lily chen 1930's-1940's


It was gifs of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe on Tumblr – the microblogg­ing site popular in the late 2000s – that first got Lily Chen interested in old Hollywood films. She was around 15 and studying at a Canadian internatio­nal school in China when she first watched

Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That was her “gateway drug” into vintage style. Something about the way the starlets held themselves, plus the way their garments moved, captivated her. “I wanted to capture some of that magic in my own life,” Lily says. “I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer and tried to make my surroundin­gs beautiful. I’m a very visual person. As a kid, I always wanted to create my own aesthetica­lly pleasing world.”

The Western vintage fashions Lily became infatuated with weren’t easily accessible when she lived in China, so she curated lookalike bits and pieces from modern clothing shops instead. She returned to Australia for university, but it was only in the past few years (she’s 27 now) that she began dressing in true vintage, with a focus on the moody aesthetics of film noir. “I always say vintage clothes find you because so many things have to align,” Lily says. “It has to be the style you’re after, within your budget, in your size and in wearable condition.” Lily sources pieces from all over the shop, including Salvos, ebay, Etsy, Instagram and Gumtree. And while specialocc­asion garments like cocktail dresses pop up quite regularly (because people took better care of them), daytime skirts and blouses from the ’30s and ’40s prove harder to find.

Nowadays, her wardrobe also includes a hefty portion of vintage Australian brands. She attributes this to her friend Tom Mcevoy, a fashion anthropolo­gist who collects mid-century Melbourne brands and documents their history. “One of the coolest things that happened was when Tom took me to meet the family who owned Gala Gowns,” Lily says. “The son of the owner is working to bring it back into public consciousn­ess, and he gifted me a piece that fit really well. It was such a surreal moment – having a piece of clothing delivered to you by the person whose family made it. He then showed me where Gala Gowns used to work from and it was the building across from my workplace!”

It’s not just vintage clothing that sparks joy for Lily, though. Her curatorial habits naturally extend to her 1930s Art Deco apartment, which she’s slowly kitted out with homewares and furniture from the period. Her latest obsession is jadeite, an opaque, milky green material used to make glassware and tableware in the 1930s. “I first discovered it in the diner scene from Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood

For Love,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my god! What is that?’” Though Lily’s always been interested in history, seeing the opulence of Wong Kar-wai’s films inspired her to get back to her roots. “All these movie star photos I saw on Tumblr when I was young were of white people. So it wasn’t until I discovered Wong Kar-wai that I actually started looking into the history of China and Hong Kong,” she explains. “His films so beautifull­y capture life in 1960s Hong Kong, and that ignited a desire in me to do more research into my ancestors’ histories. My parents grew up in the Cultural Revolution in China, and my grandma has been through it all, so I’d love to hear more of their stories.”

She’s holding out, too, for the perfect vintage qipao like the ones she’s spotted on screen. Mid-century garments from China are hard to find, with much having been lost during the Cultural Revolution. “But it’s the thrill of the chase,” Lily says. “That’s part of what makes this fun.”

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