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Clothed in Paradoxes: The Qipao and the White Wedding Gown
by Valerie Sartor
2015-01-24 14:28:28
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Visiting Chinese cities, I am always amazed by the 21st century architecture and the combination of traditional Chinese design with avant-garde design. Chinese cities are amazing spaces to behold, always evoking ideas of fluidity and hybridity. Likewise, young Chinese women, using their fashion sense, are also evolving and transforming themselves by their sartorial choices.

chinawed00_400What can I say: clothing is extremely important to women everywhere. Women spend endless hours finding the right skirt, the perfect scarf, and shoes- shoes are an addiction for many females. But are women aware of the politics behind the fashion choices they make? Or do they simply choose what enhances their looks, what a clever clerk convinces her customer to buy?

Contemporary Chinese women are performing and negotiating - via fashion choices - what it means to be a woman in China. Their options have changed dramatically. Before the late 1970s, everyone wore the iconic Mao jacket and trousers ensemble, making Chinese womanhood a far cry from that of the Western conceptions of femininity. Today, however, my male friends tell me that Chinese women dress exquisitely and carefully.

Two types of female dress now seem to be highly symbolic among young Chinese women. These dresses have arose and/or been resurrected due to the thriving economy, with its consequent demand for creative consumption. The first, newer and foreign fashion statement is the western sign of modernity: the white wedding dress. The second, resurrected and traditional dress is the Chinese qipao.

Everywhere I go in China I see these two dresses. The qipao and the wedding dress can be viewed in villages and in cities, in restaurants, photography studios, and modern super-malls. These two contrasting garments seem to intersect ideas of global capitalism with those of tradition and nationalism. As a dyad, these dresses point to the complex, confusing, and even contradictory embodiments of femininity in modern China.

In fact, the Chinese qipao and the Western wedding dress may coexist, but they are actually symbols of competing and contrasting cultural values. In some ways they are alike; in other ways they are quite different in how they inscribe femininity. Significantly, in today’s 21st century Chinese culture, the qipao has evolved to represent not only a female symbol of being Chinese and female, but also it hallmarks the modern-day service industry. Likewise, the Western wedding dress, a symbol of romance and purity, also represents membership into a global coterie of globalized females – who are sophisticated, worldly and married. Both are clear markers of older versions, east and west, of what it meant to be feminine.

“For me, wearing a qipao means someone who works in the hospitality industry; a booming business in my country these days,” said Miss Yi, an accountant in Beijing. “Qipaos are attractive, but such a dress is not my style, because I make more money than those service workers.” Other young Chinese women all agreed with Miss Yi: they admired and respected traditional Chinese fashion, but disdained wearing a traditional qipao, because it resembled an uniform rather than a fashion trend. The qipao uniform depicts a nostalgic Chinese beauty, but now it is connected to the commercialized, cosmopolitan postmodern Chinese world.

Likewise, for young Chinese women, the western wedding gown is also symbolic.  This signature garment  gives off the aura of romance and marriage, and sophistication, combined with an ability to transcend the past and to enter the globalized world. “I wore white at my wedding because it is lovely and because I’m a Beijinger who speaks three languages,” explained Shirley Wang, a young female translator employed by a prestigious Beijing firm.

“In the past, we all wore the same styles,” said Mrs. Yang, a retired university professor in Hohhot; “It was a different era. But today my daughter takes joy in expressing herself through clothes.” This  cosmopolitan creativity I translate as fashion freedom with Chinese characteristics. Mrs. Yang’s daughter Lili commented: “We are interested in our image, and how we look to others.” Lili explained how she studied movies, and watched how other women dressed on TV; adding “You can see a wide range of styles, and make it your own. It’s wonderful to see beauty." 

Lili’s desire for a higher aesthetic has caused her to seek beauty inside a cosmopolitan framework of fashion. “With the rise of market socialism, Chinese women are seeing ways to redefine themselves, they are reevaluating fashion trends and becoming discerning, cosmopolitan consumers,” said Mark Cahill, a businessman living in Beijing. Yet Chinese female consumption is both a crucial, and yet contradictory element of modern femininity.

Entering the postmodern, globalized world comes at some cost to young Chinese women. “To get and keep a good job, you have to look very smart,” said Miss Li, a young journalist. “Those who aren’t very beautiful would never dream of trying to be a corporate leader. Beautiful girls must spend much money staying beautiful. It’s tiring.” Her sentiments reflect the Chinese view that women are judged first of all in relation to their appearance. Yet China is not alone in this tendency. In the Western world, I confessed to my young female friends, the emphasis is always on being both beautiful and youthful.

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