ES­SAY

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Frank Hersey

Fash­ion hap­pens faster now in China. You could even say fash­ion hap­pens first in China, but let's go back a lit­tle, to when a boxy ver­sion of the men's suit jacket was de rigueur across the coun­try for ev­ery oc­ca­sion, every­where. Now that I've no­ticed it's all but gone, I al­ready miss it.

In a way, it was fash­ion that first brought me to China in 2001. Tang dy­nasty fash­ion, of course. Back in the ninth cen­tury when Chi­nese in­flu­ence was at one of its peaks, its cul­ture was trans­mit­ted far and wide.

When I was de­cid­ing what to study at uni­ver­sity, I'd got it down to Ja­panese or Chi­nese. One day I came across an ar­ti­cle that said that what we think of as tra­di­tion­ally Ja­panese cul­ture – raised wooden san­dals, hair up in buns, or­nate fans – all came from China. Even the ki­mono, some­thing so Ja­panese we use the Ja­panese word, was the height of fash­ion at the Tang court, and be­came all the rage in Ja­pan. And stayed all the rage, right up till now. Well, maybe not all the rage, but it's still worn and re­spected.

China be­came the orig­i­nal in my mind and Ja­pan a mere well-pre­served car­bon copy. So down the Chi­nese path I went and ar­rived for the first time in 2001. Af­ter the ini­tial clichéd shocks, (so many peo­ple! so many bi­cy­cles! so many deci­bels!) I be­gan to re­al­ize there were some more sub­tle sur­prises. Apart from a few, iso­lated sites, there was very lit­tle of the tra­di­tional China I'd hoped to see, es­pe­cially in Bei­jing where I ar­rived. For cloth­ing, tra­di­tional for me would have gone all the way up to the Mao-era. There were a few girls in flammable qi­paos stand­ing at restau­rant doors, but ev­ery­one else was in generic ca­su­als.

Or were they? I be­gan to see that man­ual work­ers were, in a West­ern sense, bet­ter dressed than many of­fice work­ers, who can turn up to work wear­ing a Mickey Mouse Tshirt, fish­net tights and hot pants. Men work­ing on con­struc­tion sites or dig­ging up roads were al­most all wear­ing a dark gray or black blazer. There'd be the oc­ca­sional pin­stripe, but that wasn't im­por­tant.

Pulling a cart loaded with bricks? Put on your blazer. Run­ning with buck­ets of con­crete? Only with a jacket. Re­pair­ing a bro­ken down bus on the side of the road? Make sure you're wear­ing a col­lar.

There was some vari­a­tion in de­sign, but one thing was con­stant: it must not fit like a jacket. It must be way too big and al­most shape­less. You'd oc­ca­sion­ally see a young man, just start­ing out in a man­ual pro­fes­sion that re­quired a blazer. He'd be swamped by his jacket and look awk­ward, need­ing years to fill and shape it.

They weren't just for wear­ing on the job. They had many more func­tions. They made blan­kets for you and a friend on a train sta- tion floor. Lay it out­side-down on a dusty wall for an im­promptu group pic­nic – then shake it clean. Hold it over­head as an awning when squat­ting in the sun. Bak­ing heat or freez­ing cold, the jack­ets kept the wearer at a more com­fort­able tem­per­a­ture. Plus the pock­ets could hold ev­ery­thing a man needed in life.

Mao suits were also more com­mon when I first started visit­ing China, es­pe­cially in smaller towns. Older gen­tle­men might be seen go­ing about in them, but now I'd say they're firmly the pre­serve of “char­ac­ters.” If you're go­ing to take six cages of birds for a walk along the road, you're prob­a­bly wear­ing a Mao jacket. Get up at 4am ev­ery day to sing opera at a tree? You're wear­ing a Mao jacket.

Gen­er­ally, tai­lor­ing has been hurled in the op­po­site di­rec­tion and sec­ond-tier city real estate agents can barely sit down, their trousers are so tight. Jacket but­tons would ping off with an abrupt turn on their scoot­ers. Ex­pen­sive English fab­rics or iri­des­cent syn­thet­ics are crafted into all type of multi-but­toned, multi-pock­eted mar­vels.

The new­est ver­sion of the Mao jacket may be a sim­ple zip-up black anorak. It's gen­er­ally worn by high-level of­fi­cials over a white shirt, no tie. It's al­most com­pletely with­out struc­ture and there­fore com­pletely un­suit­able for man­ual work­ers.

As more as­pects of life have be­come more for­mal­ized, so have work re­quire­ments. Now man­ual la­bor­ers are uni­formed. From con­struc­tion site work­ers to road sweep­ers, there's a gar­ish and oblig­a­tory out­fit, quite of­ten a one piece. Brand­ing is more im­por­tant now, and de­liv­ery per­son­nel must ad­here to strict poli­cies, with ri­val firms ap­par­ently com­pet­ing on the most over-the-top liv­er­ies.

The boxy suit jacket is now be­com­ing a rar­ity. Per­haps this is a sign of progress, a change of era. But the re­place­ment uni­forms some­how don't of­fer the same func­tion­al­ity or some­how even the same in­di­vid­u­al­ity as the shape­less blazer that would ac­com­pany a man from job to job and city to city.

Pulling a cart loaded with bricks? Put on your blazer. Run­ning with buck­ets of con­crete? Only with a jacket. Re­pair­ing a bro­ken down bus on the side of the road? Make sure you’re wear­ing a col­lar

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.