April 2001, Nanjing, PRC: On a bright, sunny spring afternoon I am walking on a section of the Ming dynasty wall in Nanjing and look down to see a dozen heterosexual Chinese couples wearing their Westernized wedding finery, all getting ready for their bridal photo shoots. Juxtaposed against the architectural marker of China's classical military defense, the young women's blindingly white cascades of satin and tulle reflect an aura of transglobal style and desire.
June 2007, Shanghai, PRC: Out for a morning stroll before the heat of the day, I turn a corner and encounter on the sidewalk a line of qipao-clad young waitresses listening attentively to the manager's directives for good service and good business. Through the city's haze I can make out the glitzy high-rise buildings of the Pudong, a symbol of China's rapidly modernizing desires to connect with the world.
Twenty-first-century Chinese cities are spaces not only of architectural hybridity displaying the co-temporality of the dynastic past and the postsocialist future but also locales in which young women perform and negotiate the polyvalent discourses of what it means to be a woman in China. When many students in U.S. college classrooms are asked to offer images of Chinese women, the most frequent (and in some instances pernicious) representations are those of the lotus-footed woman, the state-indoctrinated Maoist revolutionary, the dutiful mother who must adhere to the draconian one-child law, or the young athlete from the dour state-run sports training facilities.1 The U.S. popular press has added to this list by [End Page 162] regularly portraying unisex-uniformed factory workers, female laboring drones whose undifferentiated, unadorned, and exploited female bodies seemingly drive the engine of China's economic growth and power. In many women's studies courses these same bodies become the singular markers of Chinese womanhood, distanced from Western conceptions of femininity. Yet two other figures of femininity have emerged directly from the spaces of consumption generated by the growing Chinese economy: one a fashionable femininity encoded by the white wedding gown of Western modernity, and the other a cultural femininity enrobed in a version of the traditional Chinese qipao. Both forms of femininity are seen across the Chinese metropolitan landscape of restaurants, photography studios, and mega-shopping districts. Arising at the intersections of global market capitalism, nationalism, and heteronormativity, these two garments and those who don them represent a dyad pointing to the complex, overlapping, and even contradictory embodiments of femininity in contemporary China.
Together the white wedding gown and qipao function to delineate the problematic relationship of desire, beauty, and agency in interpreting Chinese female subjectivity. In contrast to the female factory worker's uniform that inscribes her into a monochromatic construction of an asexualized femininity limited to mechanical reproduction in factory settings, these two pieces of female clothing write into the space of Chinese urbanity a femininity that must account for the coexistence of contrasting temporal moments, competing cultural values, and differing sexualities. The qipao represents a stylization of a hypersexualized and depoliticized cultural past visible primarily through the framework of the modern-day service industry, while the white wedding gown symbolizes the emergent present linked to a romanticized ideology of globalization, female worldliness, and heterosexuality. These garments represent what might best be called prefashioned femininities. Each is a type of uniform that marks its wearer within a pre-established and overdetermined definition of femininity. The qipao is literally in service to the hospitality industry as an uniform reliant on the semiotics of a nostalgic Chinese beauty etched with a heightened sexuality and linked to a commercialized, cosmopolitan past (and future). The wedding gown is a signature garment imbricated in a heteronormative transnational system of romance and marriage. Visible in the cities of Shanghai and Nanjing, these prefabricated fashions (qua gendered/feminized uniforms) signal complicated aspects of women's inscription within the sphere of contemporary Chinese modernity. [End Page 163]
In this essay I will examine how the wedding dress and the qipao can be understood as critically interdependent...