A cultural revolution is under way in Hollywood as celebs of both sexes get chic in chinoiserie. In June, Laura Dern went for Eastern exposure in a clingy, frog-toggled cheongsam (pronounced churng-saam, meaning “long dress” in Cantonese) at L.A.’s Pediatric AIDS picnic. Lara Flynn Boyle frolicked in her version of the Far East fashion at the L.A. premiere of Threesome in April. Sharon Stone wore Vera Wang mandarin pajamas for a Barbara Walters interview last year, while just last month, Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson got slinky in silk for the TV movie Snapdragon. Says Betty Goodwin, fashion columnist for the Los Angeles Times: “Cheongsams are sexy without being trashy. It’s like a Chanel suit from China.”
Evolved in the 19th century from Manchu gowns and introduced to the West through newsreels of Madame Chiang Kai-shek in the ’40s, the formfitting frock was made popular by the 1960 B film The World of Suzie Wong. A classic that’s waxed and waned ever since, the look recently turned up again onscreen as worn by Madonna in Body of Evidence, Chinese beauty Gong Li in Farewell My Concubine, and several of the cast in The Joy Luck Club. Even men have taken up the silken path. Actor Corey Feldman sported a black mandarin jacket at the opening of Circus Vargas in Hollywood last month, while Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers wore a red one to last year’s BMI Pop Awards.
Though Chinese wear has long been available on the cheap in anytown’s Chinatown, designers Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Yves Saint Laurent (whose 1994 Oriental creations Catherine Deneuve declared, “Magnifique!”) have updated the look with ’90s-style price tags. While custom models run up to $1,200, L.A. Law’s Susan Ruttan picked hers up at a thrift shop for $35.
The very newest designs have extra ooh-la-la. Says L.A. designer Pamela Barish, whose cheongsam fans include Dern, Rosanna Arquette and Jennifer Grey: “Mine have a very deep opening at the neck so you can see some cleavage.”