Cheongsam chic v the lit­tle Mao suit

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Linda Jaivin

IF asked to name one quintessen­tially Chi­nese women’s fash­ion, most Aus­tralians would prob­a­bly cite the cheongsam, the high­col­lared, side- fas­tened gown that, on the body of Mag­gie Che­ung, played a sup­port­ing role in the suc­cess of Wong Kar- wai’s el­e­gant film In the Mood for Love . Yet the cheongsam ( Can­tonese for ‘‘ long shirt’’) evolved less than 100 years ago from a male robe. Its V- fronted stand- up col­lar, to­day al­most short­hand for Chi­nese style, re­ally caught on only in the 20th cen­tury. Even the Man­darin name for the gar­ment, qi­pao , al­ludes to Manchu, not Chi­nese, in­spi­ra­tion.

The qi­pao first ap­peared in Chi­nese cities such as Shang­hai in the 1920s. As in the West at the time, where women were un­lac­ing their corsets, ex­pos­ing their limbs and bob­bing their hair, in China changes in women’s fash­ions evoked lively, even fe­ro­cious de­bate about the role of women in so­ci­ety and chang­ing sex­ual mores.

But the story of the qi­pao is also part of a broader nar­ra­tive of moder­nity, na­tion­al­ism and re­sis­tance in post- dy­nas­tic China. Its rise par­al­leled the mech­a­nised tex­tile and cloth­ing in­dus­try, as well as a self- con­scious pa­tri­o­tism that prompted ur­ban women to seek out styles that were chic and con­tem­po­rary but un­mis­tak­ably Chi­nese.

By Maoist times, the qi­pao had be­come po­lit­i­cally sus­pect, a sig­ni­fier of bour­geois and re­ac­tionary at­ti­tudes. In 1963 Wang Guang­mei, wife of pres­i­dent Liu Shaoqi, wore one on a state visit to South­east Asia. Sev­eral years later, Mao Ze­dong made her hus­band one of the prime tar­gets of his Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion. In one of the most in­fa­mous in­ci­dents of that vi­o­lent era, Red Guards forced Wang into a grotesquely snug qi­pao for added hu­mil­i­a­tion while they pub­licly ‘‘ strug­gled’’ and in­ter­ro­gated her.

The Red Guards, of course, were wear­ing army uni­forms, or im­i­ta­tion army uni­forms, the fash­ion of the day. The other uni­sex must- have of the era was the baggy four- pock­eted jacket and trousers known in the West as the Mao suit. The Mao suit’s com­plex his­tory is hinted at by the fact that in China it is called a Sun Yat- sen suit ( af­ter the sym­bolic leader of the repub­li­can revo­lu­tion of 1911). It was also worn by Mao’s his­tor­i­cal en­emy, Chi­ang Kai- shek. It is prob­a­bly de­rived from turn- of- the- cen­tury Ja­panese stu­dent uni­forms and has a close cousin in the Lenin suit.

The his­to­ries of the qi­pao and Mao suit are but two threads in the clever weave of ma­te­rial, po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and cul­tural his­tory that is An­to­nia Fin­nane’s com­pelling Chang­ing Clothes in China . Fin­nane, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in his­tory at the Univer­sity of Melbourne, draws on sources in­clud­ing Chi­nese paint­ings, es­says and mem­oirs as well as those of for­eign vis­i­tors to China from im­pe­rial days on­wards, pho­to­graphs, the oral his­to­ries of Sang Ye, aca­demic work and pop­u­lar me­dia in Chi­nese and English.

She goes be­yond a strict def­i­ni­tion of cloth­ing to dis­cuss foot bind­ing, un­der­wear and hair styles in­clud­ing the queue. Sadly she passes on the fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject of tra­di­tional Chi­nese makeup regimes, though I note her su­perb bib­li­og­ra­phy in­cludes one of my favourite Chi­ne­se­lan­guage books on his­tor­i­cal cos­tume, which con­tains de­light­ful il­lus­tra­tions of lip­stick and eye­brow fash­ions through­out the dy­nas­ties and a par­tic­u­larly en­gross­ing sec­tion on the vogue in the Tang pe­riod for women to stick tiny dec­o­ra­tions all over their faces.

There is com­pen­sa­tion, how­ever, in such rev­e­la­tions as that in the Ming dy­nasty ( 1368- 1644), fash­ions in menswear in­cluded faux mil­i­tary tu­nics mod­elled af­ter those worn by north­ern ‘‘ bar­bar­ians’’ and skirts wo­ven from horse hair. There was si­mul­ta­ne­ously a fad for retro hats and bro­cades ref­er­enc­ing the cloth­ing of pre­vi­ous dy­nas­ties such as the Han and the Tang. Mean­while, Ming yoof, shun­ning both of the above, sought out styles their el­ders re­garded with pre­dictable hor­ror.

Fash­ion in China to­day is in­flu­enced by ex­ot­ica from Pierre Cardin to Korean television se­ri­als. The qi­pao and other retro fash­ions, in­clud­ing a one- piece wrap­around hanfu gown pop­u­lar 2000 years ago, are en­joy­ing a come­back. The postMao era has thrown up mem­o­rable crazes for the new and strange, such as one in the early 1980s for army great­coats worn with a cot­ton face mask dan­gling from a but­ton­hole and sun­glasses with the la­bel still stuck to the lens.

Fash­ion as con­form­ity, fash­ion as re­bel­lion, fash­ion as po­lit­i­cal state­ment, fash­ion as iden­tity: not sur­pris­ingly, the fash­ion page in Chi­nese his­tory is over­writ­ten with myr­iad so­cial and po­lit­i­cal anx­i­eties.

The con­cern of a Ming dy­nasty min­is­ter that long, skirt- con­ceal­ing robes in vogue with women cre­ated ‘‘ con­fu­sion be­tween male and fe­male’’ is echoed in de­crees of the repub­li­can- era New Life Move­ment man­dat­ing ap­pro­pri­ate dress for both sexes, and again in var­i­ous cam­paigns for ves­ti­men­tary deco­rum of the Deng Xiaop­ing era against ‘‘ spir­i­tu­ally pol­lut­ing’’ ac­cou­trements such as high heels. No cam­paign has ever suc­ceeded; even the pu­ta­tively pu­ri­tan­i­cal Red Guards knew how to wear an army uni­form for max­i­mum ph­woar.

My other chief re­gret is Fin­nane’s ne­glect of the place of cos­tume in con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese art prac­tice, a rich sub­ject that ranges from cross­dress­ing per­for­mance art to painterly fix­a­tions on the Mao suit, tra­di­tional dress, mark­ing the body and naked­ness. Sim­i­larly, af­ter her in­sight­ful com­ments on cloth­ing in Mao era pro­pa­ganda, I craved anal­y­sis of post- Mao era ad­ver­tise­ments.

As for cou­ture, Fin­nane notes that while China has be­come the world’s sweat­shop, it has yet to pro­duce a brand or de­signer that has any se­ri­ous in­flu­ence on world trends. De­sign­ers who pro­duce el­e­gant clothes for the home mar­ket ‘‘ ap­pear to have dif­fi­culty for­get­ting they are Chi­nese when fac­ing an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence and even greater dif­fi­culty in con­vey­ing their Chi­ne­se­ness in other than very ob­vi­ous ways’’.

She de­scribes one such de­signer who, in­vited to New York and Paris in 1999- 2000, draped ‘‘ heroin- chic mod­els’’ in tu­nics and skirts of em­broi­dered red satin, stuck red pa­per lanterns in their hands and dis­patched them on to the cat­walk: to be ap­plauded and hence forgotten. Linda Jaivin is a nov­el­ist, trans­la­tor and writer on Chi­nese cul­ture. Her last book is The In­fer­nal Op­ti­mist ( Fourth Es­tate 2006).

Chi­nese style: A fash­ion pa­rade on the Great Wall; in­set, cut­ting- edge de­sign mod­elled in Bei­jing

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