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Transcontinental Chic: The Extraordinary Life of Madame Wellington Koo

By : Alex Aubry
Transcontinental Chic: The Extraordinary Life of Madame Wellington Koo

The early part of the 20th Century was populated by an alluring group of chic women, who cleverly exploited fashion as a vehicle to charm their way into international social circles. During this period, it became fashionable for Chinese women of rank to be addressed as Madame, and the chicest among them was Madame Wellington Koo. Wealthy, multi-lingual and as comfortable in London as she was in Peking, from the 1920s-‘50s Koo introduced the West to an image of modern China through her elegance and glamour.

 

She was born Hui-Lan ‘Juliana’ Oei in 1899 in Semarang, Java. Her father, the Chinese sugar plantation owner and shipping tycoon Oei Tiong Ham, was considered one of the wealthiest men in South East Asia at the time. Koo, who was the youngest of his two daughters from his first wife, spent her childhood growing up on a sprawling estate in Indonesia that included a stately mansion and a private zoo of exotic animals surrounded by landscaped gardens and an artificial lake. Instructed by her English governess and private tutors, she would learn four languages and frequently traveled to Europe with her mother and sister to go shopping.

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As a Peranakan, or Chinese born and raised outside Mainland China, Madame Koo learnt to inhabit different worlds thanks to her unique cross-cultural upbringing. Not long after the end of World War I in 1918, Koo’s mother left her husband after learning he intended to take a second wife. She moved to London with her teenage daughters, where they took to dressing in delicate chiffon flapper gowns by Lucile, cutting their hair short into stylish bobs and learning how to drive. Together with her sister, Koo became one of the first Asian women to be celebrated for her style in European fashion and society magazines of the day such as Tatler, where she was described as having “a fondness for aviation and was among the first ladies to indulge in civilian flying.”

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In 1920 she would meet her future husband, the diplomat Vi Kyuin Wellington Koo, the Chinese Minister to the United States at the time, who would play a major role in expanding his country’s relationship with the West. By the time their marriage was announced in November 1920, Madame Koo was already known within London society, as could be seen in an article in the Times which noted “no dance or other function was complete without Madame Koo, a famous beauty who drove her own motor car about London…a little grey two-seater Rolls Royce that could often to be seen threading rapidly through traffic.”

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“Her wonderful complexion is well set off by dark eyes and jet-black hair. She has an alluring personality and is a great art collector and ardent theater-goer,” noted the newspaper of the Chinese socialite, who married V.K. Wellington Koo in Brussels in 1921 wearing an elegant Paris couture ivory gown by Callot Soeurs. On July 7th of that year, shortly after her husband was appointed Chinese Minister to the Court of St. James, she chose a Worth gown to wear to the State Ball at Buckingham Palace, accessorized with an ostrich feather fan, an ermine stole and a glittering Cartier diamond tiara.

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As the wife of a noted Chinese diplomat, Madame Koo would have a ringside seat at key events that would shape modern history. She frequently came into contact with the era’s politicians, presidents, kings, queens and socialites at diplomatic receptions and dinner parties. While her sons’ playmates included the young Phillip of Greece (the present Duke of Edinburgh), the Koo’s circle of influential friends also included Edda Mussolini, Winston and Randolph Churchill, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth (wife of King George VI and future Queen Mother), Madame Chiang Kai Shek, Daisy Fellows and Clare Boothe Luce.

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By the time Madame Koo took up residence in Paris, where he husband was appointed China’s Ambassador to France from 1936-1940, Vogue had officially named her one of the best-dressed Chinese woman from the 1920-40’s. Although she had been a regular client at the Paris couture salons for over a decade, she began to be admired for her chic ensembles that were a fusion of Western elegance and Oriental charm. She would creatively match exquisite cheongsams, which she lengthened or shortened according to fashion, ultra-sophisticated silk coats slit over the hips and lined in the same color as her trousers, and delicate embroidered skirts that she teamed with Chanel or Schiaparelli couture jackets and furs. Each look was complemented by a carefully studied set of diamond and jade jewels that offset her porcelain skin, which further heightened her intriguing and allure.

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It was during this period that she attended one of the last great parties given by Elsie de Wolfe at her luxurious house, Villa Trianon, in Versailles in the summer of 1939. The 700-strong guest list included Coco Chanel, Douglas Fairbanks, Princess Karam of Kapurthala, Elsa Schiaparelli, Millicent Rogers, Rothschilds, and members of Paris’s South American smart set that included Mme. Arturo López Willshaw. This particular ball on Saturday, July 1, would turn out to be last grand gathering of the international jet set before the outbreak of World War II, when two months later Britain and France declared war on Germany.

 

Shortly before Germany had invaded France in 1940, Madame Koo’s husband assumed his post in London as the Chinese Ambassador to Great Britain, where he remained throughout the war until June 1946. Madame Koo, who never travelled without a mountain of trunks and jewelry cases, managed to acquire safe passage to the United States with the diplomatic access available to her through her husband’s position. Together with her sons, her staff and her Pekingese, she boarded a ship bound for the safety of New York, where she lived till the age of 97. In her lifetime, she would be immortalized by six artists, including Leon Underwood and Federico Beltran Matisse, as well as noted photographers such as Horst P. Horst. After taking her portrait for American Vogue in 1942, Horst described Madame Wellington Koo as “a Chinese citizen of the world, an international beauty,” a fitting tribute to a woman who brought East and West together through her chic approach to style.

Wealthy, multi-lingual and as comfortable in London as she was in Peking, from the 1920s-‘50s Koo introduced the West to an image of modern China through her elegance and glamour.