The ways people in the west have viewed those in China have changed greatly over the past 150 years thanks to the evolution of communication, photography, news and movies. In large part, fashion and traditional forms of dress have helped to shape opinions and thoughts on culture and politics on the other side of the world.
Sean Metzger, Assistant Professor of Performance Studies in the University of California at Los Angeles School of Theater, Film and Television, told VOA’s Jim Stevenson about his study of Chinese fashion in his new book, Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race.
METZGER: One of the things that has been interesting to me is what kinds of new fashions are marking China today. That sort of seems to mark one direction of Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream.” One of the opening images in my book from 2005, a Newsweek cover, shows actress Zhang Ziyi in a qípáo-like top over blue jeans, and that kind of hybrid image to me, suggests, or anticipates, Xi Jinping’s drive for a new “Chinese Dream” today - something that’s not quite formulated, something that’s between the west and something more traditionally Chinese.
STEVENSON: Certainly over the past century, the qípáo has really been an iconic dress that many of us can identify with as Chinese and even to this day in traditional weddings it’s used.
METZGER: Yes, that’s right, the qípáo emerges in the 1920s and 1930s as a kind of equivalent to what men were wearing. So before, that is before the 1920s, men wore - as a traditional costume – a kind of long gown called changpao. That long gown was a contrast to what women were wearing, which was kind of a long tunic and loose pants.
As a kind of way to make women more equal to men, as women started to enter public discourse for the first time in China, they came up with this new dress. The qípáo as time went on became much more form-fitting, the hem became higher and higher and higher, so its original, kind of political connotations, became much more about women’s sexuality, particularly in the Cold War period.
So in the Cold War period, of course, that meant in Hong Kong, because only in the beginning of the Maoist era in China could you wear a qípáo for official functions. After that time, the Maoist government denied women the ability to wear non-Maoist uniform costumes for official events.
That dress was in vogue for the 1950s and 1960s – very, very provocative with associations. And like many fashion trends, it fell out of favor, and then it was only sort of revived in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
STEVENSON: Many of our stereotypes of the Chinese come from fashion and dress and what we see in movies and film, and let’s talk a little bit about the beginning of your book and the queue.
METZGER: One of my readers actually had said the queue actually appears in lots of cultural productions that actually depicts the end of the Qing Dynasty. So anything that’s set in, you know, basically from 1644 to 1911 in China is likely to depict queues.
But in the U.S. that was a little different because we don’t really have so many epics about the Taiping fighting the ruling feudal powers or whatever. What I noticed was that the queue kept occurring in very particular contexts, and that context was at first in melodramas that depicted the Western frontier in the U.S., and then that morphed into what we know as the Western, the film that is. So that became the arc of the chapter.
STEVENSON: The Mao suit is quite an interesting entity of its own.
METZGER: One of the interesting things that I found out when I was doing my research was that Maoist clothing varied quite a lot. But when the outfits started to register for the U.S. public, and to some extent the European public, people consolidated the variation in clothing in under one term. So whatever people were wearing, they ended up calling it a Mao suit. That could be like boiler suits for people working. There are very famous depictions of Mao with his white shirt and his sleeves rolled up going to work. All of those things ended up getting called “the Maoist uniform,” even when the jacket wasn’t present, which I found interesting. And again, there were variations throughout the communist period. I think it’s interesting that in the West we have tended to say “oh, Maoist uniform is so much about conformity,” but in fact, there was quite a lot of variation among the different outfits that people wore and were wearing during the Cold War in China.