Once this was a common scene in China. Everywhere you went you could see men wearing this blue Mao suit. It was like a commoner's uniform. Today the older Mainland Chinese would still wear it. The younger and professional populace has long given up the Communist Party fashion - and they have acquired fashions and styles from Paris and New York; imitated the designs of Versace and Vera Wang to name just two.
This is a wax figure of Chou En Lai - a very well tailored Mao suit.
I have always been intrigued by dress code and professional grooming. Indeed many Chinese men have been in the forefront of fashion changes since time memorial. Today with the largest home and overseas market in the world any well known Chinese stylist would be well ahead of others. It is no wonder that many businesses and famous brands are trying their best to court the favours of Beijing.
The last few decades have seen great changes in attires in Chinese society not only in China but the world over. Needless to say what the Mainland Chinese leaders wear the overseas Chinese also wear.
The Sun Yat Sen or the Mao Suit worn by almost every one between 1949 and 1970's indeed has a history of its own.
Unknown to many younger people today 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.
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:
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
How many of us would have thought that the late Chairman Mao Zedong had indeed 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.
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.
When next you wear a suit there might be a long history behind the style.