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From the NS archive: Modesty in China

13 April 1957: What clothing is deemed ideologically sound in Mao’s China?

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In 1957, the novelist and travel writer Lois Mitchison was in China. It was eight years after Chairman Mao had declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and just a year before “the Great Leap Forward” that was to result in millions of deaths as Mao sought to restructure the economy. Mitchison’s thoughts were not on the political story but on what Chinese women wore. In this piece she looked at what sort of clothing was deemed acceptable, decent and ideologically sound. What part, she wondered, should lipstick, wavy hairstyles and necklines play in representing communist China?

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Miss Wong, the woman interpreter, had greatly admired the clothes worn by the Bulgarian lady delegates who came to Peking last year. The clothes were “so colourful and so cultured”, she said, “with all the beautiful hand embroidery of Bulgarian national symbols”. This sort of clothes as worn by Bulgarians, by women’s athletic teams from Albania, and by the plump, modesty-vested wives of the Russian technicians, have been the main foreign influence on Chinese clothes. This means that there are no stilt heels, no nylon stockings and no tight black skirts in China, but instead, the streets of Peking and Shanghai are abrush with dirndl skirts, ankle socks and solid, sensible walking shoes. All the same, the official Chinese are very proud of these new women’s clothes. Two years ago every townswoman, like every townsman, in China wore the blue cadre’s uniform... a peaked cap, a baggy tunic hooked high at the collar, and bell-bottomed, baggy trousers. It was an ugly and sexless dress, but it was practical and comfortable. I had a blue padded overcoat and blue cotton padded shoes to wear for my winter in Peking. They were warm, like wearing hot water bottles. But the last American businessman in Shanghai (the Associated Press had asked me to interview him) was so frightened by my padded overcoat that he rang up his Shanghai acquaintance to find out if I was a communist agent. 

As the American businessman knew, the blue cotton uniform was part of the revolution. It was first worn by most people as an imitation of the new communist officials who left Yan'an and Harbin for Peking and Shanghai in 1948 and 1949. (They, one of them pointed out to me, had taken it from Sun Yat-sen’s uniform. It was then meant as a contrast to the embroidered and expensive silks of the Manchu officials.) If a Chinese person between 1949 and 1954 didn’t wear the blue tunic and trousers it was a sign that he or she wasn’t really in sympathy with the revolution. He had too much money to throw about and be was using it to try and dress himself better than the working class. It might well be an outward symptom of counter-revolutionary and petty bourgeois sympathies. A woman teacher, older than Miss Wong, whom I met on my first visit to China a year ago, told me she had several silk dresses left over from pre-communist days just spoiling in her chests. She was wearing a rather better than usual, well-cut pair of blue wool trousers. She had never liked the feel of wool, she said, and she would much rather wear silk, but she didn’t dare because of what her official Neighbourhood Association might say to her. 

Three months ago, on my second visit to China, she was wearing her silk dresses and looking very nice in them. Her Neighbourhood Association now held her up as an example to the other women of the street. At the Association meetings the chairman read aloud newspaper articles and official speeches which said that now Chinese women could afford to buy new dresses thanks to the glorious and successful leadership of Chairman Mao and the Communist Party of China. What’s more, Chinese women wanted to buy new dresses, according to the articles and officials, because they were not, as carping foreigners had said, drab and orthodox women but, on the contrary, very gay and cultured. The other women in the teacher’s street, said the chairman of the Neighbourhood Association pointing the moral, had better hurry up and buy their own coloured skirts and blouses if they didn’t want to seem drably orthodox. 

This has been tough on girls like Miss Wong. As an official interpreter she earns six or seven pounds a month, and she likes to spend a lot of her money on ice-cream and weekend picnics. But now she has had to scrape up the two or three pounds that a cotton skirt and two blouses cost in Peking. And even more than that, poor Miss Wong has found that western clothes involve awful problems: keeping one’s blouse inside one’s skirt, what sort of shoes to wear; and how, she wondered, even in a Peking summer, does one keep warm in a skirt? 

In line with the latest official doctrines, Miss Wong has also had a rather frizzy permanent wave on her previous pudding basin revolutionary cut. The hairdresser, she thinks, used too much ammonia. I think he was probably concentrating a bit too much on the 20-year-old American fashion magazines most Chinese hairdressers have propped in front of them, while they work patiently on the straight bobs or long pigtails of Chinese women. Also I think most Chinese women are frightened of brushing their brand new permanents in case they come right out. Miss Wong has not yet got around to make-up. The Peking stores have some cheap, flakey Chinese-made lipsticks, but the better lipsticks and powders imported from Russia and East Germany are very expensive. Anyway, can it, Miss Wong wondered, looking politely but doubtfully at my pink lipstick, be altogether healthy to put all that grease on your face? 

The new clothes, the permanent wave, a possible lipstick, are matters of duty with Miss Wong. She sees a lot of foreigners and she must prove to them that Chinese women are as rich and cultured as women in any other countries. Like the heroines in Victorian novels, she dresses up not because she wants to, but because it is suitable to her station in life, and, like the Victorians, she is horrified at any suggestion that clothes and sex may be connected. What is important for Miss Wong is that her clothes should be correct... officially correct, and correct according to Chinese ideas of propriety, which means that there is nothing improper about the thighs or the upper arms but a hint of the throat in street clothes is very risque indeed. In Hong Kong, respectable Chinese women wear tight tunic dresses with side splits to show their stocking suspenders and the edges of specially split lace petticoats. The tunics are sleeveless, or cap-sleeved for the very conservative, but they are built up to a high, tight neck collar specially stiffened with plastic. 

Miss Wong, when I told her what Hong Kong women wear, thought that the stiffened collar must be very uncomfortable to work in (she was quite right), and she also found the dress a little shocking. This was not because of the leg splits but because the Hong Kong tunic is cut almost as tight as a sweater over the breasts. Miss Wong does not entirely believe the old Chinese saying that a woman with big breasts is always immoral, but, she said, many ignorant people still do. Miss Wong, like most of her Chinese contemporaries, does not wear a brassiere and does not need one. Other girls bind themselves in the traditional manner to assure a suitable and moral flatness. This means also that, when Chinese women in China wear tunic dresses, they are loose tunics with the leg splits and the high neckline (but not so high or so stiff as Hong Kong), but not the tight breast line. It makes a baggy dress and most young women avoid it. Instead, like Miss Wong, they wear a full skirt with a straight shirt hanging outside it or tucked in. The very modest “V” on most of these shirts is either pinned up to a respectable neckline or filled in with a high T-shirt worn underneath. 

The skirt is quite definitely only there for ornament. Working girls arrive at their factories or offices, take off their skirts, and hang them out of the dirt on the cloakroom pegs. They settle down to work in their very decent knickers, cut long and full like a man’s underpants and tied up at the waist with string. Their legs excite nobody but occasional pop-eyed westerners. It was westerners, too, who pointed out to me that however bright the sun, Peking girls don’t wear petticoats, and that girls in buses on hot days haul up their skirts and fan themselves energetically between their legs. I was myself struck by the same laws of decency applied to the young men of Peking. They never take off their shirts, but they cycle to work through the main streets in their striped underpants, sock suspenders for neatness, lisle socks and heavy shoes. Their trousers are strapped on to their bicycle carriers in case there is an unexpectedly formal moment at the office like an Oxford undergraduate’s gown.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)