When it comes to discussions of fashion in the Xi household, the Chinese public is normally more interested in the wardrobe of the president’s wife. As we reported in WiC187, Peng Liyuan’s clothing choices have boosted sales for the brands she wears.
But last weekend it was Xi Jinping’s outfit that stirred sartorial comment. At a state banquet in Holland, Xi wore what many in the West would term a ‘Mao suit’. The China Daily chose to interpret this in political terms, saying Xi’s decision to favour it over black tie or a suit and tie “displayed the leader’s pride and confidence in Chinese culture”. If so, it was an unusual move. For some time China’s leaders have opted to don more international attire, especially on overseas trips.
Popularised internationally by Mao Zedong (and later worn by Deng Xiaoping), the Mao suit predates both men’s time in power. It was originally tailored for the father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen, and within China is called a Zhongshan suit.
According to one popular version of the suit’s history, Sun asked a tailor in Shanghai to customise a Western-style outfit. However, Sun ascribed political importance to certain aspects of the suit’s design. He wanted four pockets so as to represent the ‘four virtues’ of traditional China (politeness, honesty, justice and a sense of shame) and five buttons to represent the various branches of government. The three cuff buttons were to stand for Sun’s ‘Three Principles of the People’: nationalism, democracy and the people’s livelihood.
Xi’s decision to wear the Zhongshan suit may be an attempt to project his confidence in a rising China to an international audience. Back home it positions him within the canon of strong leaders too. But in this case a protocol expert told the China Daily, that the suit was a “modified” Zhongshan suit. It didn’t have four pockets and the collar was fashioned differently to the traditional version. In fact, in rather a dandyish act that might not please the Maoists, Xi had even asked his tailor to add a less-than-proletarian pocket square.
The question now is whether, rather like the impact of his wife’s fashion choices, Xi’s dress sense will spark a trend among Chinese men for the Zhongshan suit too.
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