With winter receding and warmer weather to follow shortly, it's time for Shanghai to re-organize our closets. Most of us will take a hard look at our fashion choices and, after the non-stop gluttony of holiday feasting, also be forced to take new measurements.
If you were lucky, you might have received gifts of clothing or at least enough hongbao to consider buying the latest in fashionable apparel. Which leads me to contemplate yet again why Shanghai is so averse to classical Chinese clothing? I am quite familiar with Shanghai's role as an international city, whose sartorial influences over the past couple of centuries tend to come from Western cultures. But it seems as if Shanghai rigorously resists any attempts to incorporate Chinese culture into it collective wardrobe.
Illustration: Lu Ting/GT
The mighty branding of the swoosh, the stripes and the interlocking C's of the global luxury behemoths have trodden on every part of the globe, often pushing out local designers when it comes to choices. But I often despair over the hegemony of the Western suit and tie in this part of the world, where it is an extremely impractical uniform.
It strikes me that the traditional designs of hanfu (the clothing of pre-Qing Dynasty Han Chinese) are perhaps the most practical type of dress to handle Shanghai's bizarre, inconsistent climate. Cloth buttons that don't conduct heat or cold and don't fall off in an untimely moment, as well as unrestrictive collars and breathable fabric, seem sensible to me. Despite the provenance of designer names, any type of Chinese apparel from the 18th and 19th centuries are infinitely more suitable here than heavy wool twills from European fabric mills.
There is certainly no lack of talent in China's clothing market, as Chinese designers now populate all international fashion houses as well as street-style originators whose designs influence the avant-garde. Not to mention that the legendary houses of couture have long drawn inspiration from the traditional craftsmanship of Asian clothing.
Sadly, those who attempt to revive past design elements for a modern-day Shanghai stand out as eccentrics despite this city's affinity for cosplay and excess that sometimes manifests among young Shanghainese. And therein can be found the source of this issue: any attempt to revitalize traditional styles here tends to veer toward a farcical, historical re-enactment instead of as an accepted part of daily attire.
Far too often, hanfu is used as a costume at theme restaurants or at ceremonies and events which overtly reference mythical stories. Perhaps Shanghai has become so associated with the qipao skirt and Art-Deco of the early 20th century that it is difficult to associate it with any modern movement. The inter-war period, with its marriage of Western and Chinese design elements, reached such a high point of sophistication that nostalgia has created a fantasy that many cannot let go of. The concept of "Ye Shanghai" is a powerful idea even today.
With a new year and new fashion season comes an opportunity to forge ahead and chip away at those entrenched sartorial habits. Perhaps if hanfu became less of novelty and more of an everyday habit, then foreign residents would also decide to ditch their restrictive neck ties and climate-inappropriate fabrics to embrace a more practical way of dressing and, eventually, living.
Change in our modern society often begins at the corporate level. Instead of motivational exercises or corporate slogans, maybe a prominent local company would be willing to institute "Mandarin Collar Mondays" every week, or "Black Cloth Slipper Fridays." Here is an idea any Western fast food franchise or coffee chain in China could also adopt as a harmonious marketing strategy: customers who patronize the store wearing hanfu get a 5 percent discount off their order.
What's to lose? Companies are always looking for innovative branding strategies to separate themselves from the competition. This one comes with built-in practicality and sartorial pride.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.