States of Undress is a documentary TV series by Viceland that is screening on SBS‘s On Demand. The series explores issues that the global fashion industry often ignores. It is presented by American model and actress Hailey Gates, who in the first series travels to Pakistan, Venezuela, the Congo, Palestine, Russia, and China.
The China episode begins with Gates visiting a spa in Beijing to receive a beauty treatment that involves fire. Though it’s never explained why they do this — it looks like quite an experience.
She brings to our attention that China produces 65 percent of the world’s clothing, and because of its cheap labor, it has become the largest global manufacturing power. Most people associate the “Made in China” label as being cheap or of lesser quality, so local designers are trying to turn that reputation around by designing and manufacturing locally.
The show takes us to China Fashion Week, which is put on by the Chinese Communist Party. Gates is there to determine whether there is a discrepancy between what the government wants her to see and what is really going on in China.
She touches on how freedom of expression and human rights are heavily suppressed in order to maintain the “One Party” mindset.
Gates spends time at the Western finishing school Institute Sarita, where Chinese students learn the importance of etiquette. For example, there is a subject on Western table manners and how correctly pronounce designer labels. Students also learn how to dress for success, and how to walk upright as they practice with notebooks on their heads. They also learn what cutlery to use in an 8-course meal, and about how to purchase lingerie, as you couldn’t buy bras for many years in China.
Gates visits Beijing designer Guo Pei, who is most well known for the golden gown Rihanna wore to the 2015 Met Gala. The gown took two years to make, weighed 55 pounds, and it has been said: “Only a person with the confidence of a Queen could pull off that dress.” Hailey Gates wanders through her studio, marvels at the quality of the designer’s work with hand embroidery techniques, and even manages to try on the famous dress.
Guo Pei talks about the importance of trying to maintain traditional craftsmanship, which was largely lost during the Cultural Revolution and other conflicts. She is actively trying to bring back this creative tradition.
Next, Gates travels to Guandong to visit factory workers to discuss their lack of worker rights. One of the factories she visits was recently upgraded. The quality of the work has improved and so have the working conditions. But Gates questions to what extent? She talks to a mother with two children and learns she only gets to visit her children twice a year, as that is all the time that she can afford while working in the factory.
Factories in Guandong produce one-third of the world’s shoes, toys, and clothes. While in the province, she visits Yantian, one of the world’s largest ports, and an intense portrait of consumption.
Gates has dinner with artist Kong Ning, who creates artwork calling for environmental protection. She makes outfits made out of unusual objects that she wears in public as a protest about environmental issues.
She shows Gates a dress based on the idea of marriage to the sky. It’s made from 999 masks, each with a butterfly representing her hope that they will take the smog away. Kong Nin is very concerned that her country has ignored the environment while focusing solely on economic development.
Gates next talks to a fashion model to understand a little more about what it means to “cross the line” for designers and artists from the standpoint of “not wanting to disturb the social order.” This discussion leads her to explore what it is like for those trying to change the status quo.
Wang Shou-Ying, a designer from a poor family in a remote area of China, became an Internet sensation after posting pictures of her dress designs made from the most basic of materials available to her – sacks, sticks, leaves, tools.
Wang Shou-Ying is invited to Chinese Fashion Week and decides to dress Gates in one of her designs using objects found in a grocery store. The pair were turned away as the clothing was deemed too unusual.
Here is a trailer for season 1 of States of Undress:
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