Like my previous post on all the qipaos from In the Mood for Love, this one to document all the Lust, Caution dresses has also taken much longer than I originally planned. But again, it was such a pleasure going through the process, because this film is just stunning in so many ways.
For those of you who might remember my very first post on this blog, this is a special film for me because it was the film that made me first fall in love with the qipao. It was that scene – Tang Wei as Mrs Mak, in dress 15, a light teal qipao with navy vines all over, paired with a navy trench coat, bucket hat, and black t-bar heels, walking in the rain. So chic, so effortless, made all the more so by the rain. I remember being unable to get this scene out of my head for days afterwards.
Lust, Caution and Eileen Chang
The book Lust, Caution was written by the renowned Chinese female author Eileen Chang (张爱玲/張愛玲). Eileen Chang was one of the most prolific Chinese writers of the early 20th century, and her writing is mesmerizing in its piercing observations of her contemporary society, and particularly of male-female relationships in that context. Her language is sharp, and her analogies uncomfortably blunt, but for me, that is precisely why she was so brilliant.
She was well known for her love of qipao, and continued the habit of wearing them even after migrating from mainland China first to Hong Kong, and then to the US in the 1950s, where she lived out the remainder of her life.
The Mahjong tables of Lust, Caution
Lust, Caution is a very different type of film and production from In the Mood for Love. The film is set largely in 1940s Shanghai, where despite war and foreign occupation, the wealthy lived a glamorous life adorned by glorious qipaos.
Visually, the story is held together by a series of mahjong table scenes, of the Taitais (太太, or wealthy wives), and occasionally also including Mr Yee. The mahjong table is a symbol of all that there is to detest about the likes of Mr and Mrs Yee, that despite hunger and daily deaths on the streets, they sit idly gambling away and discussing about diamonds. But it also symbolises the relationships of the various parties in the film, and of the parties in society at that time – it is all like a game, everyone is looking at their cards, calculating, maneuvering, trying to win.
These mahjong scenes are also very visually rich scenes – the lights, the décor, the taitais, each with their own stunning wardrobe of qipaos, the bejeweled fingers and lacquered nails moving the mahjong tiles swifly around the table. Sadly I did not have time to document all of the taitai’s qipaos… maybe another time.
Lust, Caution qipaos
Tang Wei wears two distinct types of qipaos present in this film. The first type is the plain, loose qipaos of Wong Chia Chi the school girl. In the first part of the film, when Wong is a student at Hong Kong University, her qipaos are sleeved, in plain cotton or linen, midway down her calves in length, and a loose A-line with only the smallest hint of a waist. In the second part of the film and after she has moved back to Shanghai, in the hardship of the latter war years, her qipaos remain the same modest silhouette and plain colour palette, but are visibly more tattered and worn.
The second type of qipao in the film is the more ornate, fitted qipaos of Mrs Mak, Wong’s cover to lure in the traitorous Mr Yee. These qipaos tend to be sleeveless or with dainty cap sleeves, made with beautifully printed silk or satin, closely fitted to the body and often embellished with a jewel at the collar. Most strikingly, they are perfectly paired with tailored coats, chic hats, and elegant heels worn over classic seamed stockings.
Interestingly, most of both sets of qipaos are in various hues and patterns of blue. It is true that indanthrene ( 阴丹士林/陰丹士林), a new dye created in the 30s with a palette of mainly blues and greens, was extremely popular throughout the 1930s and 40s due to its affordability. But I think the colour choice also signals something else, it embodies the sobriety of the era, and also connects the two women. Mrs Mak and the school girl are one and the same, one in her drab navy cotton dress, and the other in a glamorous, tight floral navy sheath, two manifestations of the same person, a visible contrast of just how different life can be.
The most prominent qipaos
In the same way that I categorised the qipaos for In the Mood for Love, I have chosen to list the most prominent qipaos from Lust, Caution first.
Dress 1: Grey-blue qipao
This is not only the dress that both opens the film and ends the film, it is also the dress that Wong Chia Chi dies in. It is grey-blue with contrasting light grey pankous and edging, which she wears with a silver and opal brooch at the neck and matching earrings. Compared to the qipaos that she wears in the first part of the film in Hong Kong, this qipao is shorter, with a hemline just below the knee, in fitting with the trend of the era.
And for that fateful trip to the coffee shop and then jewelry store, she wore the qipao with a classic taupe trench coat belted at the waist, topped off with a small brimmed black wool hat and simple black heels. Beautiful.
Dress 11: Navy velvet floral on navy organza qipao
One the most iconic moments in this film occurs with Mrs Mak in this dress – a beautiful pattern of large navy velvet flowers on a sheer navy organza. Very fitted, so fitted that she almost cannot breath, so she say to Mr Yee in the tailor shop when she tries it on. The qipao is also long, almost ankle length, in fitting with the trend of the late 1930s.
It is in this qipao that the two go on their first date alone, under the pretext of visiting the tailor. And Mrs Mak, sitting in the elegant art deco restaurant in this dress after the tailor visit, seductively pouring her heart out to Mr Yee, is one of the most frequently seen images from the film.
Dress 18: Light teal with navy vines qipao
This is the dress that Mrs Mak wears in her first, and very violent, sexual encounter with Mr Yee. And also the dress that is mostly commonly seen in advertising images for the film. It is a light teal colour, with dark navy vines throughout the dress, matched with navy pankous and edging. It is cut almost sleeveless, extending just past the rounded part of the shoulders for modesty. From the back view of the dress you can see that it is quite fitted, with pankous running all the way down the right hand side. The dress falls mid way on the calf, as opposed to almost ankle length in the earlier part of the film in Hong Kong, in keeping with the trend of shorter hemlines in the 40s.
And it was the outfit that Mrs Mak wore with this qipao that stole my heart. The navy trench coat matching the navy details of the dress, bucket hat, black t-bar heels, walking in the rain. And later, when you see her back view, the classic black seamed stockings. Need I say more?
Dress 23: Blue silk qipao with tiny pink and white flowers
This is the dress in which Mrs Mak and Mr Yee have one of their most touching scenes together in the film. In a Japanese entertainment house, Mrs Mak sings a traditional Chinese song for Mr Mr Yee, and then lies down in his lap, putting her head on his thighs. The scene is sweet, and the two are like “real” lovers.
The qipao from this scene reflects these emotions. A blue heavy silk, with tiny pink and white flowers and pink edging, it is a much more “girly” dress than seen elsewhere in the film. Again, elegantly paired with a checked coat and seamed stockings, which creates a beautiful contrast on the tatami floor.
This outfit is also paired beautifully with a checked coat, clutch bag and seamed stockings. A pink brooch on the coat matches the pretty pink highlights on the dress.
The less prominent qipaos
In order of appearance, the other qipaos in the film are listed below:
Dress 2: Plain navy cotton qipao
This dress appears several times throughout the film, but the first time is in the scene where students are sitting in trucks amongst marching soldiers. Wong wears it underneath a thick black coat so that only the collar is visible. This fuller view of the dress is from a much later scene. A navy qipao like this is quite stereotypical of what women wore on a daily basis in the 1930s.
Dress 3: Navy and white cotton qipao
Dress 4: Blue, white and red checked cotton qipao
Dress 5: Long sleeved lilac cotton qipao
The protagonist’s wardrobe strays from blue on only a few occasions, and this is the first time. I think in this instance, the loose lilac qipao marks the beginning of Wong’s journey – and her naiveté at this point – into the series of events which would eventually lead to the end of her life.
Dress 6: Cream qipao with blue, white and brown stripes
This dress is another departure of sorts from blue (even though it does have blue stripes). It is the first time that Wong becomes Mrs Mak, and I think the cream base of the dress represents her innocence and virginity.
Dress 7: Navy qipao with white feathery strokes
Dress 8: Sky blue cotton qipao
Dress 9: Blue Indian print see through slip qipao
This is one of my favourite qipaos from the film. I love the delicate Indian inspired print on the sheer blue silk, especially around the collarbone and chest area with the bare skin showing underneath. And the scene of Mr Yee shielding Mrs Mak from the rain in this dress is one of the more iconic moments from the film.
Dress 10: Navy diagonal checked qipao
Dress 12: Beige coloured qipao with cream and brown
This is the third time the protagonist’s outfit departs from blue. The “tainted” white colour, beige, is a clear mark of her loss of virginity.
Dress 13: Sleeveless lilac qipao
Yet another non-blue qipao immediately follows the previous beige dress, this time in lilac. When Wong Chia Chi last worn a lilac dress, it was long sleeved, and she was very much the school girl with her straight long hair, too shy to try the cigarette offered by her classmate. This time, her hair is curled, her face is made up, the qipao is sleeveless, and she is willingly smoking a cigarette. Same coloured dress, a completely transformed person.
Dress 14: Long sleeved navy cotton qipao
The first of several qipaos worn by Wong Chia Chi back in Shanghai in the 1940s. Shapeless, drab, a sign of the times.
Dress 15: Grey with large navy and white checks cotton qipao
Dress 16: Sky blue qipao with white flowers
Dress 17: Black lace qipao
This qipao first appears as part of a very stylish outfit, worn under a herringbone wool coat, with seamed stockings, black heels and a black clutch bag. It is not until later in the film that she wears the qipao simply by itself, the scene after Mrs Mak’s violent first sexual encounter with Mr Yee. And the darkness of the material expresses her pain from this encounter.
Dress 19: Blue thin stripes qipao
Dress 20: Blue floral embroidered silk qipao
Dress 21: Navy qipao with large white flowers
Dress 22: Black and white striped qipao
This qipao is the most obscure in the whole film, seen very briefly worn under a coat, in a dim carriage.
Well, this brings us to the end of this little projected, I hope you enjoyed it, and also take away a little inspiration.