In trying to understand why Chinese women make the fashion choices they do (from body-con mini dresses that let a little butt cheek hang out to colorful and bold printed pajama sets in public), we may find the answers the recent past. The experiences of Chinese women in just the last 60 years have been dramatically varied and have manifested in different styles of dress considering where in this timeline a woman was born.
Women of Revolution
After decades of foreign aggression and civil war, in 1949 Mao ZeDong and the communist party assumed control in China. The years following were characterized by reconstruction and reform, ultimately culminating in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. For ten years from 1966 to 1976, the Communist party politicized every aspect of life in China and anything considered bourgeois or counter revolutionary was repressed. The Red Guards were instructed to attack all elements of old China; customs, habits, culture and thinking.
Inevitably, fashion was affected; contemporary fashions were touted as too “foreign” and bourgeois while traditional clothing was considered too feudal. Any concern with physical appearance was deemed bourgeois. Thus, the adopted outfits were simple and plebeian. The common styles were those replicating the ultimate supporters of the Communist state; workers, soldiers and peasants. The uniforms were of cotton cloth in different shades to signify one’s function in society; green for the army, gray for civilians and blue for workers and peasants. Traditional femininity was deemed bourgeois as women were expected to crop their hair short and refrain from adorning themselves with any color, jewelry, or flowers.
While this history has strongly influenced Chinese designers, it is apparent too in the purchasing habits of women who experienced this era. In their late 30’s or older, these women grew up in a China very different from today. Strict uniformity of dress gave women little choice for self-expression in their clothing. In their purchasing habits now, they look for comfortable fashions and avoid taking risks. They reject frivolity, preferring formal dresses in jacquard fabrics. If they belong to the upper class, they may opt for Japanese style minimalism, loose forms, distinctive cuts and intense color and buy from brands like ZucZug and Exception. These women choose clothing to be distinctive while maintaining their sense of Communist frugality.
Women of Reform
Women of the reform are products of China’s one child policy, the family planning initiative enacted in 1980 used to control the population. While they did not endure the same hardships as their parents, growing up in a time of economic reform and open door policy, they faced their own adversities. They are a transitional generation.
The Chinese tradition that the son will care for aging parents coupled with traditional Confucian views of female inferiority created a distinct environment for women born in this time. Since the one child policy was put in place there has been an increased disdain for female infants, abortion, neglect, abandonment and infanticide. These girls were a disappointment to their families as a female but as the only child they were still spoiled and pampered. This lead to a generation of women who feel inadequate and inferior while at once feel entitled to special treatment. They are often considered materialistic and egotistic, and are psychologically more inclined to heavy consumer spending.
These women grew up through steady economic growth and public spending on education, thus they were educated according to rigorous standards but in a context of optimism, consumerism and entrepreneurship. They feel loyal to their families but still do not neglect their own ambition which increases their shopping spending. This segment desires visibility and clothing that adapts to a multifaceted and demanding lifestyle.
This segment is known for their ‘cute’ style, to some extent a reaction to their mother’s colorless and gender neutral fashion heritage. Further, with pressure to marry before their 27th birthday many women adopt the sweet, quiet and young look to defer the marriage deadline. However, their style is also quickly evolving, finding influence from many directions including Korean fast fashion and European styles once considered boring and flat. Importance of detail design and material quality is growing while their appetite for logos is fading as brands have been over exposed. It is anticipated that this segment will increasingly demand quality and simplicity.
Women of Weibo
This generation is rejecting the overly “cute” aesthetic of previous generations, opting instead for sporty high-street looks. These women have more individualistic and liberal values that have translated into more selective and anti-mainstream shopping habits. The newly popular XQX (Xiao Qing Xin) style translates to “small and fresh”. Originating in indie pop music, XQX is an entire subculture fostering self-expression and simplicity. Still cute and girly to a Western eye, their style favors the polka dots and A-line skirts without the sequins and embroidery of previous generations.
These women are more connected internationally than any before them. Though still young, they are defining themselves quickly as most young women throughout the world are – social media. The majority of Western social media cannot be accessed in China but they are not missed; with 600 million social media users in China similar platforms have been developed, like Weibo, QQ, and WeChat. Young Chinese women look online to find interesting content, advice and recommendations from friends and opinion leaders on social media.
With Western social media inaccessible for mainland Chinese, these women are limited in their exposure to emerging designers. They demand creative design and well-crafted products. They are more likely to take risks in their fashion choices and are attracted to the foreignness of international brands.
There is no doubt that each woman in China is different and unique, but some inclinations transcend segmentation. Like pajamas in public, foreign made and quality products are poised to find success with Chinese women of any age.