Walking the fine line between fashionably fabulous and fashion failure is indeed an art in itself. So how have Chinese men gone about this throughout history?
Sometimes Chinese culture just makes sense. For instance, the popular Weiqi game (围棋 aka Go) is often used to teach tactics and strategy, which can be applied to all areas from the boardroom to the battlefield.
Mao Zedong allegedly made the game a mandatory pass-time for his generals, deeming it a perfect study tool. Speaking of warfare and tactics, Sunzi (孙子) had a point too. His classic book on military strategy and tactics “The Art of War” features numerous quotes, one of my favorites being: “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” Apply this to fashion and you know it’s true: Trying too hard shows. As one can tell from many a Fashion Week FROW. Walking the fine line between looking fashionably fabulous and appearing a fashion failure is indeed a struggle. So how have Chinese men gone about this throughout history?
Traditional Chinese men’s clothing goes back quite a few years. Granted; we women might nowadays prefer our men to be decked out in true “Great Gatsby” style — and an increasing number of men might concur — yet men’s fashion, a concept which didn’t even exist at the time, took quite some time to get to that particular Leo-level of dressing. From Henry VIII, that original man in tights, to Emperor Qin Shihuang (246-221BC), the founder of the first unified empire in the history of China and original man in robes, they all left their mark — whether it be on religion or fashion.
Dynasty, always a trendsetter
Just think of that big-shouldered 1980s classic. China takes great pride in its 5,000-year-long history so this piece right here is just meant to fill in the biggest gaps. Over the course of history, rulers of different descents have waived the scepter in China, adding their own personal touch to their subjects’ walk-in closets.
In stark contrast to Khan’s relaxed approach to fashion, the bald Manchu hairdo with a ponytail in the center was obligatory.
In the beginning, there was the hanfu (汉服) of the Han Dynasty (206 BC- 220 AC). Voluminous belted robes with kimono-like sleeves covering loose fitting pants were the prêt-a-porter style of the era, with limited editions (for the elite) featuring heavy brocades and embroideries in silver and gold thread. Silk and layers, layers everywhere — layered sleeves were a Chinese invention, not that of a grungy woodchopper — remained popular for some dynasties to come. When it came to embroidery, color, or any other type of embellishments, the common rule was: The higher up in the food chain you were, the more elaborate your robe and headgear would have been. It should also be remembered that these “exotic” fabrics and decorations were well-liked among Europe’s elite of that period.
Just think of the Mongolian Genghis Khan craze of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), with its literally towering headgear, which by the way, was not mandatory attire for all subjects. In stark contrast to Khan’s relaxed approach to fashion, the bald Manchu hairdo with a ponytail (or “queue”) in the center, which was rocked by the male population during the Qing Dynasty, was obligatory, as was their Changshan (长衫) style of dress. In fact, many people outside China still consider this style to be China’s national costume.
Rebellion, always a radical makeover
Just think of the early 1980s massive-mohawk-boasting punk movement. In a Chinese setting then: Sunzi, meet Sun Yat-sen (孙中山). Allow me to explain. The West may have had its sumptuously seductive Roaring Twenties, but that era was also a vibrant one in China. After the last dynasty came to a not-so-regal end in 1912, men adopted a new style installed by Sun Yat-sen; the Zhongshan suit (中山装).
The Zhongshan suit was renamed the “Mao suit” and meant the start of commune-like proletarian uniformity, with the word “uniformity” taken very much to the letter.
This particular clothing item was meant to be a mixture of East and West, and easily combined itself with scarves or hats. Sun died in 1925, but the Zhongshan suit became something of a staple garment during the nation’s revolutionary period Its four pockets were said to represent China’s Four Virtues: Propriety, Justice, Honesty and Shame. All across the nation, whether they be fashionistos or not, were asked to wear this particular style after 1949, when Mao (Zedong, the one and only) entered the runway with a little unisex touch.
The Zhongshan suit was renamed the “Mao suit” and single-breastedly meant the start of commune-like proletarian uniformity, with the word “uniformity” taken very much to the letter. The Mao-suit became a trend as well as a symbol for unity (as displayed by the “design” of the back; no pleats or adjustments whatsoever) of the 1960s and 70s for both men and women.
Suited and booted for a new era
Then… Along came Deng (Xiaoping, 邓小平) in the late 70s and the man went on to revolutionize both the nation’s economy and sowing machines. Since then, creativity has been pulled out of the closet once again after spending 30 years on a hanger. The Chinese post-1980s man (80后, a term referring to all those born after the implementation of the one-child-policy) takes a growingly strong interest in his appearance and turns to GQ for fashion advice. The budding tailor-made menswear market in China’s largest urban hubs is proving to be relatively smooth-sailing, given the stiff competition fashion holds in se.
Perhaps not as seamless like the back of a Mao suit, but the art of the wardrobe is definitely making its way through the Mainland. China’s history is still present in its modern day clothing, be it in terms of fabric or print, but everything has been poured into a sleeker, more slim-fit silhouette. The details which the Chinese still incorporate into their outfits were present in the nation hundreds to thousands of years ago — there’s currently even a Hanfu Movement out there which was created in China to reintroduce into modern life the hanfu or historical clothing styles of the Han Chinese.
Rocking your roots. Right on.
Photos: GQ Style China, November 2015.