Nothing today is safe from the long arm of political influence. Where conservative values act as KOLs, politics impact more than just the passing of a bill. They impact our wardrobes. Jessica Laiter lays bare the truth behind the legends.
Fashion has evolved with the sociopolitical system under which we have all lived for thousands of years.
Politics here. Politics there. Politics everywhere. Sometimes it feels like that’s all we ever talk about. Honestly, has [insert any given political capital] ever heard of “the silent game?” Let’s first dig a little deeper into that establishment telling us what to wear… In places where conservative values act as key influencers, such as China or even the United States, politics affect more than the obvious passing of a bill or politically correct rhetoric and behavior. How that is possible, stretches even further beyond the imagination than the reality of it. Who are “they” – or anyone for that matter — to tell us we cannot wear pink on Wednesdays or don a vintage kimono to a Jason Aldean concert?
One definitely, absolutely, 100 percent can wear those things; whenever and however one would see fit. All you need to do is acknowledge that our forefathers have predetermined these style selections and these are not decisions made completely on our own. It takes more than just the powers-that-be at Vogue [insert any given country] to determine “style” tout court. Fashion has evolved with the sociopolitical system under which we have all lived for thousands of years.
About Fashionable And Political Contradictions
What is the politics of dressing exactly? It at times may come across like an oxymoron at best. Fashion and style have always been a form of self-expression and identification; it’s how individuals show the outside world what they would look like if they were a color, a fabric, a pattern. It’s about exposing to the world a glimpse of their innermost selves. When I think of politics, I think of structure, rules and dictation. So by abstract definition, politics and fashion are contradictory. However, we cannot run from the fact that ideology, religion and social nuances influence our decision-making process. For one moment, just forget about government dictating fashion and think about something as simple as the Pantone Color of the year or the large billboard of a Hadid leering over you on Lafayette Street wearing Stuart Weitzman sandals that you may or may have hated before the very moment you laid eyes on that ad. Speaking of footwear and the power of advertising (or “advertusing”, aka the abuse of advertising), Lord knows many of us still shudder at the sight of a pair of “comfy” backless summer slippers. Let alone the fur-trimmed winter ones we had to endure in pre-heatwave times.
Note to all victims: Echoing a trend or slipping on a pair of pre-season freebies does not necessarily denote having style.
The sum of the aforementioned dictates how we feel about fashion, what items we decide to consume and which trends we choose to accept as fact. Ergo, at the root of it all, we’re all minions to the man.
Fashion Rookies And Rulers
China is “somewhat” of a rookie to the modern fashion world; one harboring grand ambitions, but a beginner nonetheless. That’s not to say they aren’t playing well, but they still have a few bases to cover.
China is notorious for the semi-instability of its governing bodies prior to current day. It is reveling in this spotlight, much to our trending convenience, that clothing can act as an optimal method for retracing cultural and political developments achieved throughout the centuries and deducing how China’s reigning forefathers reflected their social mores, religious notions and cultural preferences through choice of style.
The Chinese wardrobe has long been a marker of change. In yesteryear, when one dynasty overlapped another and emperors ripped the much-coveted robes off one another – so to speak, fashions changed with each rolling tide. Never fully satisfied with the current style of choice, modesty and simplicity became interchangeable with styles of sex appeal and luxury — depending on the dynasty in control at that point in time.
Note to all emperors of the past: Did you not grow tired of going back and forth time and time again? Anyway.
Although objectively it may appear that traditional modes of dress in China were all essentially the same, you might wanna think again. As major believers in symbolism and “fantastical” tales, fashion throughout the centuries proved a very significant contributor to the organization and identification of the Chinese people. Wardrobe styles were dependent on social rank and gender and thus were bound to a plethora of rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts; one fashion faux-pas and you might find yourself persona non grata at the imperial court. So… Yep. Imagine living your entire life clad in uniform. Yep.
Finds such as the Terra Cotta Warriors showed off the basic theme of long gowns for the elites, as well as a restricted use of certain textiles, like silk, for certain members of the upper-class.
Laying The Fashion Foundations
The first traces of fashion in China were found during the Xia (2205-1766 BC) and Shang (1600-1046 BC) Dynasties, where the foundations for China Fashion were laid. During this time, social hierarchies had not yet officially been established and so the designation of fashion was subjected to somewhat “looser” interpretation. Basic features included a cross-collar robe, wrapped from right to left, tied with a sash. Lo and behold, the colors you wore, were entirely yours to pick; no instructions there. Go nuts, they said.
As the Zhou (1046-256 BC) Dynasty rose to power, a division of the peoples occurred. A strict hierarchical society was formed and the length of a skirt, the width of a sleeve and the degree of ornamentation symbolized your rank in society — social suicide, if you ask me. People got ueber-picky and -sensitive about what they wore for the fiercely feared accusation of dissent. For example, the color yellow was reserved solely for the emperor. If anyone dared to wear the imperial color of Earth, neutrality and good fortune — let alone get caught yellow-handed, cheesy indeed — well, to the grave they were sent. Then, in marched the Qin (221-206 BC) .
Note to my fellow New York ladies: You will love this one.
The color of choice was…drumroll please…. Black. Based on the theory of Yin and Yang, black symbolizes water and red symbolizes fire (the color of the abovementioned Zhou dynasty). Water beats fire. Et voila, symbolic success attained.
Known as China’s first golden age, the Han Dynasty (206 BC-221 AD ) was the real start of true fashion in China. A little history 101 is perhaps in order, so here we go: China has at least 55 minorities, but the majority of ethnic Chinese today are recognized as descendants of the Han. You can only imagine the influence they’ve had over the centuries. Styles consisted of a narrow-cuffed, knee-length tunic tied with a sash and a narrow, ankle-length skirt with an additional piece of fabric reaching to the knees.
Confessional note from this feature’s author: At this very point, the styles have all started to sound the same. If you’re lost or bored, just hang in there!
Finds such as the Terra Cotta Warriors showed off the basic theme of long gowns for the elites, shorter jackets for the common people and fashion laymen, as well as a restricted use of certain textiles, like silk, for certain members of the upper-class.
The Tang Dynasty (618-907) however, I believe, is the fairest of ‘em all. It was a time of romance, poetry, music, art, culture and, especially, women’s fashion. Styles were more luxuriant and revealing than ever before, with many of them adapted through trendspotting in the Western look book. Trade along the Silk Route flourished and influences from Turkey and Persia impacted the fashions of China’s elite – from head to toe; even their shoes were woven from silk. Given the romantic vibes of the era, women, commoners and elites alike were encouraged to wear form-fitting garb, showing off their natural curves.
Out With Curves, In With Confucian
With the rise of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Confucian values made their return to the stage and the opulence of fashion as seen during the Tang Dynasty took a conservative turn towards a sense of simplicity. Higher necklines, flowing robes and extended hemlines formed the editorial of the day. Once again there was variance in sleeve length and accessories based on social rank. Until one day in 1279… When the Mongolians took over, bringing with them an entirely different culture, including new fashion statements. The outside made its way back in once again.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the most OCD fashionistas of them all, assigned outfits per social rank and occasion, a system which took more than 20 years to come into full fashion fruition. This is the era in which we see a serious emphasis on the yellow Dragon Robe, only to be worn by the Emperor himself. Those lower in rank wore simple Taoist robes without any embroidery or ornamentation, however they could choose from a variety of headdress styles. Women of the court wore gowns with big sleeves, short tops (crop tops in imperial China, who would’ve thought), decorated crown and long shawls with phoenix (a symbol of high virtue and grace) and flowers, in addition to gold or jade ornaments.
And so we arrive at the Last Emperor. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) is when the Manchurians took over China and introduced the well-known cheongsam – known in Mandarin Chinese as qipao, an oversized robe that later turned into a slender cut dress and one of the most quintessential China styles of all time to boot. It became a staple wardrobe item and an accurate, yet overused, reflection of chinoiserie.
Chinese women were often depicted in Western films wearing the cheongsam and were referred to as “dragon ladies”. This is beyond any doubt a politically charged stereotype, promulgated by a higher authority. China did not open its doors to the West too commonly for fear of being fully immersed, drowned even, in foreign influence and power. The ensuing perceptions of Chinese fashion were too often left to mere objective insights. The cheongsam, despite its controversial status as a sex symbol, nonetheless was and is still a firm fan favorite. Look up “cheongsam” or “qipao” in the dictionary and you’ll find: “Feminism”.
Representing all that is the progression of modernism, the cheongsam became an iconic part of China Fashion as a symbol of women’s liberation. Yet I shamefully admit that every time I see a woman wearing the dress, I immediately think to myself: How stereotypical; how antiquated. Whereas in fact, it is no different than someone wearing, let’s say, a Chanel Suit worn by Jackie O or a classic sundress worn by Michelle Obama. Cultural garment stereotyping is omnipresent, it appears.
The little Mao-playsuit was enforced upon all and reflected the Chairman’s initiative to streamline all of society and eradicate culture, religion and social class.
About Tradition And Transition
The transition from the Old (Imperial, until 1912) to the New (Republican, 1912-1949) China turned out a tricky one. The process to eliminate traditional styles and to adopt new ones from the Western world proved toilsome. Western-styled suits were designed for men and women continued to wear the cheongsam, which slimmed down and sexed up by the day. Eventually it became mainstream womenswear and the well-known “Calendar Girls” as seen across Shanghai’s cigarette advertisements and, well, calendars everywhere — I like to equate them to the women of Playboy, only dressed in cheongsam — were the women to beat.
In much regrettable, Mao-called for fashion, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) a few decades later, these newly-discovered and -adopted styles were banned entirely and back the Kingdom turned to a time of conformity and uniform. The little Mao-playsuit was enforced upon all and conveyed, in true transgender fashion, a reflection of Mao Zedong’s initiative to streamline all of society and eradicate culture, religion and social class. Not until the 1980s, did the fashion scene resume.
Fashion as we know it today is an identifier, but in societies that vacillate between collectivist and individualist mentalities, fashion can be both a form of unification and rebellion. China may be a lot of things, but today, fashion moves to the beat of its own drum. Those who survived the Cultural Revolution are forever stuck in their ways and the nation’s first post-Revolution generation still believes in buying foreign brands and label-heavy goods.
Survival Of The Fittest — Street Style
China’s youngest generation, on the other hand, is now making its way into the modern-day fashionsphere. If you think about it, it’s pretty incredible how quickly they’ve caught up – given the obvious historical setbacks.
They are now the focal points of street style and fashion week photographers across the globe. They are the influencers, designers, style icons. i.e. the movers and shakers of Chinese society. Many Chinese politicians have been spotted wearing certain Chinese brands out of support and respect for domestic talent and so today, instead of the government dictating fashion, the tables have turned. First Ladies of the United States have always been style icons for the people, from the classic style of Jackie O, to the affordable style of Michelle Obama, to the elitist styling of Melania Trump. These are the “dynasties” of political figures with a hand in the evolution of fashion. Each woman has attempted to communicate with the people through their choice of style.
In whichever way it manifests, China’s fashionistas are coming into their own, with minimal interference from the ruling Party — aside from the recently enforced ban on opulent displays of wealth and the high taxes on incoming foreign brands as a way to elevate consumption of domestic labels. (No biggie there, right?) This may or may not have an effect on style preference, but because China is no longer a country hermetically sealed off to the outside, designs will still be internationally-inspired.
The lights are on and there’s someone home – no derogatory snipe intended. After decades of lusting for foreign styles and brands, nationalism is back on the rise and Chinese designers are embracing their heritage, their native culture. This new crop of fashion pioneers is exploring design ideas other than the European styles that have been mirrored for the past number of years. European designers have always looked to the past to inspire new collections; so why wouldn’t the same apply to China? The truth is we may see a return of the legendary Chinese robes in our near future. Stay tuned!
Written by Jessica Laiter of Chinese Graffiti for Temper Magazine
Edited by Elsbeth van Paridon
Chinese translation by Li “Lily” Dan of Kitayama Studio.
Featured Image: Copyright@Quentin Shih; Editorial for Vogue China; Model: Du Juan
Photos: All pictures in this feature belong to Photographer Quentin Shih, who shot these images as part of his “revolutionary in fabulousness” 2011 “Revolution” editorial spread for Vogue China.
Imperial Dress Drawings: Copyright@Chang An Moon.
Copyright@Temper Magazine 2017 All Rights Reserved
Laiter went on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Chinese Studies and Communications Rhetoric at The University of Pittsburgh and a Master's Degree in Translation at NYU. Immediately after college, she moved to New York City and since then has worked in a number of different industries such as branding, manufacturing, fashion, public relations and real estate. China always acting as the common denominator.
Inspired by her career, Laiter launched a website called Chinese Graffiti, on which she features emerging Chinese designers, talks about the intersection of tradition and modernity in China, as well as the evolution of society and business culture. As time went on, she sought out like-minded businesses individuals who were interested in a similar market, which is how she became involved with Temper Magazine.
The China market is creating a whirlwind around the glob and it’s only just getting started.
The world can be a small place with a dash of mutual understanding and Laiter loves to be the storyteller who helps to bridge that gap.
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- A Fast And Furious 360 Turn: How Technology Fuels The Fashion Industry - August 19, 2019