The last empress Cixi is infamous for her lavish lifestyle and extreme conservatism. Even at the brink of the empire's collapse, Cixi seemingly remained oblivious to much of disatisfaction plaguing the nation. Just as Eve is viewed as the "first woman," Cixi can be viewed as the last. Cixi's fall from grace echoes man's fall from paradise as it marked the end to dynastic rule in China. Here, she clings to an apple: a homonym of peace. But as the snake whispers in the ear, she looks forward, oblivious to the fruit rotting between her gilded fingers.
1920s/1930s Shanghai is heavily romanticized and glamorized, but income inequality between rural and urban areas worsened during this time period due to natural disasters and ineffective government provisions. "Calendar girls" were heralded as progressive indicators of improving societal visibility of women, but alternatively demonstrate the emergence women being objectified for advertising purposes. Shanghai became a sin city overrun with mobsters, prostitutes, opium dens, and gambling houses as warlordism reigned over the country.
During the Cultural Revolution, many youth took it upon themselves to help purge the nation of "bourgeois elements." Attire that deviated from the Mao suit was seen as anti-nationalistic, and women were encouraged to cut their hair. Through the desexualization of women, beauty became linked to patriotism. Able-bodied women who joined the labor force were idealized. The Red Guard's blind loyalty to Mao and "the little red book" resulted in the countless deaths and widespread destruction.
In 1978, Deng Xiaoping became leader of an impoverished China, still smoldering from the destructive Cultural Revolution. But in three decades of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” economic reform, the People’s Republic of China has become the world’s largest economy and the largest emerging market for luxury goods. Terms like 暴发户 (baofahu, overnight millionaire) and 土豪 (tuhao, crass rich) describe a new type of consumer: one who has money and is eager to show it. In the classic tension between old bourgeois and the nouveau riche, a new generation of super rich Chinese often partake in conspicuous consumption by stacking on easily recognizable designer brands to flaunt their wealth. Some of the most popular luxury clothing and accessory brands include Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Hermes, and Gucci.
China has solidifed its position as a global world power, but still lags behind as a second-world nation. As the country seeks to improve its international reputation, topics such as gender performance and sexual identity cannot be ignored. With a new generation of educated, empowered, international people, the understanding of "feminine beauty standards" has become increasingly complex. One can only hope that diversity, self exploration, and self expression can become the new norm.
Title: Beauty Talks
Date: July 1, 2015
Beauty Talks was an eight week, university funded, researched based fine art photography series. The project thesis was Feminine Beauty Standards as Insight into Socioeconomic and Political Change. Nicole examined the past 100 years of Chinese history through journal articles, advertisements, and films in order to understand how major changes in feminine ideals of beauty were indicative of changing national sentiments. Five major time divisions were constructed and then reinterpreted. These include: the late Qing dynasty, the Reform Era, the Cultural Revolution, the Open Up and Reform period, and a projection into the future.
All photoshoots took place in Shanghai, varying from the iconic Bund to active construction sites. Nicole worked as creative director, prop designer, hair and makeup artist, and stylist. Models included Chen Qinrui, Zhou Yu, Inez Tong, Larissa Song, and Roman Chen. Photo assistants included Dana Catherine, Roman Chen, Richard Huang Lewei, and Zhan Zhang. The final series will be exhibited in Spring 2017 along with explanatory text accompaniments.