The book “China Chic”, written by Guangzhou-born fashion designer Vivienne Tam, is a cross-cultural exploration of the hybrid worlds of the East and the West that have inspired fashion designer Vivienne Tam. Jessica Laiter shares some thoughts.
“My earlier designs were strongly influenced by political pop and Maoist China.” Vivienne Tam.
Over the course of a century, the Middle Kingdom has seen its share of vacillations between political regimes, philosophical theories, ethics and religions. The drastic effects of these extreme changes, occurring time and time again, created rifts in society, cultural black holes, as well as psychological damage to many. Moreover, the vibrations of shocking shifts transcended time and space as they established large generational gaps and delayed development across the entire Chinese Mainland.
It’s always invigorating to learn first-hand about how fashion fits into the mold of turbulence and how the field has evolved with history and how the people have adapted and expressed themselves through those wardrobes-of-the-times. In the 2005-released “China Chic”, Guangzhou-born and Hong Kong-raised Tam shares the core individuality of her own cross–cultural style. In mixing together traditional Eastern elements with a modern-day Western edgy twist, a highly appealing East–meets–West style comes to life.
In her book, Tam takes us on a personal journey featuring the people, places and things that inspire her. From the “staple” cheongsam to China’s elaborate opera houses and Zen gardens, she shows her reader the essence of Chinese design through a bowl of noodles and her favourite Ming (Dynasty, 1368-1644) chair. Despite savoring every chapter, for me, one thing in particular jumped right off the page: The seemingly perpetual power of Mao.
Finding a manufacturer to turn the Mao-mocking art, a symbol of China’s growing open-ness, into fashion proved a far more difficult task.
For The Fear Of Mao
Mao Zedong, leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), was the No.1 fêted and feared face of the country. Despite everything — eradicating cultural and individual identity, eliminating intellectual stimulation and achievement to keep his “troops” in one uniformed line — he remained the respected leader of China and, even today, is emulated as a prized member of Chinese history. With some still in fear of superstitious repercussions of denouncing his name.
A brief illustration of this superstition. When Vivienne Tam was in the process of designing her A/W 1994 collection, she worked with Chinese artist Zhang Hongtu (a political cartoonist avant-la-lettre) on a collection of Mao-mocking pictorials, which were then to be transferred onto fabric. The two creative minds collaborated on a series of eight images, all of them depicting Mao in a silly context as a symbol of China’s growing freedom and openness. Mao was styled bearing Pippi Longstocking pigtails, daring tickle-me-pink lipstick, wearing priestly garb, accessorizing with a pair of funhouse spectacles and so on and so on. Finding a manufacturer to turn the art into fashion, however, proved a far more difficult task.
On the first day of printing, a computer glitch occurred and the number “4 6 1997” appeared. The room went dark. Numbers in China are a form of divination, so “4” and “6” were read as 4 June — the exact date back in 1989 when China’s Communist Party unleashed the People’s Liberation Army on protesters camped in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to quell a seven-week-long pro-democracy movement. Peaceful protest turned violent nightmare. Yet the “divine intervention” did not end there. The year 1997 marked Hong Kong’s return to China. The whole situation freaked people out to the extent that every single soul working on the project called it a day and went home early. So there! A slice of fashionable superstition. More on Mao, then.
Out of the Mao madness emerged a subculture of fashion, a quiet rebellion to the surrounding chaos.
For The Love Of Mao’s Suit
For years, every person in China wore the Mao suit, but despite the call for uniformity, it was actually an expression of equality. The unisex tailoring gave equal status to both men and women. Now, I’ve come to realize (after having had probably one too many conversations on the topic) that unless you are a native Chinese woman or man who has lived through the 1950s and 60s, chances are relatively slim you as an outsider will ever truly understand the core of this fascination with Mao…
Jumping right back into the man’s closet, the unisex getup was originally taken from the Japanese, who in turn had copied it from the Germans — gotta love the originality here. Allow me to unbutton — forgive the pun — its very PRC-PC main components for you:
- Five front buttons for the five branches of government (Executive, Legislative, Judiciary, Investigatory and Supervisory);
- Four pockets for the Confucian virtues: Propriety, Justice, Honesty and Shame;
- Three cuff buttons for the Three Principles of the people: Nationalism, Democracy and Livelihood.
When in the late 1970s it came time to ditch the suit, a personal sense of fashion and style became an apparent obstacle. Alas, an unorganized street style came to fruition: Multi-colored jelly sandals, uncomfortably short see-through skirts, outdated patterns, green army sneakers… and of course the unmistakable nurse mask worn to ward off germs. (I’m still not convinced the latter even works.) Having stated the negative, from what I can tell — on a positive note — is that out of the Mao madness, emerged a subculture of fashion, a quiet rebellion to the surrounding chaos.
As “China Chic” mentions, the self-confidence required to make the transition from blending in to standing out, “to mix and match not just social ideologies, but to challenge self-expression,” is truthfully what defines fashion. Although it may at times seem like a pair of overly stretched-out pants, are these coordinations really so different from, say, leather jogger pants? Or wearing your lace socks under a set of pumps? Perhaps, after all is sown and worn, what we know as “China Fashion” is actually more avant-garde than credit given? Food for fabric thread count.
Whether Mao’s was the original sin or suit, fact is his liquidation of the individual through repeated political and cultural shockwaves and unisex has in the past decade undeniably — and thankfully — led to an explosion of individuality and creativity across China’s first-tier cities. Whereas breaking the mold some 40 years ago was considered a shabby, not to mention punishable-by-law, thing to do in China… Nowadays it is a chic thing to dare, bare and wear. POW!