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Expat's Eye
Expat's Eye
UPDATED: December 29, 2014 NO. 1 JANUARY 1, 2015
Clothed in Paradoxes
By Valerie Sartor

FASHIONABLE CONTRASTS: Models display a classic Chinese-style qipao and a Western wedding gown at a bridal show in Xi'an, northwest China's Shaanxi Province (CFP)

When visiting Chinese cities, I am always amazed by the 21st century architecture and the combination of traditional Chinese aesthetics with avant-garde design. Chinese cities are amazing spaces to behold, always evoking ideas of fluidity and diversity. Likewise, young Chinese women, using their fashion sense, are also evolving and transforming themselves via their sartorial choices.

Contemporary Chinese women are performing and negotiating—via fashion choices—what it means to be a woman. 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 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 arisen 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 style of dress—resurrected and traditional—is the Chinese qipao.

Everywhere I go in China, I see these two differing styles. The qipao and the wedding dress can be found in villages and cities alike, and 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. Together, 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 symbol of being female, but has also become a hallmark of the modern-day service industry. Likewise, the Western wedding dress, a symbol of romance and purity, also represents membership into a global coterie of females who are sophisticated, worldly and married. Both are clear markers of older versions, East and West, of what it meant to be feminine.

Many young Chinese women think wearing a qipao suggests employment in the hospitality industry, a booming business in the country these days. They admire and respect traditional Chinese fashion, but disdain wearing a traditional qipao, because it resembles a uniform rather than a fashion trend. The qipao depicts a nostalgic Chinese beauty, but is now connected to the commercialized, cosmopolitan postmodern Chinese world. The Western wedding gown is also symbolic. This signature garment gives off the aura of sophistication, while highlighting the ability to transcend the past and enter the globalized world.

"In the past, we all wore the same styles," said a retired university professor in Hohhot surnamed Yang. "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." 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."

Entering the postmodern, globalized world comes at a cost to young Chinese women. Many believe one has to look smart to get and keep a good job. Some even claim that those who aren't very beautiful would never dream of becoming a corporate leader. These 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.

The author is an American living in Hohhot, north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region

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