Big note up front: I am a white person and am not an authority on what is or is not racist against AAPI folks. That being said, this is a guide that avoids cultural appropriation to the best of my ability and focuses on the general aesthetic proclivities and fire stylings in the movies of Wong Kar-wai, a director/screenwriter/producer triple threat from Hong Kong who is one of my favorite artists of all time.
If it’s aligned with your cultural heritage, for the love of god PLEASE rock a cheongsam layered under a sheer tee like my favorite WKW character, Blondie from Fallen Angels, does in the most perfect scene located at a McDonald’s of all time.
Another note: I am a nonbinary person who tends to shop in women’s sections as I am small and my sizes tend to be located there, but all of these tips/concepts are genderless and I’ll pull from various sources to suggest specific clothing items you can purchase.
Last note: I pull from all sorts of sources for fashion inspiration. I cannot afford a $1000 suit jacket and probably neither can you (if you can, uhhhhh please contact me and we can… talk…). I’ll try to include at least one sale/”affordable” (to normal people working shitty underpaying jobs like most of us) item per section, but this is all just inspiration and I am sending the thrifting angels to rest gently on your shoulder and guide you to a $15 dupe of that jacket STAT.
This “guide” will focus on characters from Fallen Angels, Chungking Express, and In the Mood For Love as they are my three favorite WKW films (in that order)! I’m gonna approach this by collecting my thoughts and suggestions under headings of specific design/fashion choices WKW uses throughout his film, such as:
Red, Green, and Yellow
Kar-wai is known for his use of concentrated, intense color in his lighting design that does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of storytelling and mood-setting. The colors that reappear most frequently in both lighting and costuming are red, yellow, and green. Red connotes sensuality, violence, and vitality, yellow lightheartedness and potential energy, and green growth, “nature,” and activation.
It’s an easy bet (doesn’t make it any less sick when pulled off with innovation) to choose one of these colors and make it the centerpiece of a look like Michelle Reis and Faye Wong, above, both do, matching lipstick and sunglasses respectively to their fits. Matching something small and unexpected to the largest colored piece you’re wearing gives an air of intentionality and levity to any outfit and is a simple, low-stakes way to incorporate some of WKW’s extremely deliberate color play into your day. Match your main color to your goals for the day (if you’re studying for the bar exam, green. If you’re going to visit your grandma, yellow. If you’re planning the murder of a loved one, red).
The REAL fear-factor-level styling work comes in when you combine more than one of these three colors while trying to avoid “Christmas syndrome” or looking like you’re cosplaying as a Rasta flag. In the lowest image above, the warm lighting makes Maggie Cheung’s blueish B&W cheongsam look decidedly green, and somehow it still works with the bright read coat she layers over it. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend the dress is actually green.
This is some high-level style fuckery and works for two reasons: the ratio of red to green is so high and the difference in brightness is so stark. When mixing any combo of red/yellow/green, choose one of the colors to be the source of “light” in the outfit–as high-saturation, bold-hued as possible–and make sure the other color/s are either much paler or darker/murkier. Avoid patterns in the bright piece and gravitate towards them in the duller pieces. If you successfully pull off a look with all three colors featured, please send pics and I will shower you with praise and boundless wonder.
Make Greyscale Interesting
As someone who lives in NYC, I see and wear many all-black/B&W fits, and many are decidedly BORING (including my own, what can I say, I am obviously talking out of my ass when it comes to fashion, maybe don’t listen to me…). The key to making greyscale looks un-boring is to harness the properties of light, as we have already established WKW is masterful at, via texture, layering, and light-catching accessories.
Don’t you dare go out rocking a white tee/tank + black jacket without adding a subtle or un-subtle chain around your neck to grab light and create some motion around your clavicles. Transmascs and Italians of NY already know this rule and have been owning it for decades.
Instead of a plain black coat or blazer, get one with grey pinstripes like the one Blondie “dries” with toilet paper for The Killer (Leon Lai) in Fallen Angels. Instead of plain black trousers, wear leather (I recommend keeping them baggy to create more texture and light play amongst the creases and avoid falling into the Forever 21 circa 2009 aesthetic). Adapt the rebellious teen girl/Michelle Reis technique of wearing black undergarments under a white shirt or dress. Add a pearl choker and/or a wide, tight black headband right on the hairline. B&W outfits set off skin tones and facial expressions, so make sure your visage is front and center. If you don’t believe me, check the tapes.
Horizontal stripes + vertical stripes? Yes. White over black? As we have discussed, please go ahead. Sheer skirt over shorts or miniskirt? Yes, but keep the skirt minimally voluminous to mimic the Faye flow. Patterned tank/bustier situation under a white button-down? Please. Baggy khaki jacket over baggy striped shirt with a baggy tie? Hell yeah. Being a cop? Ewww.
Same Shape, Different Pattern
To really “get into character,” try building a capsule wardrobe consisting of one shape profile (i.e. boxy short-sleeve button down + non-voluminous maxi skirt a la Faye or tight dress like Su Li-zhen) and multiple patterns. Su Li-zhen’s 20+ differently-patterned cheongsams are the real star of In the Mood For Love.
The sameness of the shape creates a continuity that makes pattern choices seem even more intentional and poignant. You are the protagonist of your life, and this wardrobe technique will emphasize that. Complete each day’s look with variations of the same accessory (tiny sunglasses with different-colored frames, a huge hair clip in several colorways, different iterations of a specific shape of handbag) to drive this point home.
Just… Find Me This Shirt
I don’t have much to say about this now-extinct Tank Girl shirt other than the graphic is perfect, the coloring is perfect, the fit on Takeshi Kaneshiro’s shoulders and chest is perfect, and if someone ever makes a well-constructed bootleg I will pay a truly sickening sum of money to get my paws on it.
Beauty: Be Polar
WKW’s hair and makeup looks tend towards the simple but dramatic as best exemplified by Faye and the Killer’s Agent. The former’s tiny bangs emphasize her seemingly makeup-free face (I would recommend going actually makeup-free, as the “natural” makeup look is not as WKW-aligned as a simply bare face, shiny from sweat or tears) and the latter’s glorious bangs-down-to-there make her dramatic red lip seem as though it’s emerging from under a curtain like the lips that open the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Moderation is not the name of the game here. Be melodramatic in your hair and makeup choices. You can always choose a different look some other day.
Things to Avoid If WKW Character is Your Goal Look
- Sweats (wear trousers and a comfy suit jacket as per The Killer in Fallen Angels or a tiny shirt and maxi skirt like Faye in Chungking Express. Just as comfy, but these characters would not be caught dead in Champions.
- Pink, purple, orange, and brown (khaki works)
- Polka dots (I will die on the hill that you should be avoiding these in general)
- Moderation in your beauty choices
- Color blocking
If All Else Fails
Pop on a trench coat that covers everything (you don’t even need to wear anything underneath if you’re really down bad), sunglasses not optional, wig if you so choose, and get out the door and into the moody, hellish, hopeful dreamscape that is Wong Kar-wai’s world. It’s also yours.