Something Borrowed

Laura Beaney

May 17th 2017

In a feat of fashion fantasy that took almost six months to prepare, Angelababy’s full-skirted Haute Couture gown by Dior was spellbinding. Organza sleeves and Chantilly lace adorned 32 metres of satin organza, 51 metres of tulle, and a seven-layer skirt, followed by a three-metre train.

Before the ceremony the bride posed for official wedding portraits in a series
Before the ceremony, the bride posed for official wedding portraits in a series of Elie Saab couture gowns

It was China’s most highly anticipated wedding that saw the actress and singer wed Huang Xiaoming, another of the country’s young, shining stars. Their extravagant ceremony reportedly cost AED 92,000,100, a figure on par with that of the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The bride wore a six-figure, six-carat Chaumet diamond ring, and had recently returned from Paris, where she posed in a series of Elie Saab couture gowns before the Eiffel Tower for her official wedding portraits. The lavish affair is symbolic of China’s new generation with new attitudes towards nuptials. While nearby India is known for boasting an extravagant wedding scene of its own, its opulent affairs tend to stay true to practices of the past, with gowns relying on traditional handwork and produced locally. China, on the other hand, proposes a new approach, taking contemporary cues from the West while upholding age-old traditions – its wedding industry is estimated to be worth between AED 183 billion and AED 293 billion.

The rise in China’s burgeoning wedding market can be attributed to several factors. “Today’s millennial bride is usually an only child with both sets of parents available to contribute financial resources,” says Ling Ying, who founded Weddings by Ling in Los Angeles in 2009. Ying quickly entered into the Chinese market due to its rapid development and need for high-end planners. China’s one child policy began to be phased out in 2015, but for the vast majority of today’s couples, there are no siblings to contend with, and wedding funds are often boosted further by four sets of grandparents. Second to this, China’s middle class is rising at an exponential rate: In 2000, just 4 per cent of the urban population were considered middle class, but according to a study by McKinsey & Company, 76 per cent will be in this group by 2022. 

As China’s new generation of brides and grooms continue to find their feet, creating their own traditions, there is an opportunity for designers and planners to codify these unique cultural drivers

“Today’s modern Chinese brides aspire to have a Western wedding,” says Ying. “Living in the digital world, it’s easier for brides to have access to information and trends from leading wedding markets like the US, making them more informed and trend-savvy. She knows what brands she wants to purchase, and what styles and colours are in for the season.” What makes China’s current industry so fascinating is its East-meets-West aesthetic. Often in puritanical republics, there’s a sense of yearning for the gilded ways of the overthrown aristocracy and in China, this is infused with a thirst for technology and a fascination with Hollywood; they’re also a nation that loves to shop abroad, and China’s citizens are enamoured by America’s TV-ready lifestyles and luxury brands.

The result is a Western-style ceremony with Chinese rituals. In the past, Chinese weddings were highly concerned with customs, from pre-wedding practices hailing from the Han dynasty, such as the selection of an auspicious wedding day based on the lunar calendar, and tea-pouring ceremonies. “Now they often add in a Western touch at the banquet, such as a wedding cake-cutting ceremony,” says Baileys of Vera Wang and Central Weddings Hong Kong. Western weddings tend to be a more intimate affair, with a focus on religion. “We often refer to it as the ‘Ceremony of God’,” says Ying. “By contrast, traditional Chinese weddings come across more like a production. They can be more glitzy, loud, and larger in size.” But, today’s couples tend to more selective, taking on traditions in-line with their taste and budget. “Most of them just want their wedding to be completely different from their friends and relatives,” says Ying. “It’s all about impressing their guests.” With Chinese weddings, the volumes are vast.

Regardless of whether you’re in the East or West, we somehow have the same expectation for our wedding to be one of the most beautiful moments in our lives

Guo Pei

They are weddings ‘for the people’, with guest numbers ranging from 200 to over a thousand, or in the case of Angelababy, 2,000. Dining comes in the form of an eight-course banquet, typically served with dish names that convey well-wishes for the newly-weds.

As well as audience, costume also comes into play when considering the magnitude of these weddings. The Chinese bride must consider several changes, starting with the Qua, a traditional Chinese wedding gown. “It’s usually in red, gold or silver embroidery, with dragons and phoenix designs,” explains Kalam Chu, a makeup artist who has attended over 700 Chinese weddings. The bride then usually wears a white dress as her main gown, followed by two to three evening dresses. “They prefer A-line and ball gowns, and also like a lot of embellishment,” explains Baileys, whose boutique houses designers like Vera Wang, Marchesa, and Monique Lhuillier. “I have once helped a couple of brides who had six outfits for a 12-hour wedding: the traditional Qua, two wedding gowns, a Chinese Zhipao and two evening gowns,” says Chu.

Like Angelababy, China’s elite are proud to assert their national identity and spending power. And, while she wore Dior couture as her main gown, the couple looked to the virtuosity of Guo Pei’s needlework for their tea ceremony. “Around five years ago, I made a gown for a client that was worth AED 1,066,866,” says Guo Pei, whose fine gold-threaded designs and themes of porcelain, fans and scrolls convey the sense of China’s longing for imperial grandeur. However, Pei maintains that ‘lavish’ is not a term she associates with the weddings of her region. “People with economic means do like to have high demands in terms of aesthetics. One of the reasons is because they are wealthier than before, but mostly it is because Chinese people have a strong sense of family and they take the ceremony seriously.”

Intriguing from more than just a cultural perspective, China presents a huge opportunity for Western designers to meet its growing demand. White dresses, honeymoons, cake- cutting and diamond engagement rings are becoming ubiquitous, but there’s still a strong sense of importance placed upon the past. As China’s new generation of brides and grooms continue to find their feet, creating their own traditions, there is an opportunity for designers and planners to codify these unique cultural drivers. “I once was a bride,” smiles Pei. “Regardless of whether you’re in the East or West, we somehow have the same expectation for our wedding to be one of the most beautiful moments in our lives.”