Revolutionary China

Politics of Dress under Mao

Revolutionary China

This is a historical article from an early issue of China Now magazine 1976.
One of the most familiar images of China under Mao was the uniform wearing of drab 'Mao suits' by both men and women. In this article Elizabeth Croll discusses the situation at the end of the era of uniformity.

In recent months there have been reports in the foreign press that after a long absence skirts and dresses are returning to China. The way Chinese women dress has often been looked upon by foreigners with some dismay and disapproval. 'How can they bear to look all the same?', 'How drab the streets must be', and 'What has become of all those rich colours, embroideries and fabrics?'. . . Frequently, the widespread tendency for men and women to dress in plain cotton jackets and trousers is thought to be the result of strict official measures brought into operation in 1949. As one long-time observer and correspondent of Ta Kung Pao said this year, 'those that fret over the plain mode of dress of the Chinese take it for granted that it all began with the birth of the People's Republic'. In fact, the traditional custom of trousers and jackets for women was the norm up to 1949 for all but a small minority of urban middle and upper class women, and the custom had been reinforced by the wartime conditions of austerity. In the past twenty-five years, the decisions as to what to wear and the types of clothes, materials and styles suitable to the new society have been discussed many times.

One very important debate was the discussion held in Xin Guancha (New Observer) a popular fortnightly in Peking which held a forum in 1955 to discuss how to get people out of 'uniform' and what the new fashions should be. Many said they felt that with improved material standards it was time to change to brighter, more varied styles and colours. Taking part in one discussion, which was afterwards summarised in print, were a poet, several painters, a pianist, a music critic, a woman trade union leader, a representative from the New Democratic Youth League and two writers from a women's magazine. They discussed the alternatives of dresses and skirts which might replace the present custom and they considered their likely styles, the economics of their production and the convenience of wear. The summary of the discussion reported that one of the men members was strongly in favour of the return of the traditional gown. 'It makes women look gentle and graceful', he said, 'of course it is not very convenient for movement, but as long as you don't run a race or do something like that, it is all right.' The head of the women's department of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions voiced strong disagreement. 'The Chinese gown is no good for working women,' she said. 'It is too inconvenient. Besides I don't agree that it is either graceful or beautiful. We don't want uniformity. We do want new styles, but they must be comfortable and becoming without getting in our way.' At the end of the forum, the President of the Arts Academy summed up their discussion and called for further market research:

Chinese Mao Suit Cartoon
A cartoon exemplifying the uniformity of dress in the Mao era

Artists should produce new designs, and fashions should be discussed more in newspapers and journals. As a basis we should study peasant and national dress. Everyone should try to help clear away the mental resistant to a more varied cut and colour. Then the people themselves will create new styles.

To encourage public participation in the creation of new styles, some of the suggested alternatives were exhibited in 1956 and comments and opinions invited. Designers had visited factories and villages to collect opinions and observe women at work, and now the prototypes were scrutinised at exhibitions, and visitors were invited to write their comments and indicate which styles they preferred and for what reasons. In 1956 many were said to desire a change in favour of the simple-to-make, one-piece qi pao gown, though at the same time they observed that its high collar was in fact too hot for summer and the narrow skirt was not made for getting on and off buses and street cars. For some the observation of these disadvantages was enough to enhance their appreciation of their present mode of dress. The present jackets and trousers were said to have certain conveniences, they didn't soil readily, they did not need constant pressing and were easier for work and travel than a skirt. They were hard-wearing and in them one was fashionable anywhere at any time of day. All they wanted was more variety in the small prints and plaids available for blouses. In 1975 it is reported that a number of dresses are again on display in the shops of Beijing, and nearby stand tables with pencils and reams of stapled paper for opinions and comments. Whatever the outcome of the current forums and displays, those of 1955-56 were an important watershed in the history of dress in China.

Mao suitsMao suits
Mao suits © Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library

After 1956 there was a widespread awareness of the social meaning of dress in society. Prior to 1955 many thought the plain cotton jackets and trousers were a reflection of the economic realities of their society during the war years and in the initial period of social reconstruction, and by the mid-1950's they had begun to think that these reasons were no longer valid. It was the sixth year since the establishment of the new China, there was a steadily rising standard of living and plenty of goods were available for all, so what need was there for this austere and simple style of dress? In 1956 debates on the subject resulted in a new awareness that even if the economic realities were outmoded, in fact dress continued to have an ideological function. It not only said something about the society from which it originated, but it also contributed to the form which that society takes. The discussion of that time touched on three points which have been the subject of periodic debate up to the present day - the social meaning of dress, the association of levels of political consciousness and mode, of dress, and the question of individual versus social choice.

Clothes were seen to have always had a social meaning. In traditional Chinese society the style and quality of dress, perhaps more than any other social attribute, had been an important symbol of social status. It was not as in some rigidly divided societies where only certain castes and families were allowed by law to wear certain kinds of clothes, but strong social conventions had grown up which, based on differentials in purchasing power, had caused clothes conspicuously to rank social class position. In traditional Chinese society the close-fitting ankle-length gown of fine silk and the long fingernails of a member of the literati or gentry marked both their social class position and their abstention from manual labour. Similarly it was argued that a return to a wide variety of styles and fabrics in this period of social transition might allow certain social categories once more to differentiate themselves and advertise their privileged position in society, whereas the present range tended to downplay status distinctions. In a number of practices the Communist Party have striven to minimise social differences and this egalitarian approach was perhaps given its most noted application in the elimination of insignia in the ranks of the People's Liberation Army 1965. Variations in uniforms just as much as in civilian clothes symbolized positions in a hierarchy. Not only do styles, fabric and design of clothes symbolize ranking of social class, but they were also seen to express ideas about how society views the role of women. Did it see them as passive, dependent or sexual objects, or did it see them as the equals of men, as active and full partners in the work force? In 1955-56 many women felt that a return to the restrictive clothing of the upper classes in China would be a retrogressive step. They said that they saw their present mode of dress as a symbol of their emancipation.

If 'strange and bizarre' clothes in Chinese society have often been associated with bourgeois ideas of fashion and individualism, there has equally been a reaction against drabness, shabbiness and uniformity. The habit of affected poverty was said to be present in some of the cities in 1955-56. There was criticism of the automatic association of these characteristics with progressiv thought and many cartoons appeared in the media in the mid-1950s which mad fun of those people who thought there was some virtue in being drably dressed or in wearing a uniform, or thought that smartness and brightness of colour automatically signified 'backward thinking'. The Chinese government has never recommended uniformity or austerity for its own sake and as one correspondent said 'it was as if being progressive was dependent on wearing drab colours'. This association of ideas was again apparent in the Cultural Revolution and Jack Chen during his year in Upper Felicity Village in Honan province observed there in 1971 that while peasants thought it no loss of propriety to wear patched clothes, the really heavily patched clothing - seats, knees, elbows and wrists - was most noticeable among the cadres spending time in the hamlet as part of the 'labour training', going back to the grass roots', or among the cadres at the local May Seventh Cadre School. As he was walking along the road one day he recounted how very surprised he was to see a terribly ragged, patched and unkempt young man approaching him with outstretched hands. 'A beggar!' flashed through his mind. 'How could this be?' But it turned out to be an artist whom he had known in Peking and who was doing a stint of work in the commune. Many an article has recommended that there was no virtue in uniformity and drabness and that those in the towns might very well follow the customary habits of peasants which was to wear both bright and colourful blouses and jackets.

In 1956 there was a new consciousness that the choice of clothes was not just an individual decision but a question of social import. In 1964 Nanfang Ribao (Nanfang Daily) invited extensive discussion on the question of wearing 'bizarre' and unusual clothes. Some letters considered the point of view that it was a personal decision what type of clothes an individual chose to wear and that it was none of other people's business. As one said 'it is a personal matter to put on any kind of clothes. I have money and I like to wear what I wish to.' A correspondent in an article entitled 'Is it none of other people's business' replied to this point of view. She said that this could not be so in a socialist society. She reiterated some of the principles established in 1956 that although the question of clothing was a personal matter related to one's everyday needs, it was also a social question and a person's choice was limited by the scope permitted by social custom and practices. She said this is because

... none of us lives in isolation and away from society but being social beings, we have a great many relations with society. Personal behaviour is not only subjected to certain social restrictions, but in turn may influence society. This is also so on the question of choice of clothes. Although what a person likes to wear is influenced by certain social customs and practices, prevailing social customs and practices in turn are influenced by individual persons of society.

She went on to explain that their society was a socialist society and their clothes therefore reflected the way of life and ideals of a socialist society. Therefore she concluded that though what they upheld in dress fashion might change, it would always emphasise simple, appropriate, attractive and long-wearing qualities.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 : an extract from SACU's magazine China Now 58, Page 3-6, January 1976

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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