Cheongsam chic v the little Mao suit
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