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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.2 (2003) 443-478

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Refashioning Suzhou:
Dress, Commodification, and Modernity

Peter Carroll


Clothing is a tool of body ornamentation and a symbol of a national people's culture. With each successive change of dynasties, the design of apparel must be altered in order to renew one's feeling of connection and establish etiquette.

—Neizhengbu, Domestic Affairs Yearly (1936)

On 6 January 1912, the shape and principles of Republican administration and politics, not to mention the social and cultural ramifications of the newly completed revolution, remained unformed and seemingly open to all possibilities. Citizens of the nascent Chinese Republic were still reveling in the audacious success of the 10 October Wuchang Uprising and the founding of their six-day-old nation. Nonetheless, as that day's commentary of the “fashion (shimao) clique” in the lively “Free Talk” section of Shenbao [Shanghai news] made clear, the recent political uprising was already provoking dramatic cultural and social transformations, some of which were being imprinted onto the very bodies of newborn Republicans. [End Page 443]

We now suddenly all find ourselves to be Republicans and want every-thing to be improved and made better, with the clothes on our backs being the most pressing concern of all. Let's first mention the things that a lady can't do without: a pair of sharp-toed, high-heeled, premium leather shoes; a pair of “violet mink” gloves; two or three plain or jewel-encrusted gold pins; a white lace … handkerchief; a pair of gold-rimmed, new-style eyeglasses; a curved ivory comb; and a silk kerchief. Now let's address the things a man can't do without: a Western suit, greatcoat, Western hat, and handkerchief, with the addition of a boutonniere, a pince-nez, and a few words of pidgin English.1

The recent lurch toward Republican government had occurred with surprising, almost casual swiftness so that even the most ardent revolutionary [End Page 444] lady and gentleman of means may have been astonished to find themselves tyro Republicans. Yet, the material consequences of this political turn provided concrete evidence of the Republic's modernist, cosmopolitan aims and the lingering resonance of its foreign bourgeois referents. Though radical in their ambition to remake society, China's unexpected Republicans were hardly sansculottes in their fashion choices. Quite significantly, “fashion”/ shimao was hardly an incidental accessory to the violent reconstitution of political and social institutions. Like leather shoes and jeweled gold pins, the Republican state and Republican nationality were indeed shimao, the “style of the times.” The “Free Talk” writer wickedly suggested that fashions, whether political or sartorial, were fundamentally related, if not interchangeable. Was adopting Republican identity as simple as donning a set of new clothes? If so, would the meanings of Republican nationality and politics or the creation of a Republican political form and culture be as fleeting and superficial as the latest fashions?

Assessing the fashion change unleashed by the Xinhai Revolution, Wang Jie'an, a merchant leader of the Yunjin gongsuo (Cloud Brocade Silk Guild), argued later in 1912 that it was necessary “to make everyone emphasize National Products and not make following shimao their main aim.”2 Wang worried that far from defining notions of Republican nationality, shimao posed a threat to China's integrity. He pessimistically assumed that his fellow Republicans' fashion choices would be motivated more by an overwhelming desire for style or modernity than by nationalist considerations. If people were truly free to choose their clothing, unhindered by considerations of style, a garment's national identity, or the origin of the fabric, how would the domestic commercial sector compete? The significance of Western garments and accessories as immediate and popularly acknowledged Republican icons underscores the hybridity of Chinese modernism. Yet to Wang Jie'an and others, this dynamic also revealed the tension between the role of clothing as both symbol of national identity and prime material artifact of modernity, highlighting the effect of the changing market on the manufacture, trade, and significance of clothing as a commodity.

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