Trade Resources Culture & Life By The End of 1976, Winter of Fashion Discontent Finally Over and The Ice Begins to Melt

By The End of 1976, Winter of Fashion Discontent Finally Over and The Ice Begins to Melt

The full decade of the Cultural Revolution movement from 1966 to 1976 saw China's fashion go underground, buried under a sea of grass green army uniforms and Mao suits. But by the end of the year 1976, the winter of fashion discontent was finally over and the ice was beginning to melt.

People's dressing began to get more and more colorful and Western 'fancy dress' quietly crept into the country. Gradually, people's aesthetic awareness began to awaken. The traditional Chinese love of beauty, for so long repressed, was starting to surface again.

In 1978, the official political order of reform and opening up had not yet been publicly released, but the fashion revolution had already started on the streets. The popularity in Hong Kong and Taiwan of the bell-bottoms so captivatingly worn by heartthrob crooner Elvis Presley, also impacted on Mainland China.

As in most style revolutions, the first to pioneer the daring new figure hugging pants were film celebrities of the day. However in Mainland China, the first people to wear them on the streets were greeted with distaste by the older generation.

This era saw the most dramatic changes in Chinese dress culture. In the late 1970s, many events of cultural significance happened.

The Jiang Qing Shirtwaist Dress 

China's self-imposed exile from international cultural and economic communication during the Cultural Revolution was reflected in its citizens' dressing styles.

In 1974, Jiang Qing, third wife of Chairman Mao, commissioned designers from Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai to design a dress that incorporated characteristics of Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasty women's wear.

"Make the past serve the present," she said. "No worshipping Western style dressing."

On October 14 of the same year, this hybrid dress was unveiled in Tianjin. After making a few amendments, Jiang personally named it the Jiang Qing dress.

Women cadres of all shapes and sizes were quick to follow her lead in wearing the style, which in reality only flattered those with slim figures. On sale everywhere, certain units judged the correctness of their employees' political attitudes according to whether or not they wore the Jiang Qing frock.

The political imperative behind its promotion, however, did not make the dress popular.

While China's long fashion freeze more or less ended with the last year of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, traces of it still lingered, in the form of army uniforms.

Four Pockets: A Sign of Prestige

A special feature of the People's Liberation Army uniforms was that only soldiers ranked above platoon level could wear the uniform with four pockets on their upper outer garment. The ordinary army men only had two upper chest pockets on their uniform.

In that time, when army uniforms were the height of fashion, those four pockets were in special demand. Shanghai even cracked down on a juvenile criminal gang who specialized in robbing people of their army uniforms with four pockets and the matching caps.

Uniforms Still in Vogue

The uniform trend lasted well into the mid-1970s, due in part to the prevailing herd mentality of the time inhibiting the pursuit of fashion. It was considered fashionable for a young girl to turn out the white collar of her shirt to have it peeking out above her blue work attire.

 A group photo of people wearing uniforms. [] 

The Iconic White Shoes

In China at the time, the term 'white shoes' was synonymous with the iconic sailcloth sports shoes pictured above. Even now, many Chinese above the age of 30 regard the shoes with a sense of affectionate nostalgia. Many people remember using white shoe powder as a child to keep their shoes bright and clean.  

The False Collar: A New Form of Elegance

The false collar was invented during the most difficult period after the founding of New China. Shanghai people, who had historically been very fashionable, were now faced with straitened economic circumstances that necessitated a choice between food and fashion. Quite a few chose fashion, skimping on food to save money for clothing. But in a time of rationing, money couldn't always buy you everything. People had to use cloth coupons at the time to buy clothes, and a decent white shirt may well have been an extravagant desire.

Nonetheless, this didn't deter people from buying leftover pieces of cloth, which didn't need to be bought with coupons, to make false collars. These were worn inside the outer garment so that no one could tell whether or not it was a real shirt. In fact, it later became fashionable to wear a false collar and no one felt strange about it. They were widely sold in the stores.

This invention, while small in itself, added more color and fun to ordinary people's dressing. The fake collar later grew popular in other cities of China as well.

Dacron: Durable and Cost-effective

From 1976 to 1979, China began to import large quantities of chemical fiber equipment that could produce Dacron, a synthetic polyester fabric that led to a revolution in people's dressing. Its durability and wrinkle-proof qualities made it wildly popular with the Chinese people and soon everyone was wearing clothes made of Dacron.

In truth, the Dacron fabric was bad at wicking away moisture from bodies and today's cotton products are far more advanced. But for people at the beginning of the reform and opening up period, it was a revelation. For them, the bright colors that Dacron came in presented a great visual impact, a relief after a decade of grays and blues.

It is said that the standard image of a cool guy in the 1970s was one wearing a pair of white shoes, blue cloth pants, and a Dacron shirt.

Another reason for its popularity was its impressive durability. In the planned economy era, the cloth coupon allocated to one person entitled him or her to less than one square meter of cloth - hardly enough to make a single set of clothing. Poorer families had to buy rag cloth to make their clothes.

The appearance of Dacron solved the issue because of its durability. Families could gather all their clothing allowance and make a set of clothing for the member that needed it the most. And that set was guaranteed to last for years and years.

For ordinary families, it helped meet the people's basic needs and satisfy their pursuit of aesthetics at the beginning of the reform and opening up period.

In the 1980s, with more fabric choice on the market, people grew increasingly impatient with the shortcomings of Dacron. The appearance of colored cotton on the scene effectively signaled the end of the Dacron dominance over people's wardrobes.

Pointed Collars and More

In 1974, people all over the world began to wear shirts with oversized, pointy collars. Chinese people followed suit and not long after, khaki bell-bottoms caught on. In 1978, nylon coats lined with cotton were all the rage. Chinese people, having been sartorially suppressed for so long, welcomed this influx of new and colorful clothing styles from the Western world.

Progressive-minded girls threw off their dull-colored coats and put on colorful knit sweaters, taking action for their own personal fashion revolutions.

Pierre Cardin in China and the Advent of Haute Couture

For fashion to flourish in the ossified culture of early 1980's China, both an evangelist and an adventurer were needed. Fortunately, French fashion pioneer Pierre Cardin was both.

Cardin's relationship with China began with a tapestry of the Great Wall of China. In 1976, Cardin was invited to visit an exhibition of Chinese craftwork. Amongst the artifacts, he was immediately drawn to the striking yet simple beauty of a tapestry of the Great Wall. He immediately asked to buy it, but unfortunately customs restrictions forced the tapestry to make a return trip to China before coming into his possession a few months later in Paris.

While the story may seem rather serendipitous, the truth was that Cardin was already an Eastern culture enthusiast at the time and an eventual relationship between his fashion house and China was inevitable. In 1978, the country had not yet emerged from the shadows of the Cultural Revolution and, apart from in a tour group, it was impossible for a foreigner to enter the country freely. Cardin therefore lost no time and asked one of his associates to organize a tour group. He wanted to bring the Pierre Cardin brand, by then already a byword for fashion and chic, to the people of China.

Cardin's idea was seen as crazy, due in no small part to the stark reality he faced. Fashion and chic had long been dismissed in China as bourgeois and although China was slowly opening up to the outside world, plain blue, green and black still dominated Chinese clothing. When it came to fashion, the China of the late 1970's was still very much on guard against the kaleidoscopic outside world.

In 1979, thanks to the support of Song Huaikuei [note*], Cardin presented his first fashion show in the Cultural Palace of Minorities in Beijing, to which, nevertheless, only people from the fashion world could attend. Later on, in 1981, he was able to present his collection in the Beijing Hotel, this time to a broader audience. This show marked the beginning of fashion shows in China and the name of Pierre Cardin remains entrenched in China's fashion history.

In 1985, Pierre Cardin presented his collections in the two main cities, filling the Workers Stadium in Beijing and the Cultural Palace in Shanghai with 10,000 guests each. This unprecedented event was widely covered by the media.

That same year, he flew twelve famous Chinese models to Paris for a fashion show. The event was a sensation and was covered by eight of the largest French and European papers. The emblematic image of a Chinese model waving her country's flag while being driven around the Arc de Triomphe in an open topped car became famous across the fashion world.

The year 1990 saw another important event in Cardin's career in China. It was a year when world opinion was against China and Beijing was hosting the Asian Games. Cardin organized a grandiose fashion show in the Temple Tai Mao (ancestral temple of the imperial family) in the heart of the Forbidden City. This was without precedent in China. Cardin said: "As a French person, I cannot claim that I know China better than the Chinese but I believe in the wisdom of the Chinese and I am totally confident in the country's future."

Soon the Pierre Cardin name was known to everyone in China, young and old. According to surveys of the time, the most well known French people in China then were Pierre Cardin and footballer Michel Platini, exceeding the French president in their fame.

As the first Westerner to break into China's fashion world, Cardin once likened his experience to that of explorer Marco Polo.

The last year of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 also marked the end of China's long fashion winter. The decades in between have seen China flower into a fashion powerhouse, one of the largest in Asia. As with so many other aspects of the country, industry insiders are waiting with bated breath to see what happens next with the China fashion world.


The Cultural Revolution was a socio-political movement that took place in the People's Republic of China from 1966 through 1976. Set into motion by Mao Zedong, then Chairman of the Communist Party of China, its stated goal was to enforce socialism in the country by removing capitalist, traditional and cultural elements from Chinese society, and to impose Maoist orthodoxy within the Party. The revolution marked the return of Mao Zedong to a position of absolute power after the failed Great Leap Forward. The movement politically paralyzed the country and significantly affected the country economically and socially.

Educated youth, known as zhiqing, were a mixture of those who volunteered to go to work in the rural areas and those who were forced to go there during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Under a directive from Mao Zedong, then leader of China, the movement of 'going to mountain areas and the countryside' set off on December 12, 1968.

Song Huaikuei, the former long-standing chief representative for Pierre Cardin China, is widely considered as the iconic fashion symbol of the 1970s and 1980s. Pierre Cardin met Song in Paris in 1980, with the result that Song helped the brand stage an exclusive fashion show at Beijing's Cultural Palace of Nationalities. After serving as the representative for Pierre Cardin China, she also elected and trained China's first models for Pierre Cardin's shows.

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Fashion in 1970s China: an Opening Door
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