Forbidden City the musical: A lesson in power dressing

Forbidden City the musical: A lesson in power dressing

Loud and proud

Text: Adibah Isa

Image: Singapore Repertory Theatre

Clothes definitely maketh the woman, notably in a stage production that sees a 19th century concubine transform into an Empress Dowager

It's worth knowing that style is a sign of the times. Clothes are great to look at while on the rack, indulgent when worn, and represent a status symbol when shown off — which is why women and men alike have utilised this subtle power of dressing rather intrinsically. Whether or not a stylist is responsible, women in authority or a high social standing are responsible for representing not only their hold on society, but what women of that generation can look up to.

We've seen this from as early as the 19th century to modern day icons of power. With Singapore Repertory Theatre and Esplanade's staging of Forbidden City - Portrait of an Empress in August, there's no opportune time than now to look at how power dressing — in this case, with the help of celebrated local costume designer Yang Derong — can narrate a story of strength, vulnerability and authority. After all, human beings — no matter how high on the pedestal — are multi-dimensional creatures. A woman can wear a fancy dress, and still be taken seriously.

As multi-dimensional as they come, women in power are also creatures of habit. For reinforcement purposes, we reckon, but there's always something pleasing in routinely seeing former FLOTUS Michelle Obama in her feminine, silhouette-emphasising dresses; the late Princess Diana in her tailored blazers; Hilary Clinton in her trouser suits; Queen Rania in her skirt suits; Theresa May in her playful, unexpected footwear; and Condoleezza Rice in her pearls. This uniformity and expectedness recalls the style notes of the late Margaret Thatcher, one of politics' most important women of all time who set herself apart in Britain's male-dominated political scene with pussy-bow blouses and a bountiful bouffant.

While the 20th century saw scores of women and designers embrace the aesthetics of masculinity in their style (from getting rid of the corset to Giorgio Armani's power suit and the fight for women to wear trousers), 19th century China's women in power embraced femininity. Bringing the story of Empress Dowager Cixi back on Singapore's stage for the fourth time, Forbidden City - Portrait of an Empress sees returning star Kit Chan as the title character, Cheryl Tan as her younger self, the concubine Yehenara, with music by Dick Lee. Also playing a vital role is costume designer Yang, who's been tasked to tweak and change some of the looks for this fourth staging. The overall look and feel, he shares, remains the same.

Kit Chan in Forbidden City - Portrait of an Empress 

"I took a dive into anything that I can find from that period, books, movies, photos, museums, libraries, flea markets, internet... anything and everything," shared Yang in an email interview. Yang has worked on sets such as Beauty World and Hot Pants, and was also responsible for the costumes and art direction of the National Day SG50 Parade 2015. Working with a team of eight, he also sought resources from the real life historical photos, as well as Chinese and Cantonese movies and series made about that period. Of course, Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 flick The Last Emperor proved to be one of those sources. 

For those unfamiliar with Empress Cixi, she's been credited with bringing China to the modern age over her nearly half a century rule. While she started her life in court as a low-level concubine, she rose up the ranks after birthing the emperor's only child. After his untimely death, Cixi took over and encouraged the country to open up the modern world. Her reign also saw China going through waves of modernisation, which introduced electricity and coal mining to the country.

In old photos seen at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the empress is seen in silk robes embroidered with butterflies, dragons and flowers, with gems and pearls. Unabashedly feminine, her fingernails were also reportedly six-inches long and adorned with gold. See a preview of the musical below, and read on as Yang tells us more about the empowering craft of designing such a storied woman in history.

What do you think is empowering about the Empress' costume?
It's the colour, the details and the symbols used in her costumes, the hairdo, the make-up, the accessories and the overall look and feel that's befitting an empress and, importantly, her sheer presence.

Are there also aspects and features of her costume that inform the audience that, despite her power and status in the court, she's also a person?
There are scenes in the musical when she is not holding court that you can see the more personal and softer side of her in costumes that are lighter in fabrics. There's also lighter headgear to help create that look.

Could you talk more about how you created the Empress' two headdresses?
I worked with Ashley our hairdresser to create the headgear — traditional yet stylised, stunning  yet light, detailed yet impactful from afar — to establish the look and feel that's appropriate for the empress, and that also complements the costumes and the overall vision we wanted for the empress.

Yang Derong's sketches

Was there a thought to make the costumes contemporary or appealing to a modern audience? Why or why not?
There were lots of stylised modern details, shapes, fabrics and colour coding incorporated to create visual impact, flow, style and edge in all the costumes. The overall look has a period feel with a twist. I beleive this will appeal to a modern audience.

Who are your favourite female theatre style icons and what do you admire about them?
Eiko Ishioka and Colleen Atwood are some of the costume designers I look up to because I admire and love how they bring a character alive with what they create, and provide the foundation and transformation for the actors and characters to further enhance the role with their art.

Fabrics used by Yang Derong

Obviously costumes play a part in telling the story of a character, but how do you think costume designers can work that extra step in conveying something aspirational?
I think all costume designers do take the extra step or the extra 10 steps to help bring to life the character and message of the piece they are working on. Together with other creative teams like set design, lights, sound and choreography, we provide actors with a strong visual foundation for them to display their talents and art. The message that a piece would like to convey comes from a tight and seamless collaboration led by the director who pulls all his creative forces and resources together in the best, brightest, most beautiful way possible.

What do you think are your responsibilities as a costume designer in this day and age, where women want to be represented as more than just their gender, and to break away from gender stereotypes and roles?
I think the costume designer has the responsibility to the team and the entire production to design a killer set of costumes that enhances the characters, works beautifully with the other creative inputs, like sets and lights, to bring alive the piece that the director has envisioned; to get the audience's eyes to pop and jaws to drop. Costume designers adhere to the directors' vision, instead of going into the orbit with a different agenda.

Forbidden City - Portrait of an Empress runs from 8 to 27 August at Esplanade. Book tickets.

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