From the NS archive: Modesty in China

Students wear blue cotton uniforms while reading in their classroom in the Yang Dezhi "Red Army" elementary school in Wenshui, Guizhou province, China

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

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?


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 …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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