Asian Fashion & Film | Asian Heritage Month

Asian Fashion & Film | Asian Heritage Month

Following our blog post earlier in the month about Old Hollywood actress Anna May Wong, we are continuing our celebration of Asian icons, films and fashion this week. First up is a 60s icon who became Wong's successor in Hollywood. Read on below!

Nancy Kwan 

Nancy was born in Hong Kong in 1939, the daughter of a wealthy Cantonese architect and a British model. Fearing the Japanese invasion, Nancy and her father escaped to Northern China in 1941, where they lived in exile until after the war. Her mother fled to England and never rejoined the family. Nancy went to boarding school in England and trained to become a dancer. 

Back in Hong Kong, she auditioned for the lead role in The World of Suzie Wong but her acting skills were not up to scratch. She was sent to Hollywood to study acting. She eventually won the role of Suzie Wong and starred alongside William Holden in the film in 1960. In one scene, Holden’s character rips off her dress, revealing her lingerie and saying "Wear your own kind of clothing! Don't try to copy some European girl!" The director was unhappy that Nancy wore a full slip and convinced her to wear a half slip and bra. The film’s make-up artists purposefully made her look “more Chinese” for the part. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote that Kwan, as a Eurasian, does not look fully Asian or European.

The film became a box office sensation and Kwan shot to stardom, being nicknamed the ‘Chinese Bardot’ and receiving a Golden Globe nomination. The success of the film provided an Asian actress with the most significant Hollywood role since Anna May Wong in the 1920s. An image from the film of Kwan wearing a short cheongsam and lounging on a davenport became iconic. She went on to appear on the cover of Life magazine in October 1960 wearing another Cheongsam. A long yellow satin one, which went on to spawn numerous copycats. Kwan commented that she loved the cheongsam and called it a “national costume”. 


Kwan went on to star in Flower Drum song in 1961 which was the first big-budget American film with an all-Asian cast. Her star rose higher.


In 1963, her famous long hair was cut into a modernist bob by Vidal Sassoon for the film The Wild Affair. It was nicknamed ‘the Kwan cut’ and it appeared in the American and British editions of Vogue, being widely copied. 


Her career was less successful after this as she was confined to Asian roles in Hollywood. She travelled to Europe to get more parts. She moved back to Hong Kong in the 70s and founded Nancy Kwan Films, which mostly made ads for the Southeast Asian market. She moved back to the States in the 1980s and opened a restaurant in West Hollywood. She experienced a shortage of strong film roles in the 90s.  

Kwan appeared in Arthur Dong’s 2007 documentary Hollywood Chinese where other Chinese dignitaries and she discussed the past accomplishments and the impending plight of Chinese people in the film industry.


Kwan and her husband Norbert Meisel write and direct films about Asian-Americans. Kwan also serves as a spokeswoman for the Asian American Voters Coalition, a pan-Asian political organization established in 1986 to aid Asian actors. She has appeared in more than 50 film roles and continues to work in LA.

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Director: Wong Kar-wai

Costume Designer: William Chang 

Setting: 1962 Hong Kong 

Starring: Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung 


This classic often makes it onto lists of one of the greatest movies of all time and is a major work within Asian cinema. Tony Leung was the first Hong Kong actor to receive Best Actor at Cannes film festival for his role in this film. The original Chinese title of the movie translates as “the age of blossoms” or “the flowery years”, a metaphor for the fleeting time of youth, beauty and love. The English title derives from the name of a 1935 song from the movie Every Night at Eight. Sofia Coppola has credited it as her biggest inspiration for her 2003 film Lost in Translation. The directors of Everything Everywhere All At Once, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, also credited it as an inspiration for portions of their Oscar winning film. 


William Chang won Best Costume and Make-Up Design at the 2001 Hong Kong Film Awards. Chang went on to be nominated for an Academy Award in 2014 for The Grandmaster.

Chang created almost 50 cheongsams for the movie, though fewer than 30 appear in the final cut, with all being worn at least twice on screen for different days. Their fit, colours and patterns dazzled on screen and lit up every scene. They were colour coded (with the sets) so that red signified love/temptation, green signified jealousy/new beginnings and yellow signified nostalgia. Cheung’s cheongsams changed with her character’s rising and cooling emotions. 

As Janelle Okwodu put it in a 2020 Vogue article “In Kar Wai’s world, mise-en-scene conveys as much information as dialogue and character’s clothing choices reveal sides of their personality they never express verbally. The quiet longing of Tony Leung’s journalist Chow Mo-Wan wouldn’t be the same without his buttoned-up wardrobe of suits and floral ties. Likewise, the sensuality of Maggie Cheung’s otherwise reserved secretary Su Li-zhen aka Mrs. Chan would not be as evident sans those immaculate Cheongsam dresses and bold red trench.”

The history of the rise and fall and rise again of the cheongsam is fascinating and part of this history is reflected in this film’s costumes. Thus, the garment firmly cemented its place in cinematic history. 

Besides the cheongsams, other important articles of costume also rank highly within the story. The affair that is central to the story is revealed through Cheung’s handbag and Leung’s tie. We won’t reveal here the reason why. 

As the two central characters grow closer, they dress in coordinated looks that share a colour scheme or pattern, signalling their connection. 


Please check out The Pankou website for a complete breakdown of every cheongsam Cheung wears in the film! Miranda's research revealed that the cheongsam’s had been made by at least two tailors: Hanyi (with master tailor Chu), based in Shanghai and Linva Tailor, based in Hong Kong. 

A standout for us (if we have to pick) is the daffodil dress worn against the yellow curtains and door frame. Chang, who also acted as production designer made sure every costume fit with the set harmoniously in each scene. Exquisite!

Our Rentals Collection


We wanted to share some embroidered satin lounge sets from our collection, which we could see Anna May Wong wearing in the 1930s. 


Satin beach pyjamas, sometimes with Asian design influences became popular in the 1920s. By the 1930s, they were being worn in the kitchen, garden, on yachts and more! Anna May Wong and her contemporaries were often seen wearing a designer pair. They made their way into department store catalogues at affordable prices. Satin Chinese and Japanese robes were also popular. 

In the 1950s, women’s pyjama sets with influences from as far afield as Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Austria, China and Japan became popular. Asian inspired sets could include elements such as mandarin collars, Chinese knot buttons and Asian print motifs. Pictured here are a few examples from our collection. 


Nancy Kwan was simply stunning in the cheongsams she wore in her film and promotional appearances. 

We looked to Chinese blogger Miranda from @thepankou ( to learn more about these gorgeous dresses. She wrote a great blog series about the qipao or cheongsam and we highly recommend checking it out. These are just a couple of excerpts: 

Part 3, The Golden Age of the Qipao: “By the mid 30s, many women had slits up to the thighs, revealing tantalizing flashes of leg and edges of their lace slips as they walked. This was contrasted with the long hemlines, and a high, stiff collar which reached the chin and kept the upper body straight and poised. Demure and proper on first sight, but with a hint of naughtiness – this was the allure of the 1930s qipao. When they adopted western fashion influences, the Chinese tailors also adopted some of the western cutting and stitching techniques. Tailors no longer cut in flat, two-dimensional shapes. Curved cutting (for example, taken in at the waist) was introduced, and darts were used at the chest and waist, along with separate sleeve seams. These new techniques created qipaos which were in complete contrast to a few decades earlier – figure-hugging dresses which showed off every curve of the female body.” 

Part 4, The 1940s and Beyond: “Reminiscent of Shanghai in the 30s and 40s, new immigrants (from communist mainland China) tried to replicate their old lifestyle in Hong Kong. Women wore qipaos, had afternoon tea and went to parties. Their tailors continued catering to their lifestyles, and by the 50s and 60s, qipaos in Hong Kong were so tight that they were basically like a second-skin. In the Mood for Love was set in this era in Hong Kong, and anyone who has seen the film will know that Maggie Cheung’s qipaos showed off every flaw (or lack thereof) on her body.”

Pictured here are some vintage cheongsams from our collection. 


Lastly, here are some of the kimonos and kimono-style robes from our collection.

Black rayon kimono with floral hand embroidery, lined.

Yellow rayon kimono with floral print, lined in cotton. 

Purple rayon kimono with floral print, lined in red silk.

Red rayon with yellow border robe, floral machine embroidery, unlined, rope belt tie.

Late 1930s sheer cream organdy kimono with leaf and dragonfly print, unlined.

Black satin robe with dragon cording embroidery, lined.

80s blue and gold satin damask robe with dragon motif and dragon embroidery on lining.

We hope you enjoyed this post and got to watch some Asian cinema this month!

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