President Hu Jintao is not usually the subject of debate amongst the fashionistas. But he did get the sartorial thumbs-up when he appeared in a crisply tailored Mao suit for last year’s 60th anniversary celebrations of the People’s Republic.
“President Hu’s suit was a redesigned one,” remarked Xiao Hua, chairman of Eve Enterprise Group, which was tasked with making Hu’s clothes for the ceremony. Other media reports congratulated Hu for mixing a Western-style slim cut with traditional Mao suit elements like pockets, buttons and colour.
The Mao suit has confusing origins. Despite its name, the style of jacket actually came into the public eye courtesy of Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Chinese Republic.
The plan was to display a symbolic break with China’s imperial past. Sun hoped the suit’s East-West fusion would signify the country’s new openness to Western influence.
Every button and pocket also had a message. The four pockets represented the traditional “Four Virtues” (kindness, intelligence, diligence and courage) of Chinese culture. The five front buttons stood for the five branches of the Chinese government. The three-cuff buttons indicated the “Three Principles of the People,” a political philosophy developed by Sun.
Couture with a conscience, perhaps. But it wasn’t until Chairman Mao came to power that the suit really began to catch on. During his 27-year rule, the Great Helmsman appeared so regularly in the four-pocket jacket that it soon took on his name. No self-respecting proleterian dared leave home without one.
Even after Mao’s death in 1976, the suits remained de rigeur as political dress code. Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemen were often seen wearing them. Of course, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is also a fan. It goes well with his platform heels.
But as a growing number of Western brands began appearing in China, the Mao suit began to fall out of fashion. “It was more popular several decades ago, but now, it would appear very strange if I took a walk in the street wearing this suit,” says Zhang Shichuan, a civil servant who has not wore his ‘vintage’ green Mao suit for nearly 30 years. Still, President Hu’s retro move may pave the way for something of a renaissance.
The suit is now making its way into trendy boutiques in Beijing and Shanghai. Eve Enterprise Group, is hopeful. “The modern Mao suit will become very popular for business occasions,” says Eve’s chairperson, Xia Hua. There was even a showcasing of the latest 50 styles at last November’s China Fashion Week.
Designs are also being updated for the times, and for the fairer sex. Eve’s female clients can now buy Mao suits embellished with feather-like and floral patterns in rich silver and gold tones, says the China Daily.
“These designs can deliver a powerful feeling, and modern women like to impress men with a tough look,” says Liu Jiao, a spokesman of Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology.
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