Fashion Memories: China in the 1950s
On the first day of October 1949, 300,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians gathered at Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing and joined the founding ceremony of the New China. Chairman Mao read out the public announcement of the Central People's Government and solemnly declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China to the world.
The audience was a sea of somber blue, gray and black but since then, New China has seen rapid changes in the people's clothing, often reflective of the country's development.
Chairman Mao at Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949, declaring the establishment of the People's Republic of China. [en.wikipedia.org]
The founding of the republic meant that the Western dress, leather shoes and embroidered cheongsam that were considered high social status symbols before were deeply buried. Instead, the era saw the rise of the Zhongshan suit (named after Democracy Revolutionist Sun Yat-sen) and the Lenin coat (named after Vladimir Lenin, Russian founder of the Bolsheviks, leader of the Russian Revolution and first head of the USSR).
In addition to being functional, the clothing of the 1950s also symbolized political solidarity and friendly ties between China and the Soviet Union.
Zhongshan Suit: A Political Statement
The Democracy Revolutionist Sun Yat-sen in a Zhongshan suit. [en.wikipedia.org]
Chairman Mao in a Zhongshan suit [en.wikipedia.org]
Communist Party of China leader Mao Zedong (front right) and Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek (front centre) both dressed in the Zhongshan suit (1945) [en.wikipedia.org]
The Zhongshan suit, known in the West as the Mao suit (after Mao Zedong), was introduced by Sun Zhongshan (better known as Sun Yat-sen) shortly after the founding of the Republic of China, as a form of national dress. It later gained a distinctly political and governmental implication.
After the end of the Chinese Civil War and the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the suit became widely worn by men and government leaders as a symbol of proletarian unity and an Eastern counterpart to the Western business suit.
The name 'Mao suit' comes from Chinese leader Mao Zedong's affinity for wearing them in public, thus tying the garment closely to him and Chinese communism in general in the Western imagination. Although they fell into disuse in the 1990s amid increasing Western influences, they are still worn on occasion by Chinese leaders during important state ceremonies and functions.
Women wearing Lenin coats [nddaily.com] The Lenin coat, as part of a suit, also came to China from the Soviet Union. Its double-breasted style, with open collar and a cloth belt, was suitable for both sexes of all ages, but was more flattering to feminine curves.
'Make a Lenin coat, and save it for your wedding' was a popular saying amongst young people at the time, reflecting the durability and multi-functionality of the garment. Along with the Zhongshan suit or Mao suit, it was regarded as high revolutionary fashion.
Simplicity and thrift being the keynote of 1950s clothing modes, garments in shades of green, blue, black, or gray, preferably patched, were most admired. The Lenin coat reflected the true belief of the times, that 'labor is beautiful'.
Bragi Dress: Revolution and Progress
Bragi dresses (one-piece dresses) [baike.baidu.com]
Bragi dresses (one-piece dresses) [baike.baidu.com]
The Bragi dress was the daily wear of former Soviet Union women. It became popular as Soviet Union heroine Zoya Anatolyevna Kosmodemyanskaya [*note] was executed for championing her cause in just such a dress. It became a symbol of revolution and progress.
The Bragi dress (Bragi is the Russian transliteration of one-piece dress) and Lenin coat exemplified the simple, thrifty wear of the 1950s. Posters, periodicals and films from the Soviet Union featuring women in Bragi designs encouraged women of all ages—students, young wives and matrons—to wear these styles.
The dresses were baggy and in a limited range of colors and styles –mainly floral, plaid and stripes—which disguised rather than accentuated womanly charms. Nevertheless, Chinese women everywhere donned Bragi dresses as a way of showing solidarity and friendship between China and the Soviet Union.
When relations between the two countries soured, the term Bragi was seldom heard, although women continued wearing dresses in that design.
Cargo pants [texnet.com.cn]
To build a new China, every Chinese person needed to contribute his or her efforts. Daily clothing had to be hardwearing and good quality. This period saw the popularity of cargo pants as the perfect work wear. People wore them in gray, blue and green shades.
A girl wears an outfit made of patterned fabric. [bbs.sina.com.cn]
In January 1956, the Chinese Artists Association Shanghai Branch held an exhibition displaying patterned fabric, silk, and brocade designs, which drew great attention. The Youth Daily newspaper reported on the exhibition saying: "Girls, don't be drab. Give yourselves a spruce by dressing in florals!"
Yellow Army Cap
The original army cap was made from yellow cotton cloth [texnet.com.cn]
While not everyone could join the army, many Chinese youths of the day possessed an army cap or two.
Most of the army caps at the time were made of yellow cotton cloth and were sold in stores as standard, non-Army issued clothing. In order to create the smartly pointed edge around the brim of the cap, people came up with many solutions, including using their teeth to shape the brim and stuffing it with newspaper or hard cardboard.
The Warrior was a tire brand with the longest history in China. On April 4, 1935, it was registered as a sports shoe brand.
In 1948, the National Athletic Games were held in Shanghai Jiangwan Stadium, during which the Warrior shoe brand was promoted. The brand worked closely with the sports and media industry to set a large eye-catching billboard in the stadium to attract viewers, especially young students.
It worked. With a pair of Warrior shoes, it didn't matter what people wore because it was the shoes that really mattered. Usually the shoes were in white or blue.
The shoes were so popular that they inspired a basketball craze in middle schools, as getting on the school team was a good way of persuading one's parents to buy a pair of the much coveted shoes.
Writer Wang Shuo [*note] said: "During the Cultural Revolution when social order was a mess, those who wore Warrior shoes and army caps were the main targets of robbery. A good looking guy would go out wearing Warrior shoes and come back barefooted."
On the whole, the fashions and styles of the 1950s were less tied to aesthetic qualities as they were to the revolutionary and political ideals of the time period.
More old photos reflecting the clothing styles of the 1950s:
Ordinary people in the 1950s [texnet.com.cn]
School uniforms in the 1950s [cnxz.com.cn]
Female teachers and primary school children in the 1950s [texnet.com.cn]
Chinese women working in the 1950s [texnet.com.cn]
A working woman in the 1950s [texnet.com.cn]
Zoya Anatolyevna Kosmodemyanskaya (September 13, 1923 – November 29, 1941) was a Soviet partisan, and a Hero of the Soviet Union (awarded posthumously). She was one of the most revered heroes of the Soviet Union. In October 1941, still a high school student in Moscow, she volunteered for a partisan unit. On November 27, 1941 Zoya received an assignment to burn the village of Petrischevo, where a German cavalry regiment was stationed. In Petrischevo, Zoya managed to set fire to horse stables and a couple of houses.
However, one Russian collaborationist informed on her and the Germans caught Zoya as she started to torch another house. She was tortured and interrogated throughout the night but refused to give up any information. The following morning she was marched to the center of the town with a board around her neck bearing the inscription 'Houseburner' and hanged.
Her final words were purported to be "Comrades! Why are you so gloomy? I am not afraid to die! I am happy to die for my people!" and to the Germans, "You'll hang me now, but I am not alone. There are two hundred million of us. You can't hang us all." The Germans left Zoya's body hanging on the gallows for several weeks. Eventually she was buried just before the Soviets regained that territory in January 1942.
Wang Shuo, born on August 23, 1958, is a Chinese author, director, actor, and cultural icon. He has written over 20 novels, television series and movies. His work has been translated into Japanese, French, English, Italian, and many other languages. He has enormous cultural status in China and has become a nationally celebrated author.
(Source: texnet.com.cn/Translated and edited by womenofchina.cn)