Chinese Dress in the Twentieth Century

After the Nationalist Revolution of 1911, it was widely felt in China that, after a century of foreign intrusion and

The Nineteenth Century China

Chinese public official and family. During the Ming Dynasty, embroidered "Mandarin Squares" began appearing on the robes of court officials (third man from right). These squares indicated the wearer's rank in the government hierarchy. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

Chinese public official and family. During the Ming Dynasty, embroidered "Mandarin Squares" began appearing on the robes of court officials (third man from right). These squares indicated the wearer's rank in the government hierarchy. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

national decline, the country needed to rid itself of old customs in order to compete with the other nations of the modern world. Thus began a search for new styles of clothing that were both "modern" and "Chinese." The simple adoption of Western clothing was not a popular choice; foreign menswear was associated with Chinese employees of foreign companies, who were derided for being unpatriotic; fashionable Western women's clothing struck many Chinese as both immodest and odd. Loose, baggy Western dresses introduced at some missionary schools in China were modest but unattractive.

Many men continued to wear a form of traditional clothing until the mid-twentieth century—a plain, blue, long gown for scholars and older, urban men, jacket and trousers of indigo-dyed cotton for workers. But among urban elites, there emerged in the 1910s a new outfit, based on Prussian military dress and seen first in China in school and military-cadet uniforms; this had a fitted jacket fastened with buttons in front, decorated with four pockets, and made "Chinese" by the use of a stiff, high "Mandarin" collar, worn over matching trousers. This suit was often made, Western-style, in woolen cloth, the first time that wool had ever been the basis of an important Chinese garment type. This outfit became known as the Sun Yat-sen suit, after the father of the Chinese revolution.

Several proposals for creating a modern women's dress for China met with little enthusiasm, but in China's cities, and especially in Shanghai, women and their dressmakers were trying out a modern variation of Manchu dress that was to have lasting consequences. The Manchu "banner robe" (qipao) and "long gown" (changshan, generally known in the West by its Cantonese pronunciation, cheongsam) were adapted by fashionable women to be somewhat more tightly fitting, with a closure folded left-over-right to the shoulder, then down the right seam, often fastened with decorative "frogs" (cloth buttons and loops), and sometimes with a slit to knee height. This new style, in colorful silk, rayon, or printed cotton, was widely publicized in "calendar girl" advertising prints of the1920s and 1930s, and soon became firmly entrenched as China's appropriately modern women's wear. The qipao (or cheongsam) continued to evolve to become more form fitting, and by the mid-twentieth century was widely accepted, both in China and the West, as China's "traditional" women's dress.

For a few years after the Communist revolution of 1949, older forms of dress, including the man's long "scholar's robe" and the women's qipao, continued to be worn in China. But by the late 1950s, there was strong political and social pressure for people to dress in "modest, revolutionary" styles—the Sun Yat-sen suit (usually in blue cotton, now beginning to be known as a "Mao suit"), or as an alternative, a modest blouse and calf-length skirt. By the time of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the qipao had been denounced as "feudal," and the wearing of the blue Mao suit was nearly obligatory.

Fashion made a cautious return to China in 1978, with the promulgation of the post-Mao "Four Modernizations" program of economic reform. By the early 1980s, fashion magazines had resumed publication, fashion shows were held in major cities, and fashion design and related subjects were beginning to be taught once again at the high school and college level. The qipao also has had a revival, both in China and in overseas Chinese communities, as formal wear that conveys a sense of ethnic pride, and as "traditional" dress worn by women in the hospitality industry. But in general, Chinese dress today is a reflection of global fashion. By the turn of the twenty-first century, prestigious international brands were a common sight in the shopping districts of Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, and other major cities, and Chinese consumers were participating fully in international fashion. Meanwhile China had become the world's largest manufacturer and exporter of garments.

See also Asia, East History of Dress; Footbinding; Mao Suit; Qipao; Silk.

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