Close-Up : The Politics of Dressing

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.


Close-Up: The Politics of Dressing
Close-Up : The Polit­ics of Dress­ing
Du Juan poses through the revolu­tion­ary lens of Pho­to­grapher Quentin Shih. Copy­right @VogueChina.


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 emper­ors every­where : Really, peeps…Don’t you get 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.


Close-Up: The Politics of Dressing
Close-Up : The Polit­ics of Dress­ing
Du Juan cap­tured by Pho­to­grapher Quentin Shih in his 2011 “Revolu­tion” Vogue China edit­or­i­al shoot. Copy­right @Vogue China.


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.

Click to view slideshow.

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.


Close-Up: The Politics of Dressing
Close-Up : The Polit­ics of Dress­ing
“Revolu­tion,” a 2011 edit­or­i­al shoot by Pho­to­grapher Quentin Shih for Vogue China. Copy­right @Vogue China.


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
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


Syn­dic­ated from Tem­per Magazine

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