Fashion in 1970s China: An Opening Door

April 9, 2012
Editor: Sun Xi

The full decade of the Cultural Revolution movement from 1966 to 1976 saw China's fashion go underground, buried under a sea of grass green army uniforms and Mao suits. But by the end of the year 1976, the winter of fashion discontent was finally over and the ice was beginning to melt.

People's dressing began to get more and more colorful and Western 'fancy dress' quietly crept into the country. Gradually, people's aesthetic awareness began to awaken. The traditional Chinese love of beauty, for so long repressed, was starting to surface again.

In 1978, the official political order of reform and opening up had not yet been publicly released, but the fashion revolution had already started on the streets. The popularity in Hong Kong and Taiwan of the bell-bottoms so captivatingly worn by heartthrob crooner Elvis Presley, also impacted on Mainland China.

As in most style revolutions, the first to pioneer the daring new figure hugging pants were film celebrities of the day. However in Mainland China, the first people to wear them on the streets were greeted with distaste by the older generation.
This era saw the most dramatic changes in Chinese dress culture. In the late 1970s, many events of cultural significance happened.

The Jiang Qing Shirtwaist Dress 

Girls wearing the Jiang Qing shirtwaist dress []

Girls wearing the Jiang Qing shirtwaist dress []

China's self-imposed exile from international cultural and economic communication during the Cultural Revolution was reflected in its citizens' dressing styles.

In 1974, Jiang Qing, third wife of Chairman Mao, commissioned designers from Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai to design a dress that incorporated characteristics of Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasty women's wear.

"Make the past serve the present," she said. "No worshipping Western style dressing."

On October 14 of the same year, this hybrid dress was unveiled in Tianjin. After making a few amendments, Jiang personally named it the Jiang Qing dress.

Women cadres of all shapes and sizes were quick to follow her lead in wearing the style, which in reality only flattered those with slim figures. On sale everywhere, certain units judged the correctness of their employees' political attitudes according to whether or not they wore the Jiang Qing frock.

The political imperative behind its promotion, however, did not make the dress popular.

While China's long fashion freeze more or less ended with the last year of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, traces of it still lingered, in the form of army uniforms. 

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