China Old and New: The Fashion of Guo Pei

I know nothing about fashion — nothing at all — so when I decided to go see an exhibit of work by Chinese couturiere Guo Pei at Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum, I had no idea what I might be in for. But what I found left me so astounded that I have now been through the exhibit three times!

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Guo Pei is a contemporary designer who rose meteorically to fame around the world when Rhianna wore her 55-pound yellow masterpiece to the 2015 Met Gala:

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It’s a stupendous creation, all the way down to the shoes, a modern take on the Italian Renaissance chopine:

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But this dress is not on display just because it is a work of art, or because it took 6,000 hours to make, or because Rhianna once wore it (though my friend Andrea did point out that this is the closest either of us will ever get to Rhianna). It is at the Asian Civilisations Museum because Guo Pei has been heavily influenced by Chinese history and culture. In this case, she resurrects the 19th-century silhouette of Empress Josephine and combines with with the embroidery stylings of Tang dynasty China. The fact that this dress is yellow, the traditional color of the Chinese imperial family, is no coincidence either — Guo Pei uses the color all the time.

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In fact, yellow and gold outfits have been a part of every Guo Pei collection since 2006 (she calls fold “the color of the soul”). The dress above, made of handwoven bamboo and decorated with embroidered flowers and crystals …

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… evokes the delicate filigree work popular with Chinese jewelers in the mid-1800s.

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One of the more interesting facets of this exhibit is the way in which it counterposes pieces from the museum’s own collection, like the gold and ivory brooch above, with Guo Pei’s couture. Another example of allowing viewers to consider the ways in which Guo Pei might have been influenced by traditional Chinese craft is placing this yellow dragon robe, which would have been worn by a Qing Dynasty emperor …

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… just across a walkway from this tremendous golden dress, which took Guo Pei’s staff 50,000 hours to make!

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The whole thing is embroidered with gold thread:

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There’s gold everywhere, from these Chinese dishes (one porcelain, on the left, from the early 1500s; the other gold, on the right, from the 830s) …

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… to this golden embroidery from 15th century China (Guo Pei has the seamstresses in her workshop study pieces such as this one) …

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… to a vast array of dresses and shoes:

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Other examples of counterposing the museum’s pieces and Guo Pei’s dresses include setting this embroidered silk “Manila shawl” from 1930s China …

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… next to the riot of flowers on the bodice of this wild dress (side note: wisteria, which runs along the neck and sleeves, was a favorite of Qing Empress Cici) …

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… placing this 18th-century Chinese candelabra …

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… next to this flower-petal fantasy …

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… and showing viewers how the roof tiles depicted in a porcelain piece like this …

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… influenced the “roof tile” design of the train of this dress:

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But my very favorite influence was Guo Pei’s taking traditional blue-and-white Chinese ceramics …

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Dish, China, early 1400s

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“Pomegranate” pitcher, China, 1600

… and turning them into this structural fantasy, designed to look like shards of a broken porcelain plate:

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The whole effect is jaw-dropping.

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I spent a long time staring at the details …

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… including the real Ming dynasty vase encased in crystals atop the model’s head:

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Guo Pei has also been influenced by Peranakan fashion (the Peranakans are a culture unique to Singapore, and they are known for their elaborate bridal costumes). So in this exhibit, we see an early 20th-century Peranakan “cloud collar” …

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… and the way in which Guo Pei used the a similar design in her Chinese Bride Collection:

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Similarly — but perhaps in a more dramatic departure — Guo Pei has taken the elaborate beadwork of the Peranakans (here, beaded slippers from the 1930s)…

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… and put a more contemporary (bling, anyone?) spin on it:

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Yes, that dress has 250,000 seed beads and 465,756 pearls!

Some of Guo Pei’s influences are immediately visible, as with this Chinese bridal outfit from the 1930s on the left and Guo Pei’s modern interpretation on the right:

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The similarities are even more pronounced when you compare the two tops up close:

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Certain imagery returns again and again in Guo Pei’s work, flowers and magical beasts being among the most common. There are dragons everywhere — nine of them swarm the bodice of this wedding dress …

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… three of them crawl up the spine of this model …

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…  a troupe of them play up the leg and over the torso of this red jumpsuit …

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… and a dragon becomes scaly body of this dress …

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… all the way from the shoes …

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… up to the shoulder:

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There are phoenixes, too, a staple of Chinese art, both in 19th-century porcelain …

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… rising the length of this fantastic dress …

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… and adorning the back, sleeves, and chest of this one:

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Phoenixes are sometimes joined by peonies (known in China as the king of the flowers) — again, both in Chinese porcelain …

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Setting imagery aside, the most astounding piece was this 110-pound dress and train situation:

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The model who wore it needed two people walking behind her to hold up the train!fullsizeoutput_4dc6

You can see some of Guo Pei’s sketches at this exhibit, too, to get a sense of how all of this starts out on paper:

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But this exhibit is mostly about being able to see all sorts of wonderful pieces (and spectacular embroidery) in an elegant display. The Asian Civilisations Museum — seen below in reflected in a silver orb — is one of my favorite in Singapore, and I am grateful that they are hosting these works.

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For those who want a little more beauty, I’ll leave here with an assortment of other items from the exhibit:

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