Little red look: 100 years of Chinese Communist Party style

Jun 22nd 2021 by Matthew Sweet The Party is having a party. Who’s invited? About

The Party is having a party. Who’s invited? About 1.4bn people. Is there a dress code? Not quite. In its centenary year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has lost some of its zeal for sartorial regulations. As anyone with TikTok can see, the blue or khaki Mao suit is rather less in vogue now than the punky plaid minidress or flame-print bell bottoms. Is this ideological deviation? If we can conceive a turbo-capitalist, hypernationalist China administered under the red flag, we can imagine one that also tolerates 20-somethings in yellow tartan.

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The date to save for the big bash is July 1st. (Though the party was actually formed on July 23rd 1921, in a fortnight-long congress that started in the French concession of Shanghai and ended on a tourist boat on Nanhu, a lake in the nearby city of Jiaxing.) Medals will be pinned on long-serving members. President Xi Jinping will orate. A mass wedding will give couples a chance to tie the knot with the CCP as well as with each other.

Citizens have been urged to brush up on their party history in official lessons that acknowledge the mix-up over the founding date (apparently a product of Mao’s fuzzy memory), though they fail to mention that the First Congress was convened at the behest of Henk Sneevliet, a Dutch-born agent of the Moscow Comintern. (China’s internet regulator has set up a “historical nihilism” hotline to report those who engage in the wrong kind of remembering.)

No military parades are scheduled, lest anyone get the impression that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is an instrument of the party rather than the state. But there will be plenty of hardware on display in historical TV dramas, revivals of martial Mao-era operas and in the cinema. “The Sacrifice”, an epic set during the Korean war, went from the first day of filming to theatrical release in 78 days, in order to stick to the centenary timetable.

It might be sensible to think of July 1st as a deadline as much as an anniversary. Xi Jinping has vowed that by the time festivities begin, China will be “a moderately prosperous society in all respects”. That’s a goal that can be measured using figures for consumer spending – which would not be increased by pulling an old khaki number from the back of the wardrobe.

Life jacket The Mao suit
Who invented the Mao suit? Not Mao. He was good for a long march or a short poem, but his skills didn’t stretch to creating versatile hard-wearing utility gear that was equally appropriate for a diplomatic moot, self-criticism session or shift at the valve factory.

As a uniform for revolutionaries, the Mao suit predates the chairman and the party he chaired. The outfit is more properly called the Zhongshan suit, after Sun Yat-sen (also known as Sun Zhongshan), its first advocate and first president of the new Chinese Republic, who gave it his approval on the first day of 1912, along with the Gregorian calendar. (Both innovations represented two fingers up to the freshly crumbled Qing dynasty.)

Sun commissioned a tailor called Huang Longsheng to synthesise the official dress of the fledgling state from elements of the German military tunic, Japanese student uniform and Western suit jacket. Huang who? On the record, he’s a fairly sketchy figure. Some accounts describe him as a resident of Zhejiang province, others as a Chinese expat whose store in Vietnam was patronised by Sun in his years in exile.

But Huang is slightly more solid than the body of numerological ideas that have since gathered around the suit. Its four pockets, this lore insists, represent the Four Cardinal Principles listed in the “I Ching”: propriety, justice, honesty and a sense of shame. The five buttons are said to embody the separation of the five powers of the republic (administration, legislation, jurisdiction, examination and supervision) and the three cuff-buttons stand for Sun Yat-sen’s “Three Principles of the People” (nationalism, democracy, welfare). Only a design classic could have the capacity for all that stuff, and still have space for some loose change and a copy of the Little Red Book.

The forbidding kingdom Revolutionary robes
The 1960s were a time of student rebellion. The West got sit-ins in the Sorbonne and Vanessa Redgrave marching through Grosvenor Square in a Pierre Cardin cloak and knee-high boots. China got the Red Guards defenestrating college lecturers and digging up the corpses of imperialists to put them on trial.

The Cultural Revolution mobilised China’s student youth to purify and re-radicalise the country after the (undeclared) failure and famine of the Great Leap Forward. A decade of terrors reinforced Mao’s power and the primacy of the suit that bore his name: if you wore one, like these 1970s Shanghai factory workers, you’d be less likely to be suspected of sympathy with the “Four Olds” – old ideas, culture, habits and customs – and therefore escape a beating.

On the other side of the world, however, Red Guard style acquired a thrilling glamour. The young protagonists of Jean-Luc Godard’s “La Chinoise” (1967, pictured above) were seduced by the allure of Maoist revolutionary violence and all its fab gear. Their real-life equivalents, the Left Bank critical theorists Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes, flew to China in 1974. The Cultural Revolution, gushed Kristeva, was “a struggle for women’s liberation”.

It also killed up to 2m people. But it didn’t quite exterminate fashion. Though pink was considered a poisonous colour by the Red Guards, in 1970 it became a popular colour for women’s blouses, legitimised by its association with “Queen Monique” of Cambodia, whom Mao welcomed to Beijing as a refugee from the Khmer Rouge. In 1974 puffed sleeves gained popularity briefly when Imelda Marcos of the Philippines visited in her trademark María Clara gowns.

Vivian Bi, a writer who was a teenager in 1970s Beijing, remembers that collective decisions were safest. The same girl in her class always called the shots: “Tomorrow we will all wear a floral skirt.” It wasn’t quite what Mao meant by “let a thousand flowers bloom”. But it was a small taste of freedom.

Who wears the trousers? Madame Deng goes to Washington
Zhuo Lin was the third and final wife of Deng Xiaoping, who rose to power in the years after Mao died in 1976. Unlike many third wives, she was not given to flamboyance. The couple had both suffered during the Cultural Revolution, and perhaps Zhuo recalled the fate of her predecessor, Wang Guangmei, the smart and stylish consort of Liu Shaoqi, a former president who Mao once tipped as his successor and later hounded to death.

In 1963 Wang had worn a tight white silk qipao and pearls on a state visit to Indonesia. Four years later Red Guards punished this bourgeois indulgence: they forced her to squeeze into the same dress, draped her with a necklace of ping pong balls and harried and humiliated her in front of a jeering crowd of half a million people. (Mao’s fourth and final wife, Jiang Qing, is widely thought to have instigated this action.)

For most of her life Zhuo kept a low profile, and Deng advised her not to “represent herself”. But in January 1979 she accompanied him on his historic visit to Washington that would end three decades of Sino-American hostility. America could not conceive of Zhuo as anything other than the First Lady of the People’s Republic and so, wherever Rosalynn Carter appeared, there was Zhuo Lin, smiling, waving and having her sartorial decisions examined.

All part of the normalisation strategy. In this photo, Deng wears his customary Mao suit. He might have just stepped back from his lathe. His wife is dressed in the plainest pair of straight-cut black trousers – a radical choice in an era when American women went to formal dinners in ankle-length gowns. The silk of her jacket suggests the possibility of growth and change. It soon came: her successor, Wang Yeping, wife of Jiang Zemin, travelled in skirts, wore costume jewellery and embraced lilac, aquamarine and polka dots.

Supporting socialism The bikini’s Chinese debut
Enver Hoxha of Albania scorned hot pants. Kim Jong-un of North Korea recently banned skinny jeans. China’s struggle against the bikini took place in the mid-1980s. The trigger was the country’s admission to the International Bodybuilding Association and the battleground was a sports stadium in the southern city of Shenzhen.

Bodybuilding rules insisted that female participants should compete in two-piece costumes. In September 1986, party authorities concurred. The first bikini-clad competitors appeared at a small provincial venue. “A sudden hail of deafening screams and whistles broke out,” reported the Shenzhen Youth Herald. “The four girls trembled at the centre of the stage and slowly lowered their heads.” When they raised them again, they saw the 500 spectators going wild.

In December the competition final took place in the region’s biggest sports stadium. An audience of 5,000 watched 23 pairs of competitors assume poses plastiques, flex and perform interpretative dance to “Hooked on Classics” and Francis Lai’s theme from “Love Story”. The onlookers cheered. Conservative commentators detected an “unhealthy wind”.

Behind the scenes, an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny conflict was smouldering between the anti-bikini Ministry of Culture and the pro-bikini State Sports Commission. This was not resolved until the party-controlled Guangming Daily filled its front page with female musculature and declared the garment a blow against feudalism. Other publications lined up to agree: in 1987, Health & Beauty magazine asserted that bodybuilding “is a prerequisite for the construction of socialist spiritual civilisation. Therefore it is beyond reproach.”

The clone wars The Politburo dons Western suits
This is an image of something that Xi Jinping wants to reform out of existence: bespectacled Politburo members in business suits and ties, fussing over their appearances. Here, Jiang Zemin tidies his hair on a trip to Marseille in September 1994, by which time the Western-style suit had been regulation wear for top Chinese officials for a decade.

We can mark the moment: October 21st 1984, when Hu Yaobang, then general secretary of the Communist Party, appeared on television sporting a dark-blue suit and sober silk tie. Hu fell from grace in 1987. Some of his high-ranking colleagues had taken exception to his distaste for Maoism and curiosity about human rights. The night he was demoted, the TV newsreader switched back to a Zhongshan suit, just to make the point.

Jackets and ties, however, remained the uniform until Xi Jinping began to assert his influence when he came to power in 2012. For Xi, such clothes represent complacency and corruption, as do the spectacles on display here. In the 1990s Jiang’s massive black-rimmed glasses set Central Committee style. His successor, Hu Jintao, adopted gold-framed lenses.

Today, such fashion statements are likely to attract animus. Bo Xilai, a former Communist Party chief in Chongqing, for instance, was known for his finely tailored suits and trendy ties until he was kicked out of the party in 2012 and prosecuted on bribery and embezzlement charges (his real crime was to be both ambitious and popular). He’s now practising calligraphy and wearing plastic shoes in Qincheng Prison.

The new silk road Peng Liyuan as First Lady
She was famous first. When Xi Jinping, now China’s President for Life, met his wife in 1986, he was the divorced deputy mayor of a sub-provincial city in southern Fujian. She was one of the leaders of the showbiz wing of the People’s Liberation Army, beaming and unblinking on New Year TV specials as she belted patriotic anthems into an imaginary headwind. (“The People are the Mountains, The People are the Sea, The People are the Fountainhead of the Communist Party.”)

Sometimes she wore an olive-green dress uniform. At others she emerged from a curiously labial outburst of red chiffon frills. She’s less flashy now that she is China’s First Lady. The singing also ended with her rise to power. These days Peng smiles and lends elegant but silent support to her husband, drawing the eye with salmon-pink skirts, embroidered cheongsams and double-breasted trenchcoats designed by her personal couturier, Ma Ke.

Peng’s past has also been cut and shaped to fit this new life. Reporters who go to her tiny home village have found her childhood residence turned into a corn-processing facility and local CCP officials unwilling to discuss her background. (Apparently she was a skinny girl who went around strapped to her mother’s back as she worked in the fields.)

This is more than starry coyness. Peng was a singer, but she was also an officer in the PLA. After the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators around Tiananmen Square in 1989, she went down to entertain the troops who had opened fire on the pro-democracy demonstrators. A photograph documenting this moment turned up online in 2013. It was briskly scrubbed from the internet.

The emperor’s clothes Rise of the anorak
This is a statement jacket. And the statement is: I may be working to abolish the restriction on the number of years a Chinese president can stay in office, but I’m really just one of the guys.

Since it’s Xi Jinping who is saying this, the state-run press agrees. “No need for ironing, neat, stain resistant, and with a common touch,” enthused the Xinhua news agency. “This has made the jacket a favourite informal attire for Chinese officialdom.” Papa Xi has been snapped with manual workers delighted that he shares their taste in casual outerwear; with officials who happen to turn up to a tree-planting ceremony in identical zip-up windbreakers; with students pleased to hear the general secretary share his thoughts on Marx, Dante and Taoism while dressed like their dad on his way to pick up some laminate floor tiles from the DIY store.

If Xi’s commitment to sartorial ordinariness hides his authoritarian zeal, then the moments when he breaks it reveal the success of this strategy. In February 2018 he travelled to the mountainous south-west of Sichuan province to meet members of the Yi ethnic group, some of whom practise a shamanistic faith called bimoism – heritage that enjoys the support of the government.

Xi met members of the community wearing Yi traditional dress, a hand-sewn white woollen poncho-like cloak called the chaerwa. He passed down the line, shaking hands, the fringed garment making him appear sinister and ludicrous. “Thank you, General Secretary!” the Yi whooped, as if showing their gratitude to be part of a religious minority that Xi does not regard as a threat.

Matthew Sweet is a regular contributor to 1843, and a writer and broadcaster in London

IMAGES: ALAMY, GETTY, STEFAN NIEDERMAIER/YOUTUBE, SHUTTERSTOCK