The qipao, otherwise known as the cheongsam is a typical, traditional dress for Chinese women. But, the historic, “body-hugging” dress has evolved from 17th century Qing dynasty uniform to a stereotypical form of fetishising Chinese women in the West. This subject is a focus for Melbourne-based fashion designer Betty Liu who explores the typecast roles of Chinese women through fashion, particularly through the idea of the pure “lotus flower and its antithesis, the dragon lady,” she describes. Through examining the Western fascination with the qipao, which connotes “tones of hyper-sexuality and mystique”, Betty aims to create innovative work that comments on Asian stereotypes without “deliberately sexualising the dress.”
Speaking to It’s Nice That, Betty explains how she “looked into the idea of repetition through the qipao’s mass-produced manufacturing as seen in tourist souvenir stores and market stalls in China.” Subverting the ways in which the qipao is seen to objectify the body, Betty designs her garments in a deliberately exaggerated shape to “obscure the wearer entirely”. She interprets themes of body transplantation, beauty myths, waste recycling and most interestingly, Colony Collapse Disorder, through fabric, form and silhouettes, resulting in a highly crafted collection of garments.
With references to Said’s Orientalism, Betty further communicates ideas of the Western gaze through a performance which sees four models identically dressed with interconnected, enclosed sleeves sat around a table typically seen in Chinese restaurants. The table is set with authentic Chinese food as two models “enter the set… they start to examine the seated models and play with the food on the table” as well as the models’ hair. Their movements become more and more frantic “like it’s a game” and the performance, in turn, becomes a kind of re-enactment of “how Chinese food is often treated and perceived.” The fashion designer evaluates how “the ‘exotic’ roundtable setting with chopsticks and lazy Susan are seen as fashionable, but if the food served is a fish head or chicken feet, then people automatically reject it and say things like ‘how can you eat that?’ and ‘that’s really random’”. For Betty, the performance is another way of “experimenting with different modes of communicating the ideas of clothes.”
Additionally, fashion photographer Jess Brohier captures Betty’s design ethos through the series of photographs titled Eating the Other, created for Sukeban magazine. The images speak for themselves with impeccable visual clarity. The composition and light beautifully frame Betty’s garments and capture the performative movement of the models. For Jess, photography is a way of “reflecting [herself] through the subject and art direction”. She explains how her artistic aim is to “capture an authentic moment, a genuine connection and an unguarded sense of emotion,” that is evident in the delicate artistry seen in Eating the Other.
As a first-generation Australian woman of Asian descent, Jess’ creative process involves taking everything the photographer experiences into her creative repertoire of potential material. “Over the years, taking photographs has become somewhat automatic, and I deeply enjoy this automated, semi-subconscious journey”, says Jess. “Whatever aesthetic I am drawn to at any given time is constantly evolving, and with this, my particular editing and shooting style also adapts to suit that current taste.”
In this vein, Betty and Jess successfully collaborate to combine their creative vision through Eating the Other. The alluring photographic series elevates the intersections of fashion design, photography and performance, summarised by Betty who goes on to say: “I don’t see fashion and design as just about function and aesthetics, but rather a medium for me to construct ideas about the body.” The work crucially challenges the abundance of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry, specifically the “history of Chinese clothing which is often simplified by Western interpretation. I just wanted to break that glass of misrepresentation”, concludes Betty.
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.