I’ve always had a love for Chinese clothing. Throughout my life I’ve always had or found different reasons to be dressed in it. The early days of childhood meant I got to spend every Chinese New Year garbed in some version of it, as Singaporean Chinese people often still see fit to wear their traditional outfits during the festive season of the new year. As a little girl, I was often found in silk pants and variations of shirts with different patterns. It was exciting then, the fabric and embroidery, the buttons and necklines, a novelty I loved. I particularly loved the cheongsams although as kids we mostly get stuck with the pants option.
Growing older meant that Chinese-styled garments were relegated to costume status.
Increasingly in my consciousness, fashion that was not western-influenced (therefore the global ‘status quo’) came to be considered ‘ethnic’, and seen as a symbol of exotic, historic, or traditional. In class, when reenacting plays of Chinese traditional stories, my classmates and I would build ourselves Chinese Hanfu costumes out of construction and tissue paper in vibrant colours and line them with tape to create the trim common to the style. There was a period of time, where, following the 還珠格格 phase, we even had gowns made for us so we could role play the characters at home on holidays.
Growing up in China also meant that when we traveled to different cities, we’d have the opportunity to wear these outfits and be photographed.Many of these outfits were specific ethnic dress, or period dress, put into a created context for a more ‘engaged’ experience, and also a way to generate money. I was Chinese and yet, at the same time, consuming Chinese outfits as something outside the norm, as a cultural exchange experience.
The older I got, the more enamoured with Chinese fashion I became. But as a teenager, living in the big city of Hong Kong, there was no reason for me to ever have to wear these outfits and they disappeared from my life.
But they remained in my dreams and my imaginings – little pseudo sketches I made in the margins of my papers. Eventually when I began to use the internet as a conscious being, I began to save links and images of different outfits, seen either from period TV shows, fashion blogs and other miscellaneous websites.
Most importantly, I eventually saw glimpses of them here and there in high fashion stores, inspiration for couture, for ‘class’, for special occasions like weddings, and for luxury.
It got me thinking…and I kept thinking, and learning, understanding how history flattened my culture into artifacts, and cultural fashion became a symbol of the past. How even in me, the clothing I love is knotted up with politics and history.
Last year I decided to reinstate Chinese fashion, and Chinese-inspired fashion back into my wardrobe.
Backpacking in Taiwan with friends, I stopped at a small store in one of the underground mall passes between train stations, and decided I’d buy myself clothing to wear.
I see it as an ongoing journey to decolonize, to take ownership of my murky identity, and to make intentional choices to love what I love. I want to walk on the streets and not hear jeers or generic Asian references. I want these pieces to stop being symbols and to start being clothing again. Clothing that exists and speaks, that means something in identity.
There is so much more to learn. The catch-all term ‘Chinese clothing’ is misleading itself, since there is no one thing that can represent that. I don’t want to consume tastelessly any more. I do not wish to appropriate ethnic–specific dress, particularly with different minorities, nor do I want to wear ‘pretty’ clothing. But unlearning, and relearning are just part of the process. I know I shall get there, and at least, right now I am on my way.
credit: thanks mom for rifling through family archives and jessie for scanning them in for me from the other side of the world. 😀