- Artist, cheongsam designer and drag performer Scotty So’s photo series was inspired by people in Hong Kong wearing top-to-toe luxury monogram fashion
- He moved to Melbourne, Australia in 2018 to make art celebrating the historic Chinese fashion and music that he loves, but he now also explores other ideas
As a child, Hong Kong-born artist Scotty So would marvel at the glamorous photos of his grandmother and great-grandmother from the 1950s that hung on the walls of his family home in Lam Tin.
He loved their immaculate hair and make-up – and most of all, their cheongsams.
He now makes his own cheongsams, which he wears for his drag performances at bars and galleries in Melbourne. After moving to the Australian city in 2018, he has emerged as one of the rising stars of its contemporary art scene.
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So has eight exhibitions coming up in Australia and internationally in 2023. They include a solo show at Footscray Community Art Centre in Melbourne, from February 14 to June 14; the group exhibition “Melbourne Now” at the National Gallery of Victoria, opening on March 24, which celebrates the best young artists working in the city; and a group exhibition with Mars Gallery at the Photo London fair in May.
His early life in Hong Kong shapes almost all his art, much of which explores the role of clothes in shaping – and broadcasting – identity.
One recent series, “Hai KotTou, But Make It Fashion”, blends So’s interest in traditional outfits like cheongsams with a more recent fashion phenomenon that he observed in Hong Kong: people wearing top-to-toe monogrammed clothes from luxury labels.
“I think there’s something really interesting about wearing full-on monogram fashion. It’s so camp but it’s so ugly,” So says. “Hong Kong is such a capitalist city that everything is about money. That is the culture.”
So has personal experience of how important luxury brands are to Hongkongers. “My grandma would always wear her Burberry scarf to the wet market,” he says.
With that image in mind, for “Hai KotTou, But Make It Fashion” he has created a series of mock fashion campaigns featuring himself shopping in drag, dressed head-to-toe in outfits covered in fake monograms that mimic those of leading labels.
In many of the images, he is pulling a trolley bag much like the one his grandma always took to market, except So has made his trolley bags look like designer goods from top fashion houses.
By turning trolley bags – normally practical, workhorse items – into objects of desire, So is questioning what clothes we value and why. Can a monogram alone turn the humble trolley bag into a must-have accessory?
Beyond how branding can alter an item, So’s works also comment on how clothes can change their wearer.
In his photos, he appears as an elegant woman dressed in expensive outfits. But he is in fact wearing fake goods he made himself, and he is a man. He suggests that with the right clothes we can all appear as whoever we want to be – even if we are ultimately creating an illusion.
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This interest in fashion as fantasy stems from So’s interest in drag. He started performing in drag in Hong Kong in 2017 at a gay bar in Sheung Wan, but found that his act, for which he wore a cheongsam and lip-synched to songs by 1940s Chinese divas such as Yao Lee and Bai Guang, wasn’t what the audience wanted.
“The vibe in Hong Kong is that you have to do a song that’s high-energy pop,” he says.
He wanted to create thoughtful performances that explored Chinese history and identity, rather than flashy shows that simply imitated contemporary Western pop culture, like in the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“I couldn’t do what I wanted until I moved to Melbourne,” he says.
Since moving to Australia, So has continued to make art celebrating the historic Chinese fashion and music that he loves, but he has also begun exploring other ideas.
At the upcoming “Melbourne Now” show, he is exhibiting a dual-channel video work that uses drag to ridicule sexism in the world of classical music. The work is inspired by renowned cellist Jacqueline du Pre, who died from multiple sclerosis in 1987 when she was just 42.
Although this piece is not explicitly about fashion, So uses clothes to create two different characters in the video, both of whom he plays: a male musician who projects confidence and is dressed in a sharp suit, and a feminine figure who appears nude apart from a turban.
So says the video highlights the absurdity of classical music’s continued celebration of the male genius, and the reduction of women to beautiful bystanders, when there are so many talented female musicians such as du Pre.
That message is partly conveyed by the characters’ outfits, or lack thereof.
“You carry yourself differently in different clothes,” So says. “Clothes can create an identity.”
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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