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Mao suit
Evolution and revolution: Chinese dress 1700s-1990s

The Sun Yat-sen suit
Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan) (1866-1925), the Provisional President of the new Chinese Republic proclaimed in 1911, is credited with the modernisation of Chinese men's dress. It is said that he instructed Huang Longsheng, a Western-style tailor from Zhejiang Province, to design a suit based on one commonly worn by Chinese men in Japan and south-east Asia. The early form of Sun Yat-sen suit (Qilingwenzhuang) had a closed stand collar and centre-front buttons. The design of the Sun Yat-sen suit changed significantly over the course of some 50 years.

A major and lasting change to the design of the Sun Yat-sen suit (Zhongshan fu) was the incorporation of elements of German military dress including a turndown collar and four symmetrically placed pockets. Over time small stylistic changes were made to the design. It is the later style of Sun Yat-sen suit which was further modified and adopted as China's national dress by Mao Zedong after 1949.

Nationalism in dress
Long after Sun Yat-sen's death, popular mythology assigned a revolutionary and patriotic significance to the Sun Yat-sen suit, even though it was essentially a foreign-style garment. The four pockets were said to represent the Four Cardinal Principles cited in the classic Book of changes and understood by the Chinese as fundamental principles of conduct:

  • propriety
  • justice
  • honesty
  • a sense of shame.

The five centre-front buttons were said to represent the five powers of the constitution of the Republic and the three cuff-buttons to symbolise the Three Principles of the People

  • nationalism
  • democracy
  • people's livelihood.
Grey, modified Sun Yat-sen suit
Grey, modified Sun Yat-sen suit: The sleeves of the jacket, designed to cover the knuckle of the thumb, were longer than a Western suit. The loose fit allowed for ease of movement. Made in the 1970s. Powerhouse Museum collection. 98/126/85

Soviet influence on Chinese dress
During the first decade of the People's Republic of China (1949-59) the Soviet Union exerted a strong influence on Chinese economics, industry, art education and culture. Russian experts were invited into universities and colleges to teach students. Soviet artists also taught at the influential Central Academy of Fine Art in Peking, training artists in Socialist realist painting techniques.

Russian language, Marxism and Leninism were compulsory subjects and Russian language skills enhanced one's social standing. Dress too, came under Soviet influence. Those women who wore the fashionable Lenin suit, a jacket and trouser ensemble made from cotton or sometimes wool, were displaying their political allegiance.

Young Pioneers were regarded as the hope of the future. The triangular red scarf was said to represent a corner of the Communist flag, dyed red from the blood of martyrs. This outfit was worn to a rally for Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square on 1 October 1961, China's National Day.

Beige Lenin suit
Beige Lenin suit (Liening fu): Woollen Lenin suits were worn by women at the Communist revolutionary base in Yenan in the early 1940s. They continued to be worn during the 1950s. Powerhouse Museum collection. 98/126/1

Young Pioneer outfit:
Young Pioneer outfit: This child's outfit is known as Zhuo Ya fu. Zhuo Ya was the name of a Russian World War II child-hero. The white shirt is made of synthetic fabric which did not require precious cotton ration coupons. Powerhouse Museum collection. 98/126/66

The Mao suit: ideology expressed through dress
Mao Zedong recognised the power of dress to project nationalism and ideology. On 1 October 1949 at the grand ceremony in Beijing marking the founding of the People's Republic of China, he wore a modified form of the Sun Yat-sen suit. Mao had worn this style of suit since 1927 but it was only after 1949 that it was adopted by the majority of the Chinese population. It is known in the West as the Mao suit.

During the 1950s to 1970s most older men wore the modified Sun Yat-sen suit, while the young preferred a military-style suit known as zhifu. It differed from the Sun Yat-sen suit in that the upper and lower pockets were concealed with a flap and had no external button. To Western eyes both the uniform and the Sun Yat-sen suit appeared similar. Also known as military plain clothes, this all-purpose, loose-fitting outfit worn by the majority of the population became the sartorial symbol of Communist China.

The zhifu was worn by both men and women, of all ages and classes. The dominant colours were navy blue and grey. In addition to the zhifu, men and women also wore a limited range of clothing styles - mostly trouser suits differentiated by the styling of the collar and pockets.

Navy blue military-style uniform
Navy blue military-style uniform (zhifu): the zhifu could be blue, black, grey or khaki. The majority of the population usually wore blue and the military wore khaki. Made in the 1970s.
Powerhouse Museum collection. 98/126/86

Family group at Beihai Park
Family group at Beihai Park, Peking, in the early 1950s. The father wears a modified Sun Yat-sen suit. Powerhouse Museum collection.
  Hou Bo of Mao Zedong with his daughter
Photograph by Hou Bo of Mao Zedong with his daughter Li Na taken in Peking in 1953. Mao Zedong is wearing a modified Sun Yat-sen suit with turn-down military-style collar, four patch pockets and five centre-front buttons. By modifying the Sun Yat-sen suit, Mao was seen to be inheriting and developing aspects of the revolutionary legacy of Sun Yat-sen. Powerhouse Museum collection.

The Great Leap Forward
After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Western-style suits were a symbol of the old society. Fabric was expensive but labour was cheap, so many people had clothes refashioned. And in the late 1950s after the disastrous Great Leap Forward, which was to have increased productivity, rationing was introduced for most materials and commodities, which made recycling clothing imperative.

In the 1960s people were so poor they could not afford all new clothes, giving rise to the invention of the pretty face, a false shirt front attached to a jacket.

Revolutionary uniform
Revolutionary uniform: Man's uniform jacket (zhifu) re-fashioned in the 1950s from a navy-blue Western-style woollen suit. Powerhouse Museum collection. Photo by Sue Stafford. 98/126/97
  Man's Chinese-style pretty face jacket
Man's Chinese-style pretty face jacket (qianlian mei) made of raw silk with a false pale blue shirt-front attached, hence the name pretty face. It was made in 1964 for a 25-year-old member of a village production brigade in Hebei Province to wear to village market fairs. Powerhouse Museum collection. Photo by Sue Stafford. 98/126/4

Military dress in the People's Republic of China
A person's rank can be discerned by observing details of their uniform. At the most fundamental level rank was reflected in the number of pockets on the jacket. From 1966 onwards a soldier's uniform had two upper pockets whereas an officer's uniform had two upper and two lower pockets.

Robe from the old society
Robe from the old society: This long robe (changpao) was worn by a 17-year-old peasant boy on the day he left his village to join the People's Liberation Army. The robe, made by a tailor, was a parting gift from the boy's proud mother who had saved money from selling chicken eggs to pay for it. However, it was quickly replaced by an army uniform as it was inappropriate for a new recruit to dress as an educated gentleman. The owner kept the robe for 50 years, in memory of his mother's pride.
* Cotton, made in Huolu County, Hebei Province, 1948. Powerhouse Museum collection. Photo by Scott Donkin. 98/126/23
People's Liberation Army soldier and woman, late 1950s. Powerhouse Museum collection.

Garments for women
Women's clothing from the 1950s to the 1970s was functional and limited in style. Most women dressed in sympathy with the proletariat and wore loose-fitting trouser suits, lacking in ornamentation. The most common colours were dark blue, grey or khaki. There was a range of jacket and shirt styles, primarily distinguished by the detailing of the collar and pocket.

Patriotic wool suit
Patriotic wool suit: Patriotic wool, also known as rag wool, is so-called because it is woven from leftover threads swept from workshop floors combined with a small amount of good wool.

This suit was made for a 30-year-old technician working in a textile factory in 1961, a time of severe economic hardship. Despite its poor quality, the fabric was popular because ration coupons were not required to purchase it. The jacket and trousers were made at different times hence the different colours of the fabric. Powerhouse Museum collection. 98/126/12.

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