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May 1, 2011

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Stitches of Chinese history

WOMEN seem to be born with a natural obsession with fashion, fascinated by the latest must-have clothes and exaggerated accessories. While for Shi Jue, her passion for fashion lingers on vintage clothing, especially from during China's Republican period (1911-1949).

Inspired by a scholar, the native of Nantong, Jiangsu Province, fell in love with antique fashion dating back to Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and started to collect vintage items. Her collection is like a vivid chronicle of changing fashions and times, which illustrates the sweeping transformations in cultural influences and attitudes, including those toward women, especially from the 1920s to 1940s. There are loose, traditional gowns and trousers, as well as spectacular costumes, slinky gowns of the 1930s and 40s, wedding gowns, all kinds of qipao and men's suits - from so-called Sun Yat-sen jackets with high collars to Western suits with wide lapels.

Around 150 garments and accessories from her collection are now showcased in an exhibition at the Shanghai Grand Theater Gallery. The free exhibition goes through May 9. Sitting among her collection in the gallery, Shi explained to Shanghai Daily her love for antique fashion.

"Clothing is the first indicator of a person's character and identity," Shi said. "From the dress cuts and patterns of our predecessors, we can learn a lot about their lives, status and emotions."

"The most intricate costume changes in China's history took place from the late Qing Dynasty to the period of the Republic of China, when China was undergoing unprecedented transformation," Shi explained. "Concepts of the old and new, East and West coexisted, having a great impact on clothing design."

Shi's affinity with antique and vintage clothing began only several years ago during construction of her private garden in Ming (1368-1644) and Qing style. She filled the garden and its apartments with antique furniture and decoration, but as she looked at the empty wardrobes and drawers, she knew something was missing.

On the recommendation of her friends, Shi got to know an elderly researcher at a museum in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, who had an extensive collection of garments and accessories from the Qing Dynasty to the Republican period.

She was awed by the delicacy and elegance of the well preserved and wide range of garments, shoes, hats, handmade purses covering around 40 years.

"Women are naturally sensitive to beautiful clothes and they have an irresistible charm," she said of the coveted collection.

It took Shi more than six months to persuade the scholar to turn his treasures over to her at the cost of over 1 million yuan (US$153,800), on condition they would not be sold for speculation or used for commercial purposes. She promised to preserve and showcase them, educating people about their sartorial heritage.

Shi's favorite items include a man's light-weight, summer suit made of "breathing" ramie fiber, a brightly colored set of bride's accessories, and a child's garment made of luxurious fabrics that once belonged only to nobility. The garment was made in the 1950s by a mother in the countryside, using gorgeous old robes. Considered symbols of feudalism, many were destroyed and some were given away by museums.

"Life is more convenient these days, but in terms of exquisite work and comfort, I don't think contemporary people have surpassed our predecessors," Shi said. "In ancient times, people had plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely life and cultivate their interests. Today, time and leisure are luxuries."

Shi is also a connoisseur of old embroidery styles, and many of those traditional arts are fading for lack of interest, apprentices and funding to keep them alive.

To preserve and revive the traditional folk arts, Shi initiated the China Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Fund in Hong Kong last year. As a major funder, Shi has provided financial support for the preservation of Shen embroidery, which once flourished in her hometown of Nantong.

Since most folk artists are elderly, Shi is collaborating with local colleges to train student apprentices to practitioners of "endangered" arts.

A lesson she learned from the commercialized "preservation" of Gu embroidery, original from Songjiang in Shanghai, is never to make too much too fast and exploit the art.

"Gu embroidery has now been developed into an industry, even using machines for large-scale production," she said. "Further, the use of chemical dyes instead of natural mineral and vegetable dyes has gone astray from tradition, leading to a decrease in artistry and quality."

She has created a database for the items in her collection, to be used for academic research, and is considering building a private museum to showcase her treasures in the near future.


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