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Dress in Communist China


For many centuries China and its clothing styles had been isolated from the rest of the world. Though some Chinese began wearing Western clothes in the early twentieth century, the vast majority of Chinese preferred traditional Chinese garb, including, among the upper classes, ornate dresses, gowns, and jewelry. By contrast the Communists who came to power in China in 1949 prided themselves on wearing standardized uniforms that showed no differences in rank or sex. Photographs of Communist leaders from the early 1940s show them wearing military-style tunics (simple shirts), trousers, and cloth peaked caps, which were essentially the same styles they would usher in upon taking control of the country at the end of the decade.

The Chinese Revolution led by the Communists in 1949 was a widespread social as well as political upheaval. Almost overnight it changed the lifestyle and clothing of people in even the most remote villages of China. Once Communist troops were established in cities, they sent in administrators to issue uniforms to workers in various industries. Factory workers and technicians were issued dark blue cotton cloth uniforms that were almost identical to the standard green Communist military uniform. Administrative and clerical workers were outfitted in gray versions of the same clothes. Men and women wore exactly the same garments. Before long the Communist Party's grip on the country and its fashions was secure.

Chinese clothing quickly became standardized. While no direct orders were issued, it became generally understood that it was not patriotic to dress fashionably. People dressed in blue or gray cotton, padded for winter wear, and clothing made of expensive fabric was discouraged. Western-style suits disappeared almost overnight, replaced by the gray Chinese tunic suit. Women put away their stylish silk stockings and high-heeled shoes and instead put on their shabbiest clothes. Cosmetics and jewelry disappeared from view. Those who refused to comply with the new style could expect a public reprimand or a lecture from one of the local Communist Party officials.

Chinese dress was also influenced by the other major Communist nation, the Soviet Union. Women wore the fashionable Lenin suit worn by Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin (18701924), a jacket-and-trouser combination featuring a large turned-down collar, side buttons, and side pocket. The greatest single influence on dress in Communist China, however, was Communist Party head and supreme leader Mao Tse-tung (18931976; also known as Mao Zedong). From his earliest days in power, he recognized the power of dress to present a shared national identity. The shapeless four-pocketed worker's jacket he favored became the dominant dress for Chinese men and women from the 1950s to the 1970s. Dubbed the "Mao suit" in the West, it briefly found favor among political radicals in Europe and the United States.

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