Ever since hanfu came into public light in 2003 as a ‘contemporary fashion’, countless criticisms attacked on how ‘impractical’ or ‘inconvenient’ hanfu is to wear and work in. While pundits defended their position by suggesting the Shuhe and Ruqun with fitting widths, others have been investigating into the possibilities of designing or “remaking” the clothing into a more ‘modern’ one.Examining the finer details of the modifications made to traditional designs allow us an glimpse of the current Chinese impression of ‘modern’ clothing – the shortening of sleeves and skirt hems, bodice-hugging figures, and a general penchant for giving men’s fashion more designs in the top/trouser genre, relegating the long robe design more into the historical category. These modifications reflect this generation of Chinese designers’ views on clothing as an embodiment of gender, social class, and “the epoch” of modernity as an antithesis of a perceived “tradition”. They may choose to enforce or challenge these conceptual constructs (such as giving the girl a dress modelled after a Zhuzi Shenyi, a traditionally strictly male design, as seen on image, top left), but more often face greater influence or even pressure from modern standards rather than historical ones. This contradiction becomes even more ironic when the purpose of the Hanfu movement, described by its founders as a “New Citizen movement”, is to “repel foreign standards and universal values”, when the roots of these biases on gender and class are largely traced to Western fascism of the late 19th to mid 20th century, where segregation and differentiation of such values had a marked effect on the way the world dressed.Jack D. Eller argues that “within nation-building…the sustaining of national identity, ‘traditional’ or ‘authentic’ practices are not just statements about ethnic origins. They are likely to be deliberate political revernacularisations of the national or indigenous past, a strategy to make the past palatable and consumable by the present.” (Eller 1997: 573-4, quoted from Maynard: 84) The deliberate reinvention of hanfu through a so-called ‘modern eye’ by designers Chinese or otherwise is a complex interplay on cultural ‘ingredient mix-ratios’, narrative, and the litmus to outward perception of indigenous culture toward a Euro-American ‘faceless’ sartorial and cultural ‘sameness’, and therefore an undeniably universal need to address the issue – a reality defeating many criticisms online on the necessity of emphasizing a ‘national’ or ‘ethnic’ Han dress.
Over the course of public discussion, the school uniform became the testing ground for ‘real-world plausibility’ of a design. In the modern Asian context, school uniforms are the most ubiquitous symbol of uniformity and professional affiliation. Large corporates and school uniforms are the norm in contrast to common understanding in Europe and America, favoring group identity over the need of individual expression.
The idea of adopting hanfu as a representative image of Chinese scholasticism has long roots as a long visual and material history of scholar’s robes and official wear stretch across dynasties, and was once revived by certain institutions in the Republican period, for example Fu Jen Catholic University. To date, no Chinese university or national university system has officially adopted hanfu, but sporadic initiatives by graduating student classes leave evidence of a demand for China’s unique image in its academicals design. Due to the limitations of these student initiatives, there is an observable lack of conformity between the occasions, denoting the limited availability including financial and logistical realities in procuring the articles of clothing, differences in understanding or interpretations of which hanfu article to wear, as well as a lack of a clear, accessible and authoritative central standard for students to reference upon. That is not to say, however, that no such attempts were given.
In 2006, riding upon the pre-Olmypic cultural wave, Chinese civilian and public scholars (many of which run private Confucian tutelages) publicized two petitions for the use of hanfu in Chinese post-secondary institutions and the Olympic games itself, respectively. While neither proposal ultimately convinced the authority to adopt the plans, it provided a guideline for contemporaries (such as various graduating classes from 2008 to present) to establish a basis of which hanfu design to adopt in their individual attempts.
High school or grade school uniforms were possibly also considered from the same period, but no substantial proposal was widely known until Longnu Yujun’s digital drawings and prototype design photos were publicized on Baidu Hanfu Bar in 2009. Taking on then-popular discussions of the ruqun and aoqun designs, Longnu ‘modernized’ the design by essentializing the collar curves to a straight line, adopted the use of snap buttons, as well shorten limb coverings (sleeves and skirt length) to resemble the business suit. Keeping true to this doctrine, the corresponding male design proposal had much less influence from traditional proportions and cut, featuring a modified Western shirt, blazer, and trousers to give off an essentialized facade of hanfu’s iconic cross-collared, sash-tied design. It is an interesting to compare the ‘degree of Westernization’ among the two designs for the two sexes, especially when we trace the ideas of the modern business suit to John Molloy’s Dress for Success (1975) and the woman’s ‘power-dressing’ in Women: Dress for Success (1980), as “women were encouraged to wear tailored suits that would place them alongside men in suits. It was a form of attire, ostensibly concerned with female empowerment in the male dominated workplace; one that enabled them to walk the compromisingly thin line between conventional notions of ‘femininity’ and ‘maculinity’.” (Entwistle 2000: 229, cited in Maynard: 45) Responses for Longnu’s male design was comprised of mainly disappointment or criticism on the overbearing similarity of the Western suit, which they deemed as contrary to the ‘indigenous element’ they could easily relate to in the female design. Longnu later does admit to the internal stresses and engendered preconceptions on clothing design and promised reflection on later designs, such as the sketches found on the top figure of this essay. This reflects Maynard’s account of the suit’s ‘desirable imprint of the success of capitalism and of professional status’ and Hollander’s description as “a heady mix of abstract formality, superiority, seriousness and strong masculine sex appeal” (Maynard: 44) having a significant legacy in the mindspace of modern Chinese and their preconceptions and ideals toward modern dress.
Therefore, it is safe to relate that in the eyes of the hanfu activists, the ‘indigenous aspect’ of this new proposed design is the key to empowerment, but yet sometimes deemed contradictory due to competing (Western) forms and ideas on the concept, ingrained in form of preconceptions in sex and engenderment, global homogeneity and social roles. Such forms of Western gender standards are observably imposed amongst the ‘modern revisionist’ designs, as we can see in CHU Yan and ZHANG Jing’s “Celestial Spring (Shili Chunqiu)” brand release fashion show in August 2012 in Beijing. The show titled itself as “Tradition and Creation”, and claimed that it was “inspired by 5000 years of glorious Chinese sartorial custom, but not adament or obsessive on any particular dynasty.” With the exception of four displays depicting more traditional forms of male long robes, all of the remaining 14 models wore some form of top/trouser pairing, whereas 6 of the 13 female outfits were top/trouser pairs and the remaining 7 of top/skirt design. The same is true when we examine other ‘modernized’ designs and conjectures from recent previous years.
It is important to also note that the only exhibition of children’s clothing was interpreted as a “school uniform” design, while all other adult designs have not shown any relation or connotation to any academic or professional linkage. The only other obviously ‘situational’ or ‘function-oriented’ design would only be the wedding outfit shown at the end of the whole panel. It is perhaps understandable why this attribution was made when we examine the child models’ pose and accessorization, as the girl wore loose socks and strapped Mary-jane shoes, and both children held Chinese traditional string-bound books in their hands, symbolizing study and academia. Others have related the designs to the ‘May Fourth student outfit’ due to their similar lengths and proportions.
However, this design has considerable distance to current school uniform designs found on the mainland or its Special Administrative Regions. Some private schools and late secondary institutions in Hong Kong use the business suit model and adopt the shirt and blazer, while the majority of mainland public schools use track suits as standard uniforms as well as physical education outfits. Hong Kong schoolgirls enjoy a wide array of uniform designs, but generically fall into the one-piece dress, with the occasional qipao-based design and even rarer sailor uniform. Boys have a much tighter selection, mostly based on the shirt-trouser design in various degrees of dress or undress with ties and blazer jackets, or the self-opted wool cardigan.
From the point of available varieties of modern uniform design, current hanfu-based uniform design can only be described as ‘poor’ or ‘underdeveloped’, largely based on preconceptions and images of available and imagined pasts. For example, one or two-piece robes are nothing unfamiliar to the female wardrobe (the Empress’s formal coronation robes is a Shenyi), yet the closest relevant design – the Tieli, with a pleated wraparound skirt joined to a tight-sleeved cross-collared top – is usually deemed as ‘Ming-style male fashion’, attributing various limitations in temporality and gender role. To draw on the existing (generally recognized) male design into the domain of the female would be no small travesty upon the credibility of the new design as a ‘passed-down traditional’ one.
When such acts are done, such as Longnu Yujun’s black-white ‘miniaturized Shenyi’ dress, the piece is examined through the exotic eye, where the wearer is experimenting with the realm of crossdressing. While the piece may be passable to the aesthetic sense, more frowns will be given when considering on the ‘properness’ of the dress as it infringes on the propriety of male dress and hence a grave transgression on the roles of the sexes based on Confucian ideals – to which the Shenyi is the iconic dress of the said doctrine.
Yet, when we adapt the core elements of a design, we may unintentionally find ourselves intuitively reidentify the reinvention as something totally different. Taking the Tieli example again, should one adopt its top-bottom cutting, with a pleated skirt and topped with a belt, we come to a close similarity with the jumper or one-piece dress found in Western girls’ uniform design. When styled in the right proportions, we have a piece that resembles a (Western) schoolgirls’ uniform, yet every component and structure created from existing Chinese elements (see figure 2, labelled “2012 – Juni Yeung’s sketches”). To this end, is this design ‘traditional’, ‘takes on traditional elements’, or ‘completely new’? Are the lines and shapes in the new design of a specific culture’s propriety? Ultimately, is this design even still Chinese?
To further on the argument on engendered dress, attached is another variant very similar in structure to the female version but modelled and intended for a male wearer. The lack of pleats on the ‘male’ design while the ‘female’ design depends on it – the opposite is the gender norm when we look back to historical artifacts. Whose standards is it that gave the underlying notions that certain designs are ‘for a specific sex’? What are the limits to the proprieties of sex in clothing design? Taken to an extreme, is there even a need to develop a strictly sexually differentiated design? These challenges imposed from the ‘invention’ of a new dress show only the beginnings of the challenges in the clash between cultures and widespread preconceptions on class, temporality, and sex. It is my hope that with the right mixture of questioning and direction, we can reverse or correct some of the more conformist social assumptions that has led to countless cases of discrimination and oppression, and achieve an innovated social standard that is unassuming and broadly accepting – and we get to wear that message boldly for the world to see.
For more information and references, please see Margaret Maynard, Dress and Globalization, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.