Left and right: Actress Liu Tao in “Ode to Joy.” Middle: Yao Chen in “All Is Well.”

Why are more Chinese women wearing suits?

Jun 20, 2019

Fashion trends tend to fall victim to overanalysis. Especially in China, where the hottest thing can become passé almost overnight, it’s easy to read too deeply into any particular trend.

But when it comes to the suit, one might want to reconsider.

In the Chinese fashion world, suits for women have become especially vogue in the past year, and they continue to be popular, both on the streets and in the office.

Television may have contributed to that. One of the most-watched Chinese shows this year, All Is Well, features a female protagonist who rocks a suit while building her career and battling ingrained gender stereotypes at home and at work.

An earlier TV hit from 2016, Ode to Joy, portrayed an equally ambitious female character in a variety of suits.

Actress Yao Chen wears a suit in the drama “All Is Well.”
Actress Yao Chen wears a suit in the drama “All Is Well.” / Photo: Daylight Entertainment

All this suggests the suit might be connected to women feeling greater upward mobility in Chinese society, where men still dominate the workplace.

In fact, a report by the online shopping website Taobao earlier this year found that “suit” was one of the most popular search terms for female shoppers, and forecast that it would become one of the hottest trends this year, owing to “women getting tougher and men more sophisticated.”

(Read more: Women are making waves in China’s male-dominated film industry)

The report went as far as to suggest that women in China would have one suit per person on average in the coming decade, exceeding male estimations for the same attire.

(Taobao is a product of Alibaba, which also owns the parent company of Goldthread, the South China Morning Post.)

But it’s not so simple, says Andréa Guérot, a fashion design teacher at the Beijing-based French fashion school ESMOD.

Despite the report’s claim that more women are buying suits because they’re getting “tougher,” there are really two ways to look at it.

Among the keywords related to women’s suits, the one with the largest increase in searches was actually 大哥廓西, which roughly translates to “boyfriend jacket.” The second largest was for 无性别西装, or “unisex suits.”

This discrepancy highlights the paradox of the suit.

“The suit is complicated.”

Leandi Mulder

“On the one hand, wearing a business suit will immediately change the way you move, make you stand tall,” Guérot says. “But when you wear a boyfriend jacket, it’s to make you look small, fragile, and cute.”

The business suit is tailored, tight, and made to look professional, in contrast to the so-called boyfriend jacket, which is oversized to make the wearer appear smaller and more effeminate.

So-called boyfriend jackets on sale on Taobao.
So-called boyfriend jackets on sale on Taobao.

In China, both ideas have been conflated into the overarching trend of the suit.

“The suit is complicated,” says Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology master’s student Leandi Mulder. “Fashion teachers and aficionados tend to point to the importance of tradition and history of wearing a suit when explaining the current trend in Chinese women’s fashion.” 

It might be an incomplete way of looking at it. That’s because the suit has a very short history in China, where it was only introduced in the early 20th century, after the fall of the last emperor and the rise of republicanism.

What emerged at that time was a modest form of dress: a one-piece tunic with a collar and four pockets, known widely as the Zhongshan suit and later the Mao suit.

A breakdown of the Zhongshan, or Mao, suit.
A breakdown of the Zhongshan, or Mao, suit. / Photo: Kantu

For decades, this was the standard wear in China. When the Communists came to power in 1949, men and women alike wore the suit.

The attire started falling out of favor in the 1980s, when more Chinese people were exposed to Western pop culture.

(Read more: Chinese fashion designers are breaking the ‘Made in China’ stereotype)

“The huge difference between Chinese and Western fashion timelines has created vast diversity in what people are wearing,” Mulder says. “Contemporary Chinese fashion is so young that people are just trying to build up their identity.”

Thus, the present-day obsession with suits could be interpreted as an individual sartorial choice, rather than a broader social statement.

The present-day obsession with suits could be interpreted as an individual expression of style, rather than a broader social statement.
The present-day obsession with suits could be interpreted as an individual expression of style, rather than a broader social statement.

Guérot says this is not only the case with suits but also people’s general approach to clothing.

“Chinese people don’t take it with the baggage of tradition,” she says. “They just use it as it is. Some pop culture, some bold, some ugly items—they like to put it all together.”

It’s not to say, of course, that this newfound freedom isn’t significant.

“Chinese women are increasingly more independent and self-confident, which also means they are creating their own style,” says Gao Di, who designs women’s clothing that incorporates traditional Chinese elements.

(Read more: Not just a costume: Chinese people who ditched the jeans for traditional robes)

Whether it’s the business suit or boyfriend jacket, more women in China are finding that they have the means and freedom to express themselves with the clothes they wear. And that in itself can be empowering.

“Nothing makes you feel better than wearing something that is tailored made to suit you perfectly,” Mulder says.

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