The World of Chinese - - Contents -

How stu­dents dress has had sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural mean­ing over the last cen­tury. From the ori­gins of the ubiq­ui­tous track­suit to the sta­tus of over­seas styles, here's ev­ery­thing you al­ways wanted to know about school uni­forms in China, but were afraid to ask

Stu­dents re­turn­ing from Ja­pan brought new fea­tures, in­clud­ing stand-up col­lars. Orig­i­nally based on Prus­sian mil­i­tary de­signs, they were called “stu­dents’ suits” (学生装) in China. But de­spite a new­found ea­ger­ness to mod­ern­ize the na­tion through out­side ideas, the Repub­lic was also char­ac­ter­ized by strong na­tion­al­is­tic sen­ti­ments; reg­u­la­tions ex­pected that “school uni­forms should be mainly made of plain, strong ma­te­ri­als pro­duced in the coun­try.”

Al­though re­stric­tions had been lifted since 1907, fe­male schools were rare and lim­ited to stu­dents from elite fam­i­lies. They wore un­em­broi­dered ver­sions of typ­i­cal fe­male at­tire, usu­ally a cropped cheongsam top and black skirt, a look known as the “civ­i­lized new out­fit” (文明新装) which drew ad­mir­ing com­men­tary from some in the in­tel­lec­tual class. “Ever since the flour­ish­ing of fe­male schools, all stu­dents wear light makeup and sim­ple, el­e­gant clothes,” noted scholar Xu Ke, who de­plored the bound feet, pierc­ings, jew­elry and ex­ces­sive makeup that had long epit­o­mized fe­male beauty stan­dards. “Even women in broth­els copy [their] look.”

Nev­er­the­less the May Fourth Move­ment—in which over 3,000 stu­dents gath­ered in front of the for­mer For­bid­den City to protest the terms of the Treaty of Ver­sailles on May 4, 1919—stunned the es­tab­lish­ment. Speak­ing with pa­tri­otic fer­vor and elo­quence, the stu­dents de­manded a mod­ern­iz­ing na­tion that adopted ideas from Western civ­i­liza­tion. The en­su­ing pub­lic­ity ce­mented their at­tire within the na­tional imag­i­na­tion, and women’s uni­forms be­came known as “May Fourth suits” (五四装); they are now ubiq­ui­tous in films and TV shows about the early Repub­li­can pe­riod.

Sur­pris­ingly, tra­di­tional Manchurian gowns made a come­back in the 1920s and 30s as women be­gan fa­vor­ing a sin­gle cheongsam over their pre­vi­ous two-piece out­fits. “It is not to show loy­alty to the Manchurian Qing gov­ern­ment, ad­vo­cat­ing the restora­tion of the monarch, but be­cause women are in­ten­tion­ally mim­ick­ing men,” noted writer Eileen Chang. “In­flu­enced by Western cul­ture and in­fat­u­ated with the idea of gen­der qual­ity…they re­ject all fem­i­nine qual­i­ties and would rather ex­ter­mi­nate all char­ac­ter­is­tics of women. The early qi­pao were squared shaped and quite stern, bear­ing the air of the pu­ri­tans.” At schools, qi­pao were usu­ally plain white or In­dan­threne blue, but the newly fash­ion­able cheongsam soon took so­ci­ety by storm, quickly evolv­ing away from its prud­ish ori­gins into tight fit­ting, re­veal­ing ver­sions.

The war-torn 1940s ended with the ar­rival of the Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment in 1949. Un­like their Repub­lic pre­de­ces­sors, at­tire was prob­a­bly the least pri­or­ity for the Maoists, who were far more con­cerned with the no­tion of a united front be­tween work­ers, peas­ants and in­tel­lec­tu­als. In Yuan Ze and Hu Yue’s One Hun­dred Years of Cloth­ing, one Pek­ing Univer­sity stu­dent re­called a riot of cloth­ing styles in th­ese early years, in­clud­ing worker’s gear, long gowns, qi­pao, Western suits and leather shoes.

It didn’t last long. Amid a se­ries

In 2001, lo­gos for Beijing's ap­pli­ca­tion to host the 2008 Sum­mer Olympic Games could be found on many pri­mary stu­dents' uni­forms

In the heady days of post-revo­lu­tion di­ver­sity dur­ing the early 1950s, stu­dents on Hei­longjiang Univer­sity's cam­pus wore a va­ri­ety of in­di­vid­ual styles

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