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Stylish diplomacy: Chinese fashion traditions

March 12, 2020

reading time: 10 minutes

by Frank Schröder, guest author

Nancy Zhang fashion culture China

Where you wear white on funerals: An interview with Nancy Zhang about China's fashion scene and how to express cultural appreciation.

She publishes in Europe, Japan and the US. Born and raised in Tianjin, a city in the northeast region of China and only 20 minutes from Beijing by bullet train, she has managed to build an international career as one among a few Chinese fashion illustrators.

We met with her to understand what's going on in China's fashion world and which fashion codes express appreciation and refinement.

I've been following your fashion and illustration work for a long time. How did you come to work in fashion?

Actually, it was a coincidence. I studied animation in the film academy of Beijing and came to Berlin to work in a film company as a concept artist. When I started working independently, I started to illustrate my style myself as a side project. This became incredibly popular and gave me the possibility to continue to work in illustration.

You are currently living in Europe. What Chinese cultural values still influence your style choices and fashion illustrations? 

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Dramatic makeup during the Tang Dynasty.

Regarding style, China has a long history and a lot of ancient traditions. What I especially like about these long-standing traditions is how epic and dramatic Chinese design concepts are in comparison to, for example, Japanese culture, which is more delicate in its aesthetic. Back then, 1000 years ago in the Tang Dynasty, for example, the women had really dramatic makeup. They used to wear bloody eyeshadow and other red details. When a woman was sweating, the sweat would turn red and look like she was sweating blood –Chinese men used to consider this as quite sexy. Also, Chinese women used to dress in menswear. These aspects of Chinese culture really interest me. I am proud of them and they definitely influence my illustrations. 

How did fashion and taste change in the last decade?

Ever since the market was opened, tastes in China have changed drastically. China is quite good at absorbing other cultures and adapting them to their needs. In the past few years, you could see how Chinese women were dressing more and more like American celebrities. But the young generation nowadays has much more ego, which is why they want to create their own style. I would say it’s thanks to this new generation that there is a kind of renaissance of the ancient cultures and customs right now. You could easily spot a young couple in China dressing according to the Chinese elements. This revival is similar to the current popularity of the Kimono traditions in Japan. 

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The revival of Chinese traditional attire is similar to the popularity of the Kimono tradition in Japan.

Speaking of brands, which designers are appreciated in China at the moment? With what choice of brands can you distinguish yourself?

I would like to introduce some of my friends and personal favorites among emerging designer brands. For one, there is Percy Lau, an accessory designer from Hong Kong. Celebrities all over the world wear her sunglasses. Then there is Angel Chen. She combines futuristic sportswear and streetwear like hoodies with traditional elements. I particularly like her pieces with elegant embroideries. Also, if you are into elegant but avant-garde design, you should keep an eye on the brand Deepmoss. My other friend Min Wu focuses on trendy street wear designs with Chinese funky elements.

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Casual, sporty, elegant and dreamy: Zhang enjoys playing with styles and traditions.

Is there any specific set of fashion rules in China?

I wouldn't say there’s a specific set of rules, since the Chinese countryside and the big cities are still very different. But the rural area is more and more shaped by the local social media, and a lot of bloggers come from urban areas. Some rural lifestyle bloggers are becoming top influencers and even have an impact on metropolitans, since more urban people are curious about an idyllic lifestyle.

And for business meetings?

China and America have a very similar business mentality, while Europe's history of nobility brings a set of formality to the business context. These new industries – and especially the high-tech industry – are much more goal-oriented than formal. How to dress is not central. But of course in Shanghai, where the finance and fashion businesses mostly reside, people dress decently and very tastefully.

So you would say that Shanghai is the fashion capital?

There is no doubt about that. Shanghai used to be the concessions and business port of many foreign countries, so it very much adapted the European rules. But Chengdu is also pretty developed nowadays, and I see people enjoying a more sophisticated lifestyle. In the capital, Beijing concentrates the most resources. People working and living in the capital, however, are really stressed and work too much. The majority of people there basically have no time to care about quality of life.

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"Shanghai very much adapted the European rules."

Traditional Chinese clothing narrates the story of the evolution of Chinese civilization. How it is perceived when Westerners wear traditional Chinese attire? Is it considered rude or seen as cultural appreciation?

I think Chinese people are happy to see that. We are really proud of our traditional fashion and our ancient culture. So when tourists dress in our traditional clothing, we feel appreciated.

Do you have a favorite costume?

My favorite ones are from the Tang Dynasty. They are flowing and easy to move in. They have a lot of influences from India and the Middle East. Women back then had a lot of freedom and needed to be able to ride a horse or go hunting in their dresses, so this attire was very practical, and not conservative at all. Back then, Chinese women were equal to men and even allowed to divorce.

Last but not least: For festivities like a wedding or Chinese New Year, how do you impress your hosts?

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White is the color for funerals.

This is a good question, since this is very different from everywhere else. In Chinese philosophy, five colors represent the five elements – fire, water, earth, wood and metal. The element of fire is the most important one, because without the sun there is no life. Its color is red, which is the most powerful and important color in Chinese tradition. It symbolizes happiness and luck; it is strictly forbidden at funerals. It’s somehow opposite to Europe, where in the Christian tradition red is connected to fire, hell, sin and the devil. So for the new year, holidays or family gatherings, people often dress in red. White, on the other hand, is the color often used for funerals. Yet most of the young couples nowadays have a wedding with Western-styled clothes where the bride wears white.

Images: Pickledthoughts
Title picture: Sheng

Nancy Zhang is an illustrator living in Tokyo, Berlin and Beijing. She has published her work in the art books L’Oiseau Rouge and Street Impressions, and in various fashion magazines and websites. 

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