Diana Hutchins Angulo
Followers of this website are well familiar with the recollections of Diana Hutchins Angulo, a lady currently living in Philadelphia who, as the daughter of a US naval officer, spent the early years of her life in China. Now approaching her ninety-eighth birthday, Mrs. Angulo, a very chic woman herself, here reflects on the fashion scene which existed in Shanghai during those turbulent times between the two World Wars. In a sense, this article and the earlier ones combine to present a kind of autobiography of the redoubtable Mrs. Angulo.
As I once wrote in an article for the Social Register Observer (Winter 2001), “Shanghai was known then as a wicked, exotic and corrupt port, the ultimate Sodom and Gomorrah, the Babylon of the Orient. Filled with mystery and misery, intrigues, bordellos, opium dens, non-stop night life and every sexual pleasure, there was still a measure of highly civilized life amongst the foreigners and Chinese residents of this spectacular city.”
An important aspect of this “highly civilized life” in those days, and one I would like to write about now, was the extraordinary fashion scene that managed to flourish. Despite all the intrigues and the chaos, the designation “haute couture” was brought into full play by the melange of foreigners from all over the world and by the chic Chinese ladies with their outstanding savoir faire and their perfectly cut traditional dress, the tapered cheongsam.
From Lanvin, Worth, Mainbocher, and Molyneux, models were imported directly from the big houses in Paris, Rome, and London. The early treasures of Chanel (which certainly are still treasures) appeared along with those of the enormously popular Madame Grès, whose incomparable draped designs were the epitome of allure and femininity. And even Elsa Schiaparelli was well represented then, but curiously only with her amusing knit caps. They were quite the rage.
Worth noting too was that for those living in Shanghai at the time and not anxious to pay the price of authentic couture, skillful tailors were producing superb copies. Many foreigners posted in the city did not have sufficient living expenses for the demanding social life. The Shanghai tailors and talented Russian and other European dressmakers provided a wonderful alternative—all kinds of chic outfits and even beautiful ball gowns.
For the highest quality in silks, brocades, cottons and embroideries, Lao Kai Fouk on Nanking Road (Shanghai’s answer to Fifth and Madison Avenues) was the ne plus ultra, a veritable paradise for those of us wanting to look as chic and pretty as possible. The shop consisted of a series of small showrooms with boiserie shelves stretching to the ceiling and framed with bolt after bolt of glorious fabrics—sari silks from India, printed silks from France and Italy, especially delicate silks from Siam (as it was called then), local pongee, and assorted deluxe cottons as well. Master Lao would unravel each bolt just enough to satisfy a customer’s whim and he or a member of his staff would offer a small bowl of green tea if a lady so desired. There were Chinese stools and chairs for the customers and a laughing Buddha on a stand who smiled benignly at all the participants.
As I was in those days a young American girl growing up in this city that was witnessing a particularly unsettled time in history, I learned to be a savvy and fascinated observer. For there were not only the never-ending maneuvers of the Chinese warlords and the ceaseless ripples from the Second Sino-Japanese War to contend with, but also the endless streams of refugees from Europe looking to escape the growing Nazi and fascist threats. We all knew that the balance of power and our own lifestyle was eroding and fading. Le rideau est tombe — the curtain has fallen.
But not withstanding this political malaise, life moved on. And as young as I was, it often occurred to me how maintaining a sense of style was a way of dealing with all the details of living under the stress of wars and daily chaos. Looking back now, I realize that it was also a way to maintain the image of our homeland that we wished to project.
Shanghai’s own special contribution to fashion was Madame Eleanor Garnett, a superb designer whose atelier was filled with the most elegant women of Shanghai. Mme. Garnett herself was a slim and stunning blonde known at that time for her salons near the Hassler Hotel in Rome and in New York as well. She had been brought to Shanghai as one of the many Russian immigrants seeking sanctuary from the Bolshevik revolution. These people contributed a multitude of talents to the city and she was a prime example.
Eleanor Garnett had been born in Estonia and at fifteen, she met and fell in love with Richard Garnett, the head of the czar’s household guard. Her family only agreed to the couple’s marriage because the Russian Revolution was underway and they thought that this marriage might protect her future.
After her marriage Mme. Garnett and her husband traveled on the czar’s boat from port to port. Certainly this should have been a glamorous life, but one evening the Bolsheviks attacked the boat while they were in port for dinner and her infant daughter was killed. She and her husband escaped and later managed to get to Shanghai when the Revolution expanded. Once there, her husband, Richard, unable to deal with the reality of their lives, committed suicide and left her in a poor Chinese quarter with an infant son and no money. Her son died of pneumonia, and she was left alone.
When I knew Eleanor Garnett, however, those sad days were behind her.
Another beloved couturier in Shanghai then was Mme. Linoff whose own designs were, as her clients were wont to say, “smashing.” Linoff’s salon was also filled with original models from all the top houses in Europe. The spring and fall showings here were particularly exciting with exotic Russian girls as models. Their high cheekbones and narrow hips were de rigueur and it was a delight to watch them sway down the runway in their sensuous parade, draped in satin, silk, and brocades. And with the harsh Shanghai winters in mind, soft wools, tweeds, jerseys, and a vast collection of luxurious furs were also on display. Champagne was served along with lots of Russian caviar and tiny hors d’oeuvres. Perhaps these goodies helped to seduce the husbands and lovers and turned the entire audience into a notably receptive clientele.
It is interesting to note that Mme. Linoff’s brother was an unrivaled jeweler with a studio on Nanking Road called Maison Arcus. His designs and settings were unique, featuring fine workmanship and heavily influenced by pieces from Asia, Russia, and France.
For the well turned-out gentlemen of the city there was Macbeth Gray for their custom-made suits, riding habits, dinner jackets, tailcoats, etc. This shop could have just as well been located on London’s Bond Street. It was presided over by Mr. Ivory, a robust, ruddy-cheeked Scot with a slight burr. He was the ultimate tailor and the preferred advisor to legions of young lions, husbands, obsessively dedicated sportsmen, and would-be Romeos of all ages.
Macbeth’s had a splendid wooden horse for the equestrians to mount in order to make sure that their jackets and jodhpurs were fitted to ensure perfection of line and cut while mounted. This was particularly important for all equestrian members of the Hunt Club. But it should be noted that the much coveted “Pink” given to the winners would usually be ordered from the UK. (In those days, formal hunt coats were referred to as “Pinks,” which derived from the London tailor Mr. Pink of Jermyn Street. Today most aficionados feel this appellation is inaccurate.)
The social life in Shanghai in these tumultuous days was glamorous and constant. Military receptions, balls, even dinner dances aboard the British, Italian, and French ships where generals and admirals, diplomats and debutantes all danced and flirted. Similarly the US Navy and Marines entertained at the French Club. All these parties were the greatest goodwill ambassadors of their respective countries. Once more, elegant dress held sway with even the gentlemen officers in their impeccable dress uniforms.
Alas, with the advent of World War II all this changed dramatically and well-worn garments were given new life to be worn in far different settings. Known as “makey-do-overs” in Chinese pidgin English, this style of dress was very much a part of life on the main streets and even in the Japanese internment camps where the Americans, British, French, and Italians—all then enemies of Japan—were interned for the duration of the war. Needle and thread, if available, became very important.
An amusing footnote:
Later, in the mid-fifties, I was living in Philadelphia, where my daughter was at school. A package arrived from a great friend, Mme. Georges-Picot, who was also a friend of Mme. Schiaparelli’s. The designer was, by that time, known for much more than her amusing little knit caps. The package contained what I thought were two beautiful and colorful silk scarves. It was my sophisticated husband who quickly informed me that the scarves were actually a bikini bathing suit!