City goes be­spoke, oth­ers fol­low suit

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By YU RAN in Shang­hai


Shang­hai men, known for be­ing well-dressed and suave, started the trend of wear­ing tai­lor-made Western suits as early as a cen­tury ago.

The es­tab­lish­ment of Shang­hai as a treaty port in 1843 at­tracted large num­bers of mer­chants from over­seas who started busi­nesses in the city. They wore for­mal suits while the lo­cal Chi­nese were still wear­ing long robes.

Tai­lor shops emerged in Shang­hai around the 1850s — most of the suit-mak­ers of that time be­ing Bri­tish or Jewish, brought here by Western mer­chants. They passed their craft on to ap­pren­tices who came from Ningbo and Fenghua in Zhe­jiang province, and these Chi­nese tailors be­came fa­mous for their skills.

“Most of those tailors learned how to make suits by mend­ing the worn-out out­fits of for­eign mer­chants,” said Bian Xiangyang, a pro­fes­sor who spe­cial­izes in ap­parel stud­ies at Shang­hai Donghua Univer­sity.

In 1896, the first home­grown Chi­nese tai­lor shop, Hechang, opened on North Sichuan Road in Shang­hai.

More shops run by Zhe­jiang tailors soon fol­lowed. Bian adds that another wave of lo­cal tailors started busi­ness in the fol­low­ing cen­tury, led by Baromon, a well­known Shang­hai suit brand.

In the early days, apart from for­eign­ers, only mid­dle­class of­fice work­ers em­ployed by for­eign firms and those who had been ed­u­cated abroad, wore suits in the city.

“Chi­nese suits were made along the lines of the tra­di­tional Euro­pean suits with jacket, vest and trousers, but were nipped in at the waist and shoul­ders to fit the slen­der fig­ures of the lo­cals,” Bian said.

From the 1920s to 1940s, the suit be­came unof­fi­cial but com­pul­sory wear for of­fice work­ers in Shang­hai, and even the low­est-level clerk would have two or three suits to main­tain their sta­tus and im­age.

“I re­mem­ber my grand­fa­ther telling me that ev­ery man walk­ing down the streets in old Shang­hai wore for­mal suits, even shoeshine boys,” said Meng Jia, a men’s clothes de­signer in Shang­hai.

In or­der to stand out in so­ci­ety, the wealthy and the fa­mous had their suits made in Bri­tish, French, and Ital­ian shops with ex­pen­sive im­ported tex­tiles, while most suits for city of­fice work­ers were made by lo­cal tailors at much cheaper prices.

“The rich kept up their el­e­gant im­ages with de­tailed ac­ces­sories to go with suits. There were diamond-stud­ded cuff links, silk pocket squares and hats,” Bian said.

“Un­like the fash­ion vari­a­tions for qi­pao, the tra­di­tional women’s dress, men’s suits changed only slightly in style but men still man­aged to dress dif­fer­ently each sea­son. For in­stance, they wore white suits in sum­mer and darker ones in win­ter.”

Meng added that old Shang­hai-style tai­lor-made suits closely fol­lowed Western fash­ion, and lo­cal news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines pub­lished what was most pop­u­lar in Europe at the time.

By the late 1990s, tai­lor­made suits slowly faded out as a more ca­sual style be­came global, rel­e­gat­ing the suit to for­mal oc­ca­sions.

“Men’s suits have turned from tai­lor-made to fac­tory pro­duced, while the tra­di­tion of wear­ing suits is also dis­ap­pear­ing as more peo­ple adopt T-shirts and jeans,” Bian said.

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