This article was written by Ruonan Zheng and originally published in Jing Daily.
This summer has seen fevered discussions on mainland China’s social media platforms about the ancient Chinese fashions featured in a hit historical television drama series that has enraptured viewers across the country.
More than 700 million people – half of the nation’s population – tuned in on a single day to watch Story of Yanxi Palace, the 70-episode series focusing on the world of treacherous, back-stabbing concubines in China’s imperial palace.
The Mandarin-language programme being aired on the Chinese online video platform iQiyi has not only claimed the record for the online show with the biggest audience, but also has remained top of the trending list on the mainland’s microblogging website, Weibo, ever since the first episode was shown on July 19.
Netizens across the nation have described the show as nothing short of a “sensation”.
Set during the days of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), the show follows the predictable yet relatable storyline of how a loyal maid climbs “the imperial ladder” to eventually become the emperor’s favourite concubine.
What’s not a cliché, though, is the show’s well-rounded characters, as well as its sets and costume designs.
The authentic portrayal of ancient Chinese style in the show has had fashion bloggers obsessing over fashion details in long, fawning posts that track, frame by frame, all the show’s wardrobe choices – from clothing and accessories to hairstyles.
‘Chinese luxury’ redefined
“The symmetrical scene and colour coordination in the opening credit had a [Hollywood director] Wes Anderson feel,” wrote China’s top fashion blogger gogoboi.
Unlike the flamboyant colours most television shows in China use, Yanxi applies a beautiful range of muted colours that delivers a sense of calm and nostalgia.
The production crew has also tried to recreate historical details as accurately as they could.
For example, they sought out repairers of cultural relics repairers at the Forbidden City, in Beijing, who worked on the embroidery of an emperor’s robe using 18 different kinds of embroidery techniques, which cost more than US$53,698 to make.
The show also took its inspiration for the plots from the history books.
In the series, the main character is seen sewing threads made from peacock feathers and mixed with gold and silver string to create a dress for the empress – mirroring some of the brilliant real-life achievements of ancient Chinese textile workers.
The show’s accurate historical details, high-level of craftsmanship and the use of precious materials has helped to define a new level of “Chinese luxury” for audiences while presenting Chinese heritage style and fashion to a new generation of Chinese millennials.
The US$100 million production cost of the show’s wardrobe and props, it seems, has been worth it.
It may be tricky for fans to recreate an entire outfit seen in the show, but Yanxi has placed a new wave of lip look in the spotlight.
The technique, used by women in ancient China, referred to as, involves touching only a small part of the lips.
French beauty company Guerlain is the first brand to start a Weibo campaign based on this trend, creating a themed lipstick colour based on each character.
Distinct female characters
A post shared by JeonBoA (@jeon1105) on Aug 26, 2018 at 10:59pm PDT
The show has also been successful in portraying a group of well-liked and distinct female characters. The main character, Wei Yingluo, has a strong feminist bent; she is a smart, independent woman who is unwilling to bow down to the imperial politics.
It is rare to see such a positive representation of women, and netizens have dubbed her a “gangsta sister” (社会姐).
A post shared by Lawrence Wong 王冠逸 (@ohohlawrence) on Aug 29, 2018 at 12:26am PDT
Countering this character is the show’s empress, who is gentle, refined and elegant – in other words, the ideal female character in traditional Chinese society; a woman who places family duty (to govern the harem) above personal wishes.
Bloggers have helped to give these characters iconic status in many ways.
The popular Chinese blogger Mr. Bags wrote an extensive post about contemporary luxury bags that these fictional characters would wear in today’s fashion world.
He selected Chanel’s Gabrielle to the main character, Wei, because it is a versatile item that is appropriate for any scenario, similar to the way she is able to handle any situation smoothly.
A post shared by Florence Hui (@florencehui106) on Aug 15, 2018 at 10:10am PDT
The Hermès Kelly – the handbag used and named after Monaco’s Princess Grace, the former Hollywood star Grace Kelly – however, is the perfect embodiment of the empress – both share a regal history and elegant air.
“A super classic bag like this is the ultimate goal for girls who dream to achieve the status of an empress,” Mr. Bags wrote.
Meanwhile, the actresses who have brought Yanxi’s characters to life have become the darlings of fashion magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle China, and the cost for brands to sponsor them does not come cheap.
In an anonymous interview, a publicist who works with the actresses broke down the potential cost to prospective brands.
“Because of the [success] of this show, an actress’ promotional fee will be relatively high,” he said. “The after-tax fee for Qin Lan (who plays the empress) to attend a brand event would be US$95,000, and her magazine editorial content would be US$4,400-US$7,300.”
He said the cost would vary depending on the calibre of the magazine and the type of coverage.
The Story of Yanxi Palace has generated commercial opportunities in overseas markets, not only for the programme, but also Chinese fashion as well.
The show’s creator, Dongyang Huanyu Film and Television Culture Company, has sold Yanxi’s distribution rights to market to other Asian countries and across Europe and in North America.
The show attracted more than 500 million hits on iQiyi during the first week of its release – not only from people across China but also around the world.
“The prospective viewers were not just interested in the stories, but they were also drawn to the Chinese culture and history behind them,” Yang Le, CEO of Dongyang Huanyu, told China Daily newspaper.
Yet the biggest surprise about the show could be how Yanxi’s Chinese heritage-defined style has created such a buzz – and had such an impact on the world fashion stage this summer ... and with no signs of cooling off.