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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.2 (2003) 479-509

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The Dual Consequences of Cultural Localization:
How Exposed Short Stockings Subvert and Sustain Global Cultural Hierarchy

Matthew Chew


The clothes worn by contemporary urban Chinese should not appear unfamiliar at first glance. Suits, jeans, polo shirts, short skirts, and other items that were rarities in China twenty years ago have now turned into staples of many urbanites' wardrobes. Moreover, in contrast to contemporary India and Japan, traditionalistic types of dress are seldom worn in everyday life. Nonetheless, closer examination reveals dramatic local mutations of Western dress and styles. This essay focuses on one of the most widely adopted of these sartorial localizations: exposed short stockings. By contemporary Western conventions, women's hosiery should be long enough to have the first several inches of the top of the stocking covered from view by pants or skirt—the shorter the hemline, the longer the hosiery ought to be. In contrast, many Chinese women wear stockings exposing the entire top beneath a skirt's hemline. This practice could be seen by non-Chinese observers as a deviant way to wear stockings that evokes images of untidiness, eroticism, and indecency. [End Page 479]

Local cultural practices such as exposed short stockings are exciting to cultural critics because of their subversive potential. They challenge the status quo of global culture through deviation from the existing global grammar of a cultural genre. Exposed short stockings transgress the boundary between outerwear and underwear, violating current conventions of decent dressing by displaying a part of dress that is deemed necessary to be kept hidden from public view. The practice represents an act of cultural localization that resists, counteracts, or even neutralizes Western cultural dominance and global homogenization. At least, this is what current theories of cultural [End Page 480] localization would claim. This essay examines in detail the case of exposed short stockings in order to see whether these claims about cultural localization are sustainable.

Similar to other instances of popular material culture in contemporary China, the distinctive Chinese way of wearing short stockings has not received serious attention or documentation. Most of my information on the topic was obtained from ethnographic fieldwork in China between May 2000 and August 2002, when I was collecting data for a project (of which this study is part) on the social implications of contemporary Chinese fashion practices. Through participant observation in fashion-conscious crowds and fieldwork at sites such as boutiques, main streets, busy shopping malls, and dance clubs, I examined the present state of the practice. But it is through in-depth ethnographic interviews and conversations with about a hundred women that I obtained elaborate details on the historical background and social meanings of exposed short stockings.

I conducted my fieldwork in several urban centers that represent different fashion cultures. I spent about a year in Shanghai and its neighboring cities Hangzhou and Nanjing, four months in Beijing and Tianjin, three months in Wuhan and Zhengzhou, and a month in Chengdu and Chongqing. I also conducted fieldwork in Hong Kong, Dongguan, and Guangzhou between trips. The geographic coverage is relevant for this essay because these cities represent different degrees of influence by global Western fashion and demonstrate different degrees and kinds of fashion localization. My ethnographic interviews were targeted at women interested in fashion, although I also interviewed some women not interested in fashion for comparative purposes. Most of the interviewees fall within the age range of sixteen and thirty-two, but I managed to interview several women over forty-five. Since information from older women is especially needed for reconstructing the history of exposed short stockings, I talked to an additional number of older women specifically for this topic.

Story of Exposed Short Stockings, 1980–1998

The late 1970s in China incubated significant transformations of dressing practices. In the early 1970s, stockings were still unavailable to the urban [End Page 481] masses and hence not included as a meaningful part of their fashion repertoire. With the relaxation of economic...


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