Chinese novelist Eileen Chang once wrote, “Each person lives in their own clothing.” From the Late Qing Dynasty to the Republican Era and to the present day, Chinese society has experienced near-constant change. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the changing styles and trends of women’s clothing over the course of the past century.
A group of Qing Dynasty era women clothed in Manchu-style clothing. This style of clothing arguably has had the deepest and most long-lasting influence on the culture of women’s clothing in China, as it was widely adopted by Chinese during the era. Even today, the Manchu influence lingers in the form of the qipao (otherwise known as the thing that Chun-Li wears in Street Fighter).
This photo was taken during the Qing Dynasty, but it depicts Han Chinese women dressed in what is considered traditional Han Chinese robes. Notice the inlaid collar and the wide sleeves.
As the years went by Western influences gradually became more prevalent in Chinese society. Take note of how the short collar has become more prominent, how the clothes hug the body more closely than before. The first women to bring back this new style were individuals who had the opportunity to study abroad. It was readily adopted both by the wealthy and by prostitutes of the era.
This photo, taken in 1907, depicts a group of women who are graduating from a university in Beijing. While their clothes can still be considered Manchu in origin, there are notable difference that demonstrate how fashion had evolved. Here, the clothes not only exhibit Western influences, but are much more simple in terms of pattern and color.
The May Fourth Movement was ignited by many individuals dressed like the woman pictured above. During the early Republican Era, student dress had evolved to include separate shirt and skirt pieces, much like the aforementioned student, who is adorned in a light-blue shirt, black skirt, white socks and black shoes.
In Chinese, this new style of dress is referred to as “Wenming Xinzhuang” (文明新裝), which loosely translates to “New Clothes of Civilization.” This style of dress was closely associated with the New Culture Movement, which itself was born aloft by ideals of feminism and the independent woman. Academic women in Shanghai and Beijing were the first to spearhead this new trend, and while it came to symbolize an evolution in the position of women in Chinese society, the dress was also adopted by courtesans as a means to attract clientele.
Another form of school dress came in the form of a simple black dress worn over a blue shirt.
In the 1920s, the West again influenced the East through swim wear. Take note of the short skirt and swim cap, thought to have been products of Western influence.
After 1925, having only been met with modest success, the New Culture Movement began to peter out. As a result, the style of dress reverted to a more familiar form consisting of a short jacket and skirt.
However, clothing did continue to evolve in the 1920s. Born out of the changes of the era was the qipao. First worn by women in Shanghai, the form-fitting qipao first gained popularity as a dress for courtesans before gaining traction with women outside of the profession.
Eileen Chang writes that the Qipao started showing up around 1921, and at the time of its inception women, were influenced by ideals of equality between genders, hence the less-revealing and more puritanical style of qipao seen here. Soon, more form-fitting variants would gain popularity as well.
The qipao would go on to experience various iterations over the next decade. In the 1920s, the qipao’s skirt would become progressively shorter before starting to become longer again in the 1930s, whereupon the trend reversed in the other direction once again.
At a certain point, the qipao evolved to add a reduced sleeve to its form, becoming much more familiar to the present-day look.
A close friend of Eileen Chang writes that it is through the move away from the earlier short jacket and cheongsam (long skirt) towards the qipao that Chinese women were first able to experience any sense of liberation.
Swim wear continued to evolve into the 1930s. This Shanghainese woman’s swimwear may seem modest when compared to contemporary standards, but at the time this style of swim wear was considered provocative.
With the victory of the Communists in 1949, woman’s wear changed once again. Gone was the qipao, and in came the omnipresent Mao Suit and factory overalls.
Russian influences factored heavily in early Communist China. These multi-colored dresses are an example of that influence, and became very popular among women.
The dawn of the Cultural Revolution rallied the youth to Mao’s cause, and for women this also meant a style that was much more militaristic, consisting of army-green uniforms, red armbands and the essential Little Red Book.
Army-green was not the only color adorned by Red Guards of the era. Here Red Guards in 1973 can be scene dressed in white, blue, and green colored shirts.
Between the late 1960s and early 1970s, color-wise China was a world of blue, grays, army-greens, and black. Worker overalls were still very much a typical style of dress during this era as well.
As this photo from Guangzhou in 1972 demonstrates, China during the Cultural Revolution was not completely devoid of variety. Patterned and multi-colored shirts still maintained a presence.
School girls during this period often wore flowery dresses, although for adult women the stereotypical grey, blue, and white plain dresses were expected to be the garb of choice. White dresses were seen as the most fashionable, although for some it carried a connotation that these women were somehow “loose.”
With the implementation of “Reform and Opening Up” in the 1980s, clothing styles once again underwent a drastic transformation. Colorful clothing from Western countries became more acceptable, as this photo from Beijing in 1985 demonstrates.
This trend continued well into the 1990s, as this 1991 Dalian women demonstrates with her miniskirt. With China’s continued commitment to the post-Mao status-quo, it seems as if this new acceptance of Western-style clothing is here to stay. China is even beginning to develop some modern fashion trends of its own.
By Stanley Yu
[Images via Sina]