Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes
Beautiful, rich…and trapped
Korean auteur Park Chan-wook’s 2016 film The Handmaiden is many things cinematically – psychological thriller, erotic character study, love story – but it’s also a lesson in sumptuous period style. Set in 1930s-era Japan-occupied Korea, the story pivots around Lady Hideko, a poor little rich girl trapped in a Gothic mansion who may or may not be as innocent as she seems, and her “handmaiden” Sook-hee, who may or may not be as streetwise as she seems. Their journey towards love and liberation takes place against a backdrop of powerful, villainous men and gossipy servants. Through it all, Hideko shines as one of Asian cinema’s most arresting style icons, with costumes ranging from floaty lace dresses to seductive ball gowns.
Vintage “Poor Little Rich Girl” style as interpreted by Hideko
When we think of the “poor little rich girls” of yore, what comes to mind are doll-like beauties with peach-like complexions, dressed in spotless gowns. At first glance, Hideko fits this description to a tee – a fragile innocent with a penchant for delicate fabrics in virginal shades. In an early scene, she wears a white ruffled lace shirt with a taupe high-waisted maxi skirt for one of her erotic literature reading sessions. In a subsequent scene, she takes a painting lesson from the duplicitous Count Fujiwara in a white loose-fit cotton dress with a sailor collar and puffed, ruffled sleeves, all of which accentuates her child-like beauty. Along the way, we also see her in a stately, elaborately embroidered ball gown in cream-colored jacquard with sheer, sparkly sleeves, and – perhaps as a harbinger of things to come – a purple fitted dress with a black lace overlay whose modest collar is belied by the briefest glimpse of décolletage.
(Film stills taken from The Handmaiden)
As the plot thickens and we revisit events through Hideko’s eyes, we come to appreciate a different side to Hideko’s “poor little rich girl” style, a side that signals her true desires and the depth of her erotic knowledge. We not only see her in a garish, elaborate Japanese-style “reading” costume, but also in a relatively casual all-purple outfit – sheer lilac blouse and structured violet button-up midi skirt. Most resplendent of all is her off-shoulder, emerald green silk ball gown with dramatic bishop sleeves and lacy white cuffs, worn during a crucial scene. As colors shift towards the vibrant and shapes turn figure-flattering, we begin to realize that Hideko is bolder, braver and craftier than we thought. This is evidenced not only by her steamy scenes with Sook-hee, but also by how she takes charge of her own fate, manipulating her way towards freedom and a new life with the woman she loves.
(Film stills taken from The Handmaiden)
How to Make Her Style Your Own
Inspired by the many facets of Hideko’s persona, the two looks below provide a contemporary spin on her wardrobe with an “innocent-looking” ensemble and a bold, glamorous one.
1. Angelic and Sweet
A ruched, square-neck velvet top paired with a black maxi mermaid skirt spotlights Hideko’s love for luxurious fabrics and intricate designs. The shirt’s medieval cut and sensual ruching suggests a life of pleasure, while the skirt’s flattering but restrictive cut is a nod to the gilded cage our heroine resides in. Accessorize with a pair of retro-style drop earrings that combine a milky stone with turquoise and navy blue faux crystals, a homage to the Count’s gift to Hideko. Inspired by the movie’s fixation on gloves, I decided upon these lacy specimens to add extra vintage flair to the outfit. Finally, slip into millet-colored tweed lace-up oxfords if you’re out for a breath of fresh air! They’re comfy and practical without detracting from the retro vibe of the ensemble. Overall, the pale palette is broken only by the somber dark of the skirt – a hint at our heroine’s inward storminess.
2. Bold and Strong
Taking a page from Hideko’s choice of evening wear, I’ve created a bold ensemble in allover green. The subtly sexy buttoned off-shoulder top comes in dark green and is embellished by contrasting golden metal buttons along the neckline. Tuck into the forest green maxi skirt for full drama. For extra oomph and vintage appeal, attach button-up lace cuffs onto the ends of the top’s sleeves; for subtle sparkle, go for these drop earrings featuring a teardrop stud attached to a green crystal charm embellished with a golden star. Finally, toughen things up with block-heel black ankle boots! You never know when you’ll need to take a walk in the forest, or make an escape in the dead of night.
Poor Little Rich Girl – or Not?
By the end of The Handmaiden, we realize that Hideko was never your typical poor little rich girl. She may be able to look like one, talk like one and even act like one, but in fact, she’s nobody’s fool. Dressed in her deceptively innocent ensembles and bold vintage finery, she proves supremely capable of self-determination – a modern-day heroine, if ever there was one.