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Exhibition Explores Fashion in 1920s Shanghai

In the 1920s and 30s, Shanghai was known as the “Paris of the East.” Trade burgeoned in this port city, and with it came the latest pleasures imported from the west. And, as in many places around the world, the so-called “new woman” was coming to the fore. It is against this backdrop that a fashion exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), curated with the expertise of Barnard history and women’s studies professor Dorothy Ko, is set. Curatorial advisor for this exhibit titled Shanghai Glamour, she worked with MOCA to tell the story of Shanghai’s “new woman” through the clothing they designed, made and wore.

Feminism and Fashion

Explains Ko, “Women started to become educated, went into the professions, and started to earn an income, really living on their own for the first time in Chinese history.” They watched movies and read magazines, all with western fashions. They needed smart but modest clothes to wear to the teachers colleges and nursing schools they were attending.

Shanghai Glamour takes a decidedly feminist look at the era’s clothing. Ko explains, “These were newly liberated women who knew what they wanted. They would say ‘I want what those women are wearing in Paris but am going to put it in a different fabric.’ Or, they might wear a qipao [the long, form-fitting Chinese dress] with a Mary Jane heel or accessorize it with an imported handbag from Paris.” She adds, “The accent [of the exhibition] is on the feminist message of fashion, which is that fashion is about the people who personalize their clothing and wear them in whatever way they choose, to fit their lifestyle.”

The exhibition was spearheaded by MOCA’s executive director, Helen Koh ’85, who knew the professor’s work. “She seemed to have interesting, rich ideas, and also be someone who thought ‘out of the box.’ Dorothy helped us get to the core of the topic. She has profound knowledge about the period and the women, and she educated us about the period and its implications,” says Koh.

Designs Yesterday and Today

The exhibition includes clothing borrowed from the China National Silk Museum, as well as other style items, such as a Chinese fashion magazines. “Shanghai Glamour follows a topography of new roles in Shanghai—the female student, society ladies, and professional women,” says Ko. “It shows that China’s women were in charge of their own images and aware of what was going on in Paris or in New York but did not blindly follow the trend.”

Shanghai Glamour is paired with another exhibition at MOCA, Front Row exploring 20th-century Chinese fashion designers, which executive director Koh says marries well with Shanghai Glamour. “New York today and Shanghai in the early 20th century share an international outlook and innovations in fashion rivaled only by Paris, London, and Milan. Front Row and Shanghai Glamour show the Chinese-American community at the center of a vibrant global history of creativity, business, and ability to translate across multiple cultures,” she says.

Barnard and MOCA

It is also worth noting the myriad connections between Barnard and MOCA. In addition to Koh and Ko, the museum’s board chair, Patricia Pei Tang ’67, director of operations Bonnie Chin Washburn ’90, director of individual giving Chun Yee Yip O’Neill ’97, and volunteer museum educator Wanda Chin ’77 are all Barnard alumnae, along with former executive director Fay Chew Matsuda ’71 and former interim director Jessica Chao ’75.

“There is a profound amount of Barnard brain power and creativity involved in starting the museum and keeping it running,” says Koh.