ashion happens faster now in China. You could even say fashion happens first in China, but let’s go back a little, to when a boxy version of the men’s suit jacket was de rigueur across the country for every occasion, everywhere. Now that I’ve noticed it’s all but gone, I already miss it.
In a way, it was fashion that first brought me to China in 2001. Tang dynasty fashion, of course. Back in the ninth century when Chinese influence was at one of its peaks, its culture was transmitted far and wide.
When I was deciding what to study at university, I’d got it down to Japanese or Chinese. One day I came across an article that said that what we think of as traditionally Japanese culture – raised wooden sandals, hair up in buns, ornate fans – all came from China. Even the kimono, something so Japanese we use the Japanese word, was the height of fashion at the Tang court, and became all the rage in Japan. And stayed all the rage, right up till now. Well, maybe not all the rage, but it’s still worn and respected.
China became the original in my mind and Japan a mere well-preserved carbon copy. So down the Chinese path I went and arrived for the first time in 2001. After the initial clichéd shocks, (so many people! So many bicycles! so many decibels!) I began to realize there were some more subtle surprises. Apart from a few, isolated sites, there was very little of the traditional China I’d hoped to see, especially in Beijing where I arrived. For clothing, traditional for me would have gone all the way up to the Mao-era. There were a few girls in flammable qipaos standing at restaurant doors, but everyone else was in generic casuals.
Or were they? I began to see that manual workers were, in a Western sense, better dressed than many office workers, who can turn up to work wearing a Mickey Mouse Tshirt, fishnet tights and hot pants. Men working on construction sites or digging up roads were almost all wearing a dark gray or black blazer. There’d be the occasional pinstripe, but that wasn’t important.
Pulling a cart loaded with bricks? Put on your blazer. Running with buckets of concrete? Only with a jacket. Repairing a broken down bus on the side of the road? Make sure you’re wearing a collar.
There was some variation in design, but one thing was constant: it must not fit like a jacket. It must be way too big and almost shapeless. You’d occasionally see a young man, just starting out in a manual profession that required a blazer. He’d be swamped by his jacket and look awkward, needing years to fill and shape it.
They weren’t just for wearing on the job. They had many more functions. They made blankets for you and a friend on a train station floor. Lay it outside-down on a dusty wall for an impromptu group picnic – then shake it clean. Hold it overhead as an awning when squatting in the sun. Baking heat or freezing cold, the jackets kept the wearer at a more comfortable temperature. Plus the pockets could hold everything a man needed in life.
Mao suits were also more common when I first started visiting China, especially in smaller towns. Older gentlemen might be seen going about in them, but now I’d say they’re firmly the preserve of “characters.” If you’re going to take six cages of birds for a walk along the road, you’re probably wearing a Mao jacket. Get up at 4am every day to sing opera at a tree? You’re wearing a Mao jacket.
Generally, tailoring has been hurled in the opposite direction and second-tier city real estate agents can barely sit down, their trousers are so tight. Jacket buttons would ping off with an abrupt turn on their scooters. Expensive English fabrics or iridescent synthetics are crafted into all type of multi-buttoned, multi-pocketed marvels.
The newest version of the Mao jacket may be a simple zip-up black anorak. It’s generally worn by high-level officials over a white shirt, no tie. It’s almost completely without structure and therefore completely unsuitable for manual workers.
As more aspects of life have become more formalized, so have work requirements. Now manual laborers are uniformed. From construction site workers to road sweepers, there’s a garish and obligatory outfit, quite often a one piece. Branding is more important now, and delivery personnel must adhere to strict policies, with rival firms apparently competing on the most over-the-top liveries.
The boxy suit jacket is now becoming a rarity. Perhaps this is a sign of progress, a change of era. But the replacement uniforms somehow don’t offer the same functionality or somehow even the same individuality as the shapeless blazer that would accompany a man from job to job and city to city.