“In China, even clothing is political,” reads the headline of a Beijing magazine on its monthly cover story on fashion in the People’s Republic. This was also true for party leader Xi Jinping last week. On his speech on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, he wore the traditional party uniform, known abroad as the Mao suit. He chose a light gray as its color.
Xi’s outfit made him stand out from the group of senior officials who flanked him in Western-style suits, white shirts and red ties. TV cameras broadcast his appearance from the balcony of Tiananmen Gate. But they deliberately avoided making a shot of the six-meter-sized portrait of Mao Zedong hanging on the gate below him. It depicts the dictator in a light gray Mao suit. The similarity of clothing and color apparently seemed too obvious even to the propagandists.
“Grey was Mao’s favorite color,”. This is what Gao Limin, chief couturier at Beijing tailor Hongdu 红都, (Red Capital), based not far from Tiananmen Square, once told me. The state-owned manufactory is a court supplier to China’s leadership. Gao specializes in tailoring Mao suits. He learned his craft from legendary master Tian Atong (田阿桐), who cut all the suits for Mao since 1956. “The chairman wore them on all occasions. Gray was the color he requested, a light gray in summer and a darker shade in winter,” recalls Ma Baofeng, former chief of protocol at China’s Foreign Ministry.
Xi’s impersonation stood out. With his message of being a second Mao he “made a political statement”, commented the website “Duowei News”. At the same time, he demonstrated that he distinguished himself from the Western world.
The symbolism of pockets and buttons
The founder of the first republic Sun Yatsen (1866-1925, another name: Zhongshan) had already demonstrated this 100 years prior – but inwards. Of course the term “Mao suit” is not used in China, instead, it is called Zhongshan clothing, (中山装) named after the bourgeois revolutionary, was co-designed it.
Sun wanted China’s men and women to also rid themselves of their flowing robes, their braids and bound feet as an outward sign of the end of feudal imperial rule. According to his ideas, the first new evening gown is said to have been created around 1912, with four outside pockets and a modern stand-up collar, which was later turned inside out. Japan’s cadet clothing and Prussian uniforms served as inspiration.
Its design holds symbolic meaning, or so the myth goes. After all, the new frock coat with its pockets and buttons was supposed to remind state employees of who, how and for what they served the republic as soon as they put it on.
The three cufflinks symbolize Sun’s program of the three people’s principles: People’s Welfare, People’s National State, and People’s Rule. The four pockets on the jacket are said to recall Confucian state virtues. The five centered buttons and the inside pocket would represent constitutional rights, separation of powers and prevent abuse of power.
In 1929, Kuomintang President Chiang Kai-shek made the suit his official dress. Mao, who saw himself as the successor of Sun’s revolution, also donned it when he founded the People’s Republic in 1949. While Sun saw the suit as a symbol of diversity and democratic self-determination, Mao transformed it into the uniform garb of Chinese communism, soon to be called “Renminfu” (people’s clothing).
A luxury proletarian jacket
Xi has also worn the Mao suit on special occasions. In 2019, for example, he wore it to celebrate the 70th founding anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The president and his wife Peng Liyuan presented themselves much more elegantly at the state banquet as guests of the Dutch royal family in 2014. Xi had his suit tailored, the stand-up collar turned down and only three pockets sewn instead of four. The gala attire caused a big sensation in China.
It takes tailor Gao about 20 days to tailor a Mao suit in around 60 work steps. He sews the four pockets first from the inside and then from the outside. The lining of the suit is the most expensive part because only imported, fine cloth with special elasticity is suitable for the luxury version. Technically, the most difficult part is cutting the sleeves and collar.
Among court tailors who come and go in the seat of power, a political joke circulates, “Lingxiu hen bu hao zuo.” (领袖很不好做) Literally, “It’s very difficult to tailor collars and sleeves.” Pronounced the same way, but written in different characters, the saying means, “To be a leader is very difficult.”
Gao came up with several innovations for former party leader Hu Jintao, who ordered a special suit in 2009 to mark the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic. He used a waist cut, tightened the collar and rounded the jacket pockets. “After Hu’s performance, our house put out a special collector’s edition with 100 copies in different sizes.” Made of silk fabrics and with buttons made of Hetian jade, the suits, which cost more than 2200 Euros, quickly sold out.
For the manufactory, “Red Capital” in 2009 such publicity came at the right moment. Its reputation faded after China’s fashion market opened up to foreign masters and boomed. Luxury brands Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint-Laurent were followed by Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren, Brioni and then followed by Japanese brands. Today, China Daily reported, that at the end of June, China’s textile and footwear production accounts for a quarter of the world market. But at present, China’s consumers are returning to domestic brands. “Patriotism plays an important role in this,” claims China Daily, pointing to the boycotts of Western companies from H&M to Nike, which no longer procure cotton from Xinjiang due to allegations of forced labor.
Thanks to Xi Jinping’s demonstrative fondness for the Mao suit and tricks of Chinese propaganda, Beijing’s policy is now trying to gain a new foothold in the fashion market.