Friday, October 26, 2012

The Revolutionary Costume for Today

This may not look like much of a scandalous photo, but it is.  Ignore the sloppy ankle socks and the egregious shoes: this is a picture of high - and dangerous - fashion.

The lady on the left was known by many names.  She was born Li Shumeng, in girlhood called herself Li Yunhe, became a well-known actress in Shanghai as Lan Ping ("Blue Apple," which seems a rather Dada touch), and finally emerged on the world stage under two names:  Jiang Qing, Madame Mao Tse-Tung.

She spent the first several decades of her time as the wife of China's leader in near obscurity, but that ended in the mid-sixties, when she took direction, to the extent it had any, of the wave of anarchy that engulfed the country and became known as the Cultural Revolution.  For Jiang Qing, it started with culture in a very specific way, as she took control of the country's performing arts, replacing China's wild diversity of traditional and modern plays, operas, dance works, and films with a small number of enormously formulaic "model revolutionary operas," kitschy epics that mashed together Soviet ballet, Chinese traditional styles, silent-film emoting, and heaping doses of leaden rhetoric (we saw a snippet of one last August, you may recall).

In 1967, Jiang Qing first turned her attention to fashion, in this case fashion-as-weapon, using a faux pas by her rival (a woman called Wang Guangmei, wife of Mao's second-in-command) to destroy her and to establish herself as China's de facto tastemaker.  On a 1963 state visit to Indonesia, Wang Guangmei had the poor judgment to put aside the drab military fatigues that dominated Chinese public life in those days, appearing instead in a silk dress of old-fashioned cut and a string of pearls.  For her fashion daring she paid dearly.  As the tide of the Cultural Revolution crested, Jiang Qing made an example of her in front of a million-person demonstration, dragging her out in a grotesque parody of her supposed finery (including ropes of ping-pong balls from which dangled insulting placards) and decrying her bourgeois decadence.  Wang spent more than a decade in prison - a high price for a night out on the town.

As the years passed, Madame Mao remained, to an extent, preoccupied with style.  What to wear in revolutionary Beijing was a vexing question, and after so many years of essentially unisex green pantsuits, it may be that she had become bored.  In 1972, she met with a Western journalist wearing a tailored shirtwaist dress of a design that recalled the 1950s, when for a few years a Soviet-inspired frock called a bulaji had been considered acceptable (it's basically what Jiang Qing's companion on the right is wearing).

Within two years, as the onetime Shanghai leading lady plotted to follow her husband as top leader of the Chinese revolution, she spared time to consider what the women of her country might wear as a distaff version of the ubiquitous Mao suit, a kind of National Costume with Revolutionary Conscience.  Her interest appears to have arisen in part about concern about her own image as a 1974 state visit by the glamorous Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos approached.  What in due course appeared is, more or less, the outfit in which we see her above, which has become known to history as the Jiang Qing Dress.  It takes the basic form of the bulaji, but adds elements of traditional Chinese fashion, especially the V-neckline with its inner band in constrasting white and the longer, fuller skirt, which in some examples is finely pleated.  One can only imagine what Chinese women, after twenty years of trousers and jackets, made of the spreading skirts and narrow bodices of this new, semi-mandatory fad. 

Whatever their thoughts, however, the reign of the Jiang Qing Dress was brief, for within two years, Mao was dead and his widow jailed, one of the Gang of Four accused of trying to sabotage his legacy and subvert his legitimate successors.  On the few occasions when Jiang Qing was seen in public between her downfall and her death fifteen years later, she eschewed her eponymous costume for a sober trouser suit.  Perhaps, having been burned by fashion just as once she had torched her rival, she decided it was safer to go smart casual.  Just as well, for however chic Lan Ping may have been in '30s films, you have to admit that in a baggy aqua shirtwaist, she's no prize.

Today, with China a major player in the world and a comparatively open country (even if it did block the New York Times for its domestic readers today), it's amazing to think how little we knew about the place just a few decades ago, what a paucity of information leaked out to the West.  For a long time, the Jiang Qing dress was more or less a myth, dismissed as just another of the wild calumnies directed against Madame Mao by her enemies, who called her "the White-Boned Demon" and accused her of trying to become a new empress, on the model of several who took power over the centuries in pre-revolutionary China.  The posters and cartoons that accompanied her fall often showed her in some version of the Dress, as if it stood for all her evil just as Wang Guangmei's pearls had represented her revolutionary backsliding.  What goes around, comes around, in politics and fashion alike.

An Australian scholar called Antonia Finnane has written a fascinating essay on the Dress and its social and political implications.  As for me, my favorite take on Madame Mao comes in the form of opera, the very format that she sought to mold her in her image just as she did her countrywomen.  John Adams's brilliant Nixon in China features Jianq Qing as a terrifying harridan who intimidates poor Pat Nixon and finally takes center stage to declare, in thrilling coloratura, "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung/ ...When I appear the people hang... upon my words."  Sadly, at least in the pictures from productions that I've seen, the Dress doesn't appear.

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