You see this image often. A televised press conference, two heads of state shaking hands and making nice for the cameras. Lets say it’s Tony Blair and Jiang Zemin. Now, how many differences can you spot between the dashing figure of the British statesman compared to his severe Chinese counterpart? I can pinpoint at least two – at eye level and at the waistline. Almost inevitably, the Chinese politician will have his pants hiked up a good eight inches above that of the Westerner, and his eyewear will cover at least 60% of his facial area.
Many foreign friends have asked me in bemused perplexity about the Chinese male “uniform.” For those of you who don’t yet know, the outfit of choice for grown Chinese men (over the age of twenty-five) is a Western suit, black leather dress shoes, and a dress shirt. There are personal variations to be sure. Sometimes the suit is worn without the jacket, or the dress shoes worn with a pair of shorts, or often a proper shirt is substituted for a short-sleeved one. But for the most part, any male leaving the house wanting to look “respectable” will don some version of this uniform.
It’s not always a practical or functional outfit. I’ve seen this attire in use at business lunches (seems appropriate enough), on physical laborers at a construction site, and even on idlers squatting by the roadside.
Nor is it a normally a fashionable choice. For the most part the suits you see around China are ill-fitting, slouching at the shoulders and held up to an artificially high waist with stretched belts (or even pieces of cloth or rope). The shoe styles haven’t been updated in the near three decades that I’ve been living.
So why then do people low as the farm hand and high as our Party Secretaries go in public looking like this? And why do the latter make a bad thing worse by pulling the pant line higher than high and topping the look off with retro eyewear?
It all comes down to some rigidly held ideas of what a serious adult male “ought” to look like. Among the many unspoken rules are:
– A real man doesn’t leave the house wearing shorts
– A low waistline is unbecoming of doers of serious business. Leave the hip-level fashionable waists to hoodlums and gangsters.
– Shirts without buttons and collars are for children, or for sleeping in
– Slippers and sneakers are abominably casual, and traditional cloth flats are for retirees
– Anything trendy, especially worn on the face, detracts your social standing
– Basically, when it come to dressing, the bottom line is that Chinese men want to look anything BUT fashionable. Serious and somber is what we’re going for.
My personal hypothesis for the popularity of the Chinese male uniform is that from the 1940’s our Great Leader Mao wiped out variety in clothing his all-purpose military khaki suits (also unisex). After Mao’s passing, Chinese men, never in history known for sartorial creativity, didn’t know what to do with the vast amount of choice they faced in the dressing room. So they reverted to the last real trend they remembered – in the early 1900’s wealthy, progressive men adopted the Western suit as a sign of their worldly education. For better or worse, the suited up look became ubiquitous in modern China.
If I could do just one thing for my country I would hold a Fashion 101 seminar for our top leaders so that the next time they go on TV with something important to say, the world will be listening to their words instead of freaking out over the sight of a Communist dinosaur talking head on the screen.