and utilitarian fashion.

"I always have a desire to create something that is fashion and is not fashion," says Guo Pei. ‘‘So a dress ends up weighing 50 kilos! Every piece is not fashion anymore. It’s sculpture; it’s painting. I want to put all that into a dress.’’ You can tell from the 1002th Arabian Night runway show that many of the pieces and shoes are extremely difficult to move in, which to me adds to their majesty in a way. I think the models pull it off beautifully, and I am so excited to see what she creates next.

Ralph Lauren Fall 2011 Collection Shows Asian Inspiration

While I was searching for pictures to feature with my last entry about the Lo Heads, I remembered how much I absolutely love the dresses in the Fall 2011 Ralph Lauren collection, and wanted to share a few of these beautiful images. Pictured above is Chinese model Sui He in one of my favorite dresses from the collection, a cheongsam-inspired black dress with dragon embroidery on mesh in the back. Here are some additional photos of it from the runway:

Another dress from that collection I love is shown below, worn by Kerry Washington. I love the retro-futuristic art deco look (the hood and breastpiece makes me think of chainmail armor) that is at once powerful and feminine:

I also recalled seeing the dress on actress Rooney Mara in her recent November 2011 cover feature on Vogue. The editorial shots of her in that issue are incredible, and Rooney Mara is absolutely otherworldly in her beauty:

You can see a lot of Far Eastern inspiration in the rest of the collection, which of course I love. Unlike Elisa Palomino’s fanciful and colorful collection featured a few entries ago, the Ralph Lauren Fall 2011 collection is mostly black or darker tones, and incorporates a slightly masculine flair, with many outfits featuring pant suits, bowties, etc. Read Hamish Bowles’ review and a slideshow of the collection on Vogue.com here. What do you think? Leave a comment.

Fashion Designer Elisa Palomino's Enchanted Garden

The world of Valencia-born fashion designer Elisa Palomino is like an enchanted garden that evokes a fantasy of an Orientalist paradise, infused with opulent Deco-era and Victorian Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics. Elisa’s passion for the art and culture of past eras is evident in her style, but her lavish designs possess a distinctively original, even futuristic, flair. She is deeply inspired by Asian prints and motifs, and like the Asian objects of art she avidly collects, her designs are exquisite in their detail.

Last month, she unveiled her latest collection at London Fashion Week A/W 2012, inspired by the epicurean lifestyle and work of American artist and designer Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944), as well as the fashionable bohemians in her social circle of the time, which included Peggy Guggenheim and the beloved Sarah Bernhardt. Elisa explains, "All of them were cutting-edge icons: painters, poets, novelists, dancers and lesbian lovers. They dressed for their own satisfaction, with enthusiasm and ingenuity, in order to provoke or to horrify, replete with crimson red lips and dresses of Oriental inspiration."

I met Elisa in 2009 the way I meet almost all of my friends—through Dances of Vice—and it was impossible not to be swept away by her exceptional grace, beauty, and generous spirit. She embodies the romance of the world she creates, from the way she dresses and carries herself to the way she curates her surroundings - her work is an extension of her beautiful lifestyle. Before she left New York early last year, I had the honor of working with her on various projects that made me marvel at her ability to tell stories around original embroideries, prints and patterns she would create, to transform girls into goddesses, and inspire others to dream. She will forever be a role model, friend, and endless source of inspiration.

Below is a photo from a photoshoot we did together in 2010 with one of my dearest friends Anna and our wonderful photographer friend Martin Scott Powell (who also shot the default slider image above, cropped), which brings back many fond memories from that season.

As a female designer that creates clothing exclusively for women, Elisa emphasizes the power of femininity, which tends to be excluded more and more in contemporary society as women compete with men to appear strong and masculine. She rejects the need to hide behind a guise of masculinity or stifle feminine sensuality and expression to present an image of a modern, affluent, and fearless woman. I love her philosophy of dressing for one's own satisfaction, and that fashion should provoke. I believe that beauty provokes unrest and attracts the most attention when it is presented with ingenuity, and Elisa inspires me to stay true to that very ideal.

You can see photos from Elisa's latest collection on Vogue UK or watch the runway video on Vimeo. Videos from past collections can be found on at Elisa Palomino. Share your thoughts with a comment.

The Hunger Games: All We Want Is A Good Show

The Hunger Games movie provoked some interesting philosophical questions concerning morality, popular culture, gender, personal identity, politics, and authority. While I don’t have time to go into all the themes that interested me in the movie, the one that grabbed me most was the critique of entertainment as a political strategy of propaganda and public pacification. The Hunger Games was established with a political agenda to terrorize citizens from ever trying to rebel against the government; however, despite its dehumanizing content, the way it's presented--as a form of popular entertainment--validates its existence because it's celebrated and enjoyed by the masses. This mass Schadenfreude, or pleasure derived from the suffering of others, grotesquely justifies the game’s existence. 

The Hunger Games takes place in a future dystopia called Panem, where the government keeps the downtrodden populace intimidated and the pampered elite entertained with an annual televised battle to the death among teenagers selected from the outlying industrial districts. A Google search reveals that the name of this fictional nation of Panem was derived from the Latin phrase panem et circenses, meaning “bread and circuses”, which is invoked to describe how the populace can be controlled if they are fed and entertained.

Residents of the highly stylized, hyper-commercial, decadent and aesthetic-obssessed Capitol are pacified into blindly accepting the crimes committed by the government because they are too absorbed with entertainment and the instant gratification of pleasures and desires (ie, opulent food and material luxury) to consider the morality behind the games. As Gale exclaims in one of the most-quoted clips of the film: “All they want is a good show.”

The way the tributes are glamourized, objectified, and used as commercial and propaganda tools also distracts from the ethics of the game. One can draw parallels to our society, where people accept all manner of cultural propaganda in the name of entertainment and “public relations”. Just think of how commercialized and degrading reality TV shows are today, with shows like Extreme Makeover or Temptation Island which capitalizes on the suffering and insecurities of other people. Seeing women tear each other apart over men, money, and fame? It's almost as bad as watching kids butcher each other, and yet, people can't look away.

Edward Bernays presents a powerful argument in the book Propaganda (1928), in which he speculates how the U.S. government uses public relations for political and corporate interests by manipulating the public subconscious into feeling as though they’re doing what’s best for them (ie, I shop, therefore I am), when in actuality it only serves the interests of the social elite. In the beginning of the film, Gale questions whether or not the game would exist if everyone would just stop watching. But Katniss' response: "That's never going to happen."

I haven’t yet read the books, but according to my sister, the movie didn’t quite do it justice, so I look forward to reading more into the world. What do you think about entertainment’s place in society? How effective is media literacy education in challenging cultural propaganda? Will people ever "stop watching"? Leave your comments below.

May 5th: Dances of Vice Celebrates Japanese Art Deco In Roaring 1920s Fashion at Japan Society

Last night, I attended the gallery opening of DECO JAPAN, the newest exhibit at Japan Society featuring a wide variety of collections from the Art Deco movement in Japan. It was absolutely gorgeous! I’ve come across many art deco objects infused with Asian design, especially in Shanghai, but the craftsmanship of many of the objects in this exhibit were remarkable and reflected the social expressions of the time.

As a big fan of Asian art deco, I am deeply honored to have been invited to curate a special evening program in conjunction to the exhibition, to be celebrated in Roaring Twenties fashion. The event will take place at Japan Society on May 5th, 2012, and details can be found on the Dances of Vice website.

My favorite subject of the exhibition was the focus on the Japanese modern girl, or moga, the female icon of modernity. The moga exemplified the hedonism and consumer capitalism of 1920s and 30s Japan, her image frequently used in advertising campaigns cigarettes, cosmetics, and alcohol… Her carefully curated and commoditized body was also a spectacle to be consumed. The moga were Japan's equivalent of the flappers of America, Germany's neue Frauen, France's garçonnes, or China's modeng xiaojie. War and depression quickly crushed modern girl culture around the world.

At a time when the government sought to discipline and control the individual to serve the state, the liberated body of the moga signified a rebellion against the constraints of patriarchal society. Displays of the body that emphasized individual pleasure were deemed subversive and anti-nationalistic. The coy sensuality of the moga can be seen pictured in the songbook cover below, after which our event is named.

So come and join us in exploring the heart of the modern girl and her kaleidoscopic world of dancing, drinking, and late-night revelry! If you aren't able to make it to Dances of Vice: Deco Japan, I hope you'll have the opportunity to see the exhibition while it's in town - I think you'll find it every bit as inspiring as I did!

What are your favorite deco-era works and images? Share your thoughts below!

1950s Rockabilly Culture in China - Fashion & Film

 {We Go Together – Captured by Lincoln Pilcher, models Wang XiaoLily Zhi and Zhao Lei get caught in a love triangle for the March edition of Vogue China. Garbed in 50′s style outfits from labels such as Alexander Wang, Dolce & Gabbana, Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein selected by stylist Morgan Pilcher. Whether at an ice cream shop or in a vintage car, the trio keeps it cool in the retro attire. / Hair by Jordan M, Makeup by Tamah K -Excerpt via Fashion Gone Rogue}

The stunning 1950s rockabilly styled spread in this month’s issue of Vogue China (shot at some familiar favorite hotspots in local Williamsburg!) made me curious as to whether there was a rockabilly scene in China, and to my surprise, there certainly seems to be an emerging subculture in this genre, with bands such as DH & The Chinese Hellcats (pictured below) and Black Cat Bones performing regularly in Beijing and Shanghai. In Shanghai, groups like Banana Monkey and The Beat Bandits dominate the 1960s garage rock scene with local concerts and a surf rock, rockabilly and punk club night called Trash A Go-Go.

But did rockabilly make its way to China in the 1950s? I had always thought the answer to be no. The Communists had just come to power after a long and cruel civil war (which was preceded by an even more brutal war with Japan), and the country was absolutely devastated. China, including British-colonized Hong Kong, continued to be in a state of political chaos throughout the 50s and 60s; so, unlike the “rokobiri-bumu” (rockabilly boom) that swept through Japan in the late 1950s, rockabilly in China had to have been ignored in China. Or so I thought... until, thanks to one of my now-favorite blogs, Soft Film, I heard about the now-lost move "Young Rock", directed in Hong Kong in 1959 by Chow Sze-Luk.

Young Rock, with its subversive depictions of knife fights, abductions, dance hostesses, and triads was introduced as a film about juvenile delinquency in the February 1959 issue of Southern Screen:

"What are the problems of the youth of today? What turns them into teddy-boys and teddy-girls? Shaw's latest production 'The Joy of Youth' answers these questions boldly and unreservedly. It gives a frank and penetrating analysis of the problems of the younger generation."

The social climate in Hong Kong in the 1950s was ultra conservatiive, so I was surprised by this discovery. On the other hand, perhaps these wild expressions of rebellion and dancing were a response to China's long history of oppression and repression. The body represented a liberated site of rebellion and self-expression. In the Hong Kong motion picture hit Mambo Girl (1957), my favorite screen diva of the time, Grace Chen, calls out to a mambo rhythm: "shaking bodies drive everyone wild… dance as crazy, crazy, crazy as I am!”

With the US currently experiencing a strong retro culture revival, I'm excited to see more and more retro culture and trends in China, always infused with a stylish modern perspective. On the topic of rockabilly in Asia, I'll end this post with a photo of rockabilly dancers in Yoyogi park Daniel took during our Tokyo trip this past winter! I'm excited to return to Shanghai this summer and report my observations.

What are your thoughts on the rockabilly scene in China and Japan? How is the style similar or different from the US? Leave your comments here!

Latest entries

Chinese Designer Guo Pei Creates Fashion That Is Not Fashion

There are times that a work of art stuns the viewer to silent awe, where you feel you've come into contact with the divine - and that is certainly my feeling when viewing the fantastical work of Chinese couturière Guo Pei. 

Many of her designs draw inspiration from the mystical splendor of ancient Chinese empires, artifacts from the decadent Ming and Qing Dynasties, and images of nymphs and deities from Chinese fairy tales. They are re-imagined with a futuristic flair, and extravagant in their embellishments. I love this dress, the folds of which remind me of the lotus flower.

As European fashion houses have subtly begun cutting back on handwork due to rising labor costs, Guo Pei takes the opposite approach. One dress, made entirely of golden panels, logged over 50,000 hours in embroidery work. Guo Pei was raised during the time of the Cultural Revolution, when the only fashion being worn was the revolutionary uniform. Now, 40 years later, the Chinese fashion industry is experiencing a revolution of its own, as if to make up for those decades of political dress, and utilitarian fashion.

"I always have a desire to create something that is fashion and is not fashion," says Guo Pei. ‘‘So a dress ends up weighing 50 kilos! Every piece is not fashion anymore. It’s sculpture; it’s painting. I want to put all that into a dress.’’ You can tell from the 1002th Arabian Night runway show that many of the pieces and shoes are extremely difficult to move in, which to me adds to their majesty in a way. I think the models pull it off beautifully, and I am so excited to see what she creates next.

Photoshoot: Shien in Veritee Hill by Daniel Garcia

Photographer: Daniel Garcia
Dress: Veritee Hill

I styled myself for the shoot, and my hair had been done just a few days prior for a Vidal Sassoon hair show. I love the electric purple they put in my hair.

The “Bad Student” in Chinese Education: Academic underachievement as an indication of moral irresponsibility drives Chinese adolescents to deviancy

There is a tremendous prioritization of academic achievement in Chinese families. This is not new. What needs to be examined is the underlying filial and moral obligation attached to the academic success of Chinese adolescents, which shapes their sense of worth and identity.

Unlike American society, where adolescents have greater freedom to choose from a wide array of activities to legitimately express their competence as individuals, there exists a single positively sanctioned social identity for youth in Taiwan, which is termed “good student”—or, “hao shueh-sheng”. In Taiwan, the student identity not only applies to the student’s academic involvement, but also necessitates his or her obedience to authority, and becomes a fixed social identity that pervades all aspects of their life. Consequently, academic success is a prerequisite of filial piety which is central to Chinese society; to do poorly in school is interpreted as a gesture of ingratitude toward one's parents. To be a “bad student” is to be judged as a socially and morally irresponsible person, and this can deeply scar a youth’s self-image.

I speak from my own experience as a student in Taipei, and can’t assume it’s the same in China (or even across all schools in Taiwan), but I can imagine it is similar, as deep-rooted Confucian values suppose moral cultivation is achieved through social harmony, propriety and education. I also feel that this pressure extends to youth in Asian-American families, although they perhaps do not suffer the same judgment from their Western peers. In this post, I wish to share my experience as a student in Taiwanese public middle/high schools, and how this rigid cultural code (of academic success as a moral obligation) has been extremely harmful to the personal identity of Taiwanese students.

When a young person’s sense of self worth is judged by their ability to fulfill one’s social obligation through successful school performance, students who fail to do well in school, in spite of their inherent moral qualities, often experience the equivalent of moral degradation. This unhealthy dual moral standard of personhood increases the likelihood that a young person will be considered “deviant” in mainstream culture, and drives many students who are considered underachievers at school to seek alternative, usually negative, terms for which competence and power is judged, such as bullying and gang membership. Adolescents who are unable or unwilling to climb the conventional ladder of success through education often identify with the deviant hooligan social category, perhaps attracted by the sense of macho confidence and empowerment in their rejection of authority and social norms. 

As a student who went straight into a competitive Chinese junior high school after having received an elementary school education in America, I struggled in my classes and had a huge problem obeying authority (no surprise there). Students had to stand up and bow to the teacher when they entered the classroom, and we were controlled and disciplined to the extreme in every aspect from the way we wore our uniforms to the length of our hair. I was often physically beaten by teachers for small deviances and subject to humiliating disciplinary practices (if you really want to know the details, ask and I’ll elaborate in the comments.)

Despite my semi-foreigner status, I was still subject to the stigma of being a “bad student” and also suffered the disappointment and pressure of my parents. There is still a pervading notion that kids who perform poorly at school are just lazy or not trying hard enough, which reinforces the false idea that bad students "choose" to bad. I have so many harrowing stories of school surveillance, and I witnessed how the academic underachievers in my class were socially outcast and turned to bullying and gang activity as teachers and peers discriminated against them openly. I was in school there from about 1998 to about 2001, so I’m not sure how much has changed, but I have always wanted to voice my experience as a student under this unhealthy moral standard and advocate positive change. But where should we start?

To change the perception of academic underachievement as an indication of moral and social defeat, it is integral to broaden the terms for which competence is judged by offering students more positive expressions of their social selves as persons. This is where the undervalued subject of creative self-expression becomes integral in the goal of education. I would advocate for an arts and media literacy program wherein media production and sharing is promoted as a channel through which Taiwanese youth can reaffirm their individualism by assigning value to personal experience and subjectivity. In a society where academic success is unfortunately viewed as a pre-requisite of legitimate positive personhood, the Taiwanese education program should also promote the egalitarian premise that all lives are valuable, and that society requires a wide range of activities and talents to function so that deviance does not remain the exclusive arena in which alternative “competent” social identities may be sought.

This is where the concept of “participatory cultures” of learning finds its importance in the context of Taiwanese education. Henry Jenkins defines a participatory culture as “a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection.”

The traditional didactic approach to teaching and learning in Taiwan neglects the role of education of fostering the social skills, critical skills and cultural sophistication necessary to empower students to become full participants in contemporary society. The lack of young peoples’ interest and involvement in politics and civic debates reflects their perception of disempowerment and devaluation of subjectivity. A new Taiwanese education program should focus on the basic principles of creative production, communication, and learning. By engaging in media production (sharing art, poetry, thoughts, etc through media on and offline), students learn to develop their own voice and reconstruct reality, rather than depend on the authority of traditional media and teachers. By challenging conventional methods of knowledge through production, participatory action research becomes an important agent for youth empowerment and civic engagement. 

If this article resonates with any readers who have experienced an Asian education and struggled with similar issues, I would love to hear your perspective. I’m also interested in knowing how this concept varies across Asian cultures. Also, I’m curious as to how this concept might manifest in Asian-American families, so please share this article with anyone you think may find relevance in the topic, and be sure to leave your comments!

New York Fifth Avenue Easter Bonnet Parade 2012

This past Sunday Daniel and I set out for New York City’s annual Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue, a tradition that dates back to the mid-1800s. Originally, the social elite would attend services at one of the churches on Fifth Ave and then promenade their new fashions down the avenue, attracting curious onlookers who would flock to witness the latest trends. Today, the parade is more flamboyant than fashionable, but still a fun occasion to socialize and witness the different outfits that range from elegant to outrageous.

This year, I wore an 18th Century inspired dress my friend Candice (pictured above wearing a Hey Sailor! tricorn, right with her beau) had made me several years ago for Wave-Gotik-Treffen. The hat was also custom made to match the dress by one of my favorite millinery artists, Topsy Turvy Design. To the left is me with another one of my oldest friends in NYC, the ever-stylish Mister Burton

The Easter Parade has always attracted a stylish faction of vintage culture enthusiasts, who gather near the University Club to dance and enjoy the live jazz of Michael Arenella’s Dreamland Orchestra. Above, I am in the company of Michael Cumella, known for his antique phonograph music program, and the always dapper Michael Haar, a renowned barber and DJ.

After the parade, we made our way to the beautiful University Club for cocktails with our gracious hosts Grace and David Gotham. Grace is pictured above looking beautiful one of my favorite colors, that vintage coral-peach, along with some of my other best gals, Gin Minsky and Miss Laila

 This last picture was taken by a stranger by the name of Ro Mo. My smile hasn’t changed much in 20 years! Were you at this year’s Easter Parade? Leave your comments below.

Ralph Lauren Fall 2011 Collection Shows Asian Inspiration

While I was searching for pictures to feature with my last entry about the Lo Heads, I remembered how much I absolutely love the dresses in the Fall 2011 Ralph Lauren collection, and wanted to share a few of these beautiful images. Pictured above is Chinese model Sui He in one of my favorite dresses from the collection, a cheongsam-inspired black dress with dragon embroidery on mesh in the back. Here are some additional photos of it from the runway:

Another dress from that collection I love is shown below, worn by Kerry Washington. I love the retro-futuristic art deco look (the hood and breastpiece makes me think of chainmail armor) that is at once powerful and feminine:

I also recalled seeing the dress on actress Rooney Mara in her recent November 2011 cover feature on Vogue. The editorial shots of her in that issue are incredible, and Rooney Mara is absolutely otherworldly in her beauty:

You can see a lot of Far Eastern inspiration in the rest of the collection, which of course I love. Unlike Elisa Palomino’s fanciful and colorful collection featured a few entries ago, the Ralph Lauren Fall 2011 collection is mostly black or darker tones, and incorporates a slightly masculine flair, with many outfits featuring pant suits, bowties, etc. Read Hamish Bowles’ review and a slideshow of the collection on Vogue.com here. What do you think? Leave a comment.

April 6: Pinterest Top 7

Here's this week's Pinterest Top 7! I didn't really pin much this week. The main image above is Zhou Xun, one of my favorite Chinese actresses. She was recently announced as the new brand ambassador for Chanel. In other news, the RSS feed is finally working, so please feel free to follow us - I have a few interesting topics to bring up in coming weeks!

Ralph Lauren, 'Lo Heads & Aspirational Apparel

My friend Andrew Yamato sent me the link to a web series he’s producing about men’s style and fashion trends in New York City called Put It On, which just wrapped their first episode on Season Two. There’s a segment I really enjoyed on the ’Lo Heads, which is a style culture that sprung up in the street gangs of New York centered on an obsession with collecting Polo Ralph Lauren clothing.

One of the collectors interviewed, Dallas Penn, describes this culture as a function of “Aspirational Apparel”, which I can really relate to, as someone who values and respects the practice of achieving in fantasy what the world has denied in reality. This can mean anything from subverting status symbols to fantasy or fetish costuming to reversing gender roles. By donning the symbols of privilege, represented by the abstract class ideas imbedded in the style (a mix of British aristocracy and American high society), the wearer can transcend their material and social boundaries. In the episode, one collection asserts: “It’s not just fashion; it’s a statement. We can do this too.”

Ralph Lauren himself was born in a poor Jewish family in the Bronx, and made his success by, as Time Magazine put it, “selling a dream of elegance and the good life”:

“Other designers have taste; I have dreams…I create clothes, I create a world,” said the designer who created a universe around the concept of class focus and desire to rise in each daily existence adjusting it, even superficially, to the seductive appearance of a better social life . His strategy was to engineer and adapt the clothing patterns mimic to the upper classes, to create a universe and a world that did not exist only in our desires, as Disney had done with fairy tales.

However, far from wanting to start playing polo, golf, or imitate “white” sensibility, ‘Lo Heads created an insider culture with these symbols of privilege, giving new meaning to the clothing as a statement of status and refinement. In the words of Put It On host Jesse Thorn, “His act is a thumb in the eye to the rich (and white) that says that not only can those symbols of privilege be appropriated by the downtrodden, the downtrodden can rock that shit better.”

This spot made me think of the documentary Paris Is Burning (1990), a film about the voguing/drag ball culture of Harlem in the 1980s, which is another celebration of fantasy and desire through dress. I’ll have to write on that another time! In the meantime, you can check out the Put It On web series here, and feel free to leave your comments.

Song Of Youth (1959): Women Hold Up Half the Sky in Mao's China

I have to make a shoutout once again to Soft Film for reminding me of this amazing socialist realist movie from China, Song of Youth, made in 1959 by Cui Wei for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. This movie is amazing to me because it's not only a compelling look at youth culture of the time, but it shows one of the most positive changes the Communist Party pursued: gender equality.

When the CCP came to power, Chairman Mao had declared that “Women hold up half the sky.” His marriage laws in 1952 put women at an equal status with men; they banned bride sales and concubines, and legalized divorce. He put an end to the old practice of foot binding. In a society where women were treated as the property of men for centuries, bought and sold as concubines, this was truly revolutionary. For a while, communism was a girl's best friend. 

"Changes in the Chinese family were imposed quickly and radically. In most societies these changes would take generations. In Mao's China they were compressed into a time period, really, of two or three years."  -Martin Whyte, Women in China finally making a great leap forward (2004)

In Song of Youth, Xie Fang plays the female protagonist, a young revolutionary who undergoes a transformation from a housewife in an oppressive marriage to a revolutionary heroine. She is brave, strong-willed, and rich in youthful exuberance —her rebellious role is greatly romanticized, which really appealed to the youth of the time. It inspired youth to push boundaries and find honor in sacrifice: “If no one sacrificed, how would the world change?”

I love the melodrama in these red films, and you have to love the dramatic zooms, which always means “Look, something communist is about to happen!” You can see the dramatic finale of the film on Youtube here. It's hard not to be overcome with emotion at some scenes, even when you know the mindwash behind it. Self-sacrifice for an ideal...isn't that the ultimate romance? Mao was an unparalleled ad man who knew how to sell what everyone longs for...the ultimate commodity: A romanticized sense of life purpose. 

Maybe my next post should be something more personal, I don't want to put anyone to sleep with this stuff.. but as always, thanks for indulging me, and I welcome your comments.

Bai Kwong: Tonight Or Never

I just wanted to share a new song I recently performed with Jesse Elder at the monthly Old Shanghai themed dinner cabaret night I co-produce at Duane Park with the beautiful burlesque performer Calamity Chang. The song, Tonight or Never, is sung by Bai Kwong, one of the Seven Great Singing Stars of Chinese popular music in the early 20th Century.

Here is my interpretation of the lyrics:

“If not tonight, we may not have another chance. The clouds are pale and the stars scarce. The night view is so beautiful. There is only you, only me. We barely escape from the darkness - but the darkness follows closely behind you. It's tonight or never. The streams rush and night winds blow. There is only you, only me. Together in this time of calamity.”

Our next show, Les Fleurs de Shanghai, is on April 25th at Duane Park (157 Duane St, NYC) from 8:30-9:30pm. We're there on the last Wednesdays of each month. Maybe we'll perform a new Zhou Xuan song we haven't done before!

How Good Do You Want To Be? Stoic Philosophy on Happiness & Effectiveness in the 21st Century

As inhabitants of the 21st Century, we are heir to the greatest information boom in the history of the world; and while we consume this choice-saturated wealth of information, it consumes our thoughts and our time—creating a “poverty of attention”. Daily life is wrought with choices, distractions and sensory stimuli that fight for our attention, and the way we deal with it is to yield and respond to those incentives that are the most familiar, loud, or persistent, rather than taking the time to evaluate in terms of what is meaningful and most worthy of our attention. We should be more discriminating about what ideas and images we permit to enter into our minds; if we allow someone else to make up our minds for us, their motives might not be the highest. This attention deficit contributes to passive learning and the emotionally impulsive, where’s-the-next-big-excitement culture that thrives in today’s society.

I picked up a new book on Epictetus’ Manual the other day called Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness by Sharon Lebell, and found the Stoic philosophy on how to achieve happiness to be really inspiring and more relevant than ever in contemporary life. One of the main themes is that inner confusion and evil springs from ambiguity; hence, in order to be an extraordinary and happy person, one should explicitly identify the kind of person they wish to become, and conform to this code. It sounds simple enough, but how many times, if ever, have you stopped to take stock of your ideals and clearly defined your moral principles and convictions? When you’re clear about your goals, there is no room for ambiguity, and that reasoning is the best faculty we have to safeguard our integrity. The message of Epictetus is simple yet so often neglected: Separate yourself from the mob by deciding to be extraordinary, and do what you need to do—now.

As someone who subscribes to this concept, it can still be hard sometimes to cut through our option-saturated numbness to distinguish between true satisfaction and mere gratification. The antidote to this free-floating anxiety is disciplined emotional management and deep introspection, which takes a lot of work. But I’ve realized that understanding this is the most important part of becoming your best self. Being a whole, happy and self-aware person requires a constant, vigilant watchfulness over one’s beliefs and impulses, and a lifelong series of subtle readjustments of one’s character. If you clearly define your program for being your best self, you can learn to make thoughtful life choices rather than react from untrained instinct and—I love how Epictetus puts it— avoid “fall[ing] imperceptibly into vulgarity”.

Another theme in the book that really spoke to me is the need to control the irrepressible desire to influence external outcomes. As an event planner, I’m always thinking five to ten steps ahead in my own life, preparing for every manner of possible calamity that could happen. What if someone I trust betrays me? What if I lose a loved one? What opportunities have I missed out on? Epictetus teaches that what frightens and dismays us are not external events themselves, but the uncritical way we interpret their significance. We can’t choose our external circumstances, or how other people act, but we can choose how we respond to them. And by constantly working on strengthening our character, we can trust ourselves to have the wisdom and confidence to deal with life's problems when they arise, with intelligence and integrity.

Caretake this moment, and practice mindful living in the present. Define your goals clearly and work toward being the best version of yourself, because your will falls completely under your control. Feel free to leave your comments.

Photo: Fashion by Matthew Ames 2008/2010 photographed by Sybille Walter