Catherine Foulkrod

Pockets of Resistance

The Formation and Continuing Aftereffects of China’s Post-Mao Fashion Craze

DISCUSSED: State-Produced Attire, Mao Suits, A Rodeo in Houston, The Chinese Joseph Heller, A Symbolically Potent Hat, The Blue-Jeans Capital, Hooliganism, The Birth of Venus, Face-Kinis, Vogue, The Spectre That Haunts Capitalism

A fertile fashion breeding ground consists of social pulls and tugs: the need to belong, the need to break free; the urge to disappear, the desire to be seen. In the years following the death of Mao Zedong, when China commenced one of the most extreme fashion transformations in history—from collective, state-produced attire to the label-glamor of global pop-consumerism in less than two generations—these tensions were manifold. “People in reform-era China [1976–89] wanted to be citizens of the world,” writes material-culture historian Antonia Finnane. They also wanted to escape from years of mass identity and become individuals: “There was this deep hunger to do something among youth that would express a little bit of… individual rebellions, self-expression, and to be cool,” says journalist and China scholar Orville Schell, who has been splitting his time between China and the United States since 1975.

The first indications of the consumer culture and brand prominence that exist in China today (the country has been the world’s second-biggest consumer economy since 2013, spending $3.3 trillion in private consumption) can be found in the turmoil, confusion, influences, and uncanny fashions of those reform years. Then, as now, it was the emotional impact of fashion, the charged unsteadiness of the possibility for new identities, that electrified the air.

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Catherine Foulkrod is a New York City–based writer. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the Iowa Review, New York Tyrant, Artifice, Unsaid, Bookforum, and elsewhere.

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