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
Chinese architect and poet Lin Huiyin (far right) and cousins in middle-school uniforms in 1916 Students wear cheongsam at Shanghai's first all-female school, Bridgman Memorial School for Girls in 1937
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