The Olympic hostesses who will present medals at the Beijing 2008 Games must dress to impress the world - and so every thread of their outfits must be perfect.
When those lovely ladies step onto the stage next month, their costumes will showcase the work of three select Chinese designers, who collaborated for more than a year with the Olympic organizing committee to ensure that every stitch would be just right.
The designs, which were unveiled last Thursday at a special reception in Beijing, weave together elements of traditional Chinese design with more modern touches.
The International Olympic Committee gave the dresses high marks. As a representative said after the unveiling: "The costumes are amazingly beautiful and full of Chinese cultural characteristics."
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the outfits did not feature red, a traditional favorite color in China.
According to Zhao Dongming, Culture and Ceremonies director of the Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee (BOCOG), there is a good reason for the omission. Zhou explained that the primary spotlight should be on the athletes, so the outfits of the hostesses should not draw away too much attention during the medal ceremonies.
Yet great care has been lavished on ensuring that the dresses leave just the right impression.
There are five main color themes, for different medal-presentation ceremonies. These are the "Sapphire blue" series, "Blue and white porcelain" series, "Chinese pagoda tree green" series, "Jade white" series and "Pink" series.
The dresses will be worn during a total of 302 Olympic victory ceremonies and 472 Paralympic ceremonies.
Each color series includes slight variations in the design of dresses worn by the medal presenter, tray holder and athlete escort.
After BOCOG announced a national competition for Olympic costume designs last May, the committee received hundreds of submissions from across China, from professional designers and common people alike.
Three top winners, You Jia, Guo Pei and Zhang Junqi, were later chosen by the committee. Still, the possibilities for dress designs seemed endless.
"At first there were quite a few different opinions on the designs," says Zhao. "For instance, we discussed whether to represent Olympic symbols in the costumes; or whether to use Tang Dynasty costumes; or whether to fuse Han Dynasty costumes with Cheongsam designs."
After numerous conversations between the designers and the committee, standards were set for the material and artistic direction: to highlight "Chinese elements, national characteristics and features of the time," while acknowledging the hostesses' roles as envoys of the international concepts of the Beijing Games.
One of the designers, You Jia, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Clothing Technology, says that she saw her job as a kind of artistic and cultural balancing act.
"How to keep the balance is really difficult in designing," You says. "The suits should not look too exotic, otherwise they may lack a modern touch; they should not be too innovative, otherwise they won't match the timeless tradition of the Olympic Games; and they should not look too luxurious or complicated, otherwise they are not suitable for the wearers' roles as assistants, but not the stars of the ceremonies."
You says that her designs were inspired by the interplay of blue and white hues on traditional Chinese porcelain. This theme, she says, led her to sketch designs that "all the committee judges fell in love with it at first sight".
Yet although the basic design was easily decided, You says the process of finalizing details was painstaking. In the end, she submitted about 40 designs, all based on the same inspiration - and "suffered" judges' critical appraisals as they prodded her to rethink various elements.
"Every detail is required to be perfect," says You. "For instance, I chose to use silk as the main fabric for the whole dress. But traditional silk is usually too glossy. To avoid such an impression, I used semi-gloss silk satin for the torso, and high-gloss silk of the same color for the skirt."
Veteran designer Guo Pei helped create the look of the Sapphire blue series, Chinese pagoda tree's green series, and Jade white series.
Guo has certainly faced tough critics before - in her work designing for such celebrities as Zhang Ziyi and Yang Lan.
Yet, she says she never felt the same amount of pressure as she did this time, in designing outfits for the global stage.
"As the costumes will be presented on the world stage so many times," she says, "I have vowed to design the most beautiful dresses, to impress both domestic spectators and overseas guests."
Guo says she had an additional objective. "I also hope my designs can change foreigners' old idea that China, as the world's base of clothing production, lacks trendy designs."
One of her unique touches can be seen in the Sapphire blue series. To design the waist belt, lavishly embroidered with gold peonies and featuring a long-tassel, Guo drew inspiration from the belts of ancient Han outfits.
Her Jade white series ingeniously reflects the color scheme of gold and jade on the Beijing Olympic medals.
According to BOCOG, the blue and white porcelain series will be worn by hostesses presenting medals for aquatics events; the Sapphire blue series will be worn for gymnastics, fencing and indoor ball games ceremonies; the Chinese pagoda tree's green series will be worn for cycling, shooting and modern pentathlon ceremonies; the Jade white series will be worn for outdoor ball games and equestrian events ceremonies; and the Pink series will be worn for boxing, weight-lifting and wrestling ceremonies.
The Chinese pagoda tree's green serise, one of five color schemes chosen for the medal ceremonies. photos by Guan Xin
(China Daily 07/22/2008 page18)