If one had to choose a few words to describe the fashion and style of 1930s Shanghai, “avant-garde” and “open”, would have to be among them. The atmosphere was like no other: a place where East met West, couture and cultures collided and mixed, pushing this global city to the forefront of world fashion. Swimwear, silk stockings, brassieres – all these new fashions from the West first arrived in Shanghai and then eventually swept through China. But not only was Shanghai at the vanguard of Chinese couture, it was, in many ways, a leader in global fashion.
By Coco Shen & Cecilia Chan / Special thanks to the Shanghai History Museum
The undergarment revolution
Highly influenced by European womens fashion as well as Hollywood glamour, the brassiere, which originated in France, made a splash in old Shanghai. This new form of undergarment supported and lifted a woman’s bosom – a radical change in a country where the traditional aesthetic was to modestly hide or cover the feminine form and its natural curves.
At the beginning of the 1930s, at what is currently No. 865 Huaihai Middle Road, a Russian entrepreneur opened China’s first “Gujin” bra and lingerie store, creating the first tailored lingerie service. Western bras made young Shanghainese women feel and look like Hollywood stars, and they loved them. Later on, strapless bras, with their greater simplicity, were a big hit and made possible a whole new wave of fashion.
In the old albums from the photographers of the time, you can see full-figured women showing off their bodies and curves – and some say that not long after, Shanghainese women began experimenting with breast augmentation or fake breasts – showing that, in some sense, they were much more courageous and pioneering than many of the ‘modern women’ of today.
Swimwear has changed much over the centuries. It’s hard not to look back and laugh at the earliest swimwear trends. In order to desexualize swimwear, old styles were wide and loose and dress like, and women could only bob in the water, rather than be able to move and swim freely. A watershed moment came in the beginning of the 20th century, when professional swimwear began to become much more functional – the neckline got lower, the legs got shorter, the sleeves disappeared, and the shoulder straps became thinner. By 1926, Shanghai had open, unisex public swimming pools, ushering in a greater fashionability and femininity. Swimming became a popular recreational activity for both young and old, and this created the demand for new and more fashionable forms of ladies’ swimwear.
Swimwear was also affected by the popularity of the brassiere in the 1930s – the first two piece swimsuits featuring brassiere like top pieces appeared a good decade before the appearance of the bikini in the US in 1946 and was in many ways its precursor. In that era – where traditional and modern thought and culture collided and transitioned, Shanghainese women’s love of the daring new forms of swimwear was, in many ways, their way of expressing a belief in gender equality.
The seduction of stockings
They say that stockings are a woman’s second skin, and like the qipao, they were essential to any fashionable Shanghainese woman’s wardrobe. Originating from the aristocratic world of 16th Century Europe, the nascent stocking craze got started when Cantonese businessman Yu Qianchu first began selling them in Shanghai in the 1860s. Yu had travelled to Europe, where he came in contact with the fashionable ladies of the West and their penchant for stockings. Yu decided to buy a stocking weaving machine and spared no expense in bringing a Western stocking expert to China to make changes and amendments to the formula to create a better fit for Chinese women. Soon business was booming at the Guangsheng Xiang Store – the precursor of the “Nan Yang Stocking Factory”, which would become a household name in Shanghai.
By the end of the 20th century, stockings had become what we recognize today – slim, lacy, thin, flexible – and the magic they do for the lines and curves of a woman’s legs, the way they show off a woman’s figure for best effect – which made them practically a fixture in every modern Shanghainese woman’s wardrobe. In the 1930s, there appeared a certain high quality silk stocking, which was locally known as the “glass stockings” – which was manufactured by the American DuPont Company; some say that the price was almost worth that of over seventy grams of gold, and only movie stars, opera stars and wives of officials could afford such luxuries.
Halos on the Feet
The elimination of bound feet was a major change in the Chinese conceptions of beauty. In old Shanghai, where the new was replacing the old, the young women would walk with their heads held high and their chests forward, while the older generation still operated by the “three inches is a gold lotus” rule. Different tastes created a demand for custom leather made shoes. In an era where western clothing styles were not yet ubiquitous, leather shoes became the tip of the fashion spear, much beloved by Shanghainese women.
At the time, Shanghai’s Zhejiang Road, Fujian Road, Nanjing Road had over one hundred shoe stores between them, with highly skilled shoemakers copying western styles, the most popular among these being high heels and open toe leather shoes. The workmanship behind the patterns on the leather was especially prized – looking closely, one could see that the patterns were created by small holes, creating a shoe that was at once breathable and elegant, with a strap around the ankle that made for an eye-catching look. A Shanghainese woman, dressed in qipao and walking in high heels, became the iconic look of the age, and these two kinds of footwear continued to be changed and innovated upon, becoming staples of the fashion world.
Makeup in the 1930s
Sharply set rouge and lipstick, raised eyebrows, and finger-waves – these fashions, immortalized in so many period movies and TV shows have become the sine qua non of the 1930s Shanghainese woman’s look. The raised eyebrows of the 1930s were pure black, with the eyelashes turned up in an enchanting way, while the mascara and eyeliners would be matted and mute earth colours, softening the look of the eyes. The ornate finger-wave was yet another classic look that no fashionable woman would dream of going without. The way that women would nonchalantly brush their hair back became the very symbol of Shanghai style. There are also innumerable stories about the lengths that people would go to achieve the proper look – for example, it was said that the famous silent film actress Ruan Lingyu spent over an hour on her eyebrows and eyelashes – a sign of just how serious and meticulous the look had to be.
Flower Fragrant Water and Snowflake Cream
The old style of makeup was known for being heavy, but afterwards Shanghainese women began paying more attention to the care of their skin. There was one particularly popular type of facial cream that was applied after removing makeup; the cream was quickly absorbed, like just like snowflakes melting, and became known as “snowflake cream”. Famous brands of this cream included “Butterfly Cream” “Elegant Cream” and “Three Flowers Brand”. Their signature fragrances as well as their functions of both moisturizing and makeup removal made them among Song May-ling’s favorite skin care products.
Shanghainese women’s foundation of choice was the famous Xiefuchun duck egg powder foundation; women loved to use this alongside “Vive” powder cream – the combination would give a clear, almost make-up less look. The Pechoin brand became one of the first Chinese cosmetics brands to become famous abroad; it started as a glycerin product, and was much beloved by the stars of the day, including Ruan Yuling, Zhou Xuan, Hu Die and the upper echelons of society.
The vanity table of any woman of the 1930s was sure to include a bottle of fragrant water. The flower fragrant water was considered a luxury item at the time, and famous brands of included “Stars” and “Vive”, and the design of the small, clear bottle still stands out today. One can imagine a very Chinese style romantic scene of women would dab this scented water on bare skin or their handkerchiefs so that, on a summer afternoon, you would smell the light scent of flowers on their qipaos as you walked by. In fact, there used to be a saying in Shanghai that “If a woman passes by you and doesn’t have that fragrance, then she isn’t a Shanghainese woman”.
The Earliest Spokespersons for Beauty Products
The marketing of modern beauty products has always relied on celebrity spokespeople, and it was no different in old Shanghai. One of the first mass producers of cosmetics, Elegant Cream, hired Bai Yang, one of the popular celebrities of the day, as their spokesperson. In the 30s and 40s, you could see billboards and ads for Elegant Cream all over the city, featuring Bai Yang’s sweet and coquettish smile, and the ad copy had just four characters: “Supple Face Perfume Product”.
Another domestic brand that was on the same level as Elegant Cream was the Butterfly Cream, which became associated with Shanghai’s “queen of cinema” – Hu Die. In fact, the product was named after her, and it was also her favorite skin product. The fragrance as well as the star power behind its marketing made it extremely popular both among celebrities and regular women.
While there were many foreign and imported beauty products in Old Shanghai, domestic Chinese products soon gained the upper hand, Butterfly Cream being one example of what would become a household name, while brands such as Shanghai VIVE managed to become influential brands abroad. Shanghai VIVE radiance restorative cream as honored with a gold medal at the Panama World Expo. Li Yuanhong, the President of the Republic of China at the time, wrote that it was made of “the finest materials, combined with excellent quality, to create a superior product” – and many in the fashion world in Paris considered Shanghai VIVE (a later incarnation of the brand) to be among the best in the world. In that era, Shanghai VIVE was definitely an upmarket luxury brand and even Zhou Xuan, the most celebrated singer of her age was among its most loyal fans.