Fixing the hooks, lingerie is no longer about just looking like a saucy minx or just being comfy like a couch. For many of China’s modern women, what hides underneath your clothes now boasts a sense of provocation and an embrace of bodily imperfections. Undies: From practical to power tool.
Dolce & Gabbana (one China favorite – feel the burn) once famously stated, “Lingerie is the maximum expression of a woman’s femininity” and in 2021, such mottos are coming to light across China’s metropolises.
Shanghai and Beijing now stand at the forefront of a “lingerie movement” as Chinese women explore their femininity, sexuality, and true self via their undergarments.
Adjust your straps and get moving. There’s a new Power Suit in town.
The year 2020 witnessed multiple successful Chinese lioness-lionizing underwear campaigns including national label NEIWAI’s (内外) No Body is Nobody and Victoria’s Secret What is Sexy? starring actress Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨) as the brand’s new ambassador for China.
Both examples arguably encourage the idea of Chinese women celebrating their body (diversity), accentuating their own takes on femininity and individual qualities, instead of supporting the previously pushed-forward ideal of big breasts as a woman’s ultimate prerequisite for bodily poise.
For Chinese women, a more empowered relationship with themselves is developing. And in fashion this movement translates itself, among other examples, by trading in the pushed-up forces for every-body embracing swag.
The liaison between lingerie and liberation, that is. From stiff whalebone-supported corsets turning the upper body into an inverted cone and whipping the waistline in all possible shapes and positions known to man, to separate bras and panties in the 1920s that literally liberated the woman’s torso from nearly four centuries of entanglement and bodily “suppression;” the affair between women and their undergarments has been an intense one, not one of all-devouring great love, but surely one to remember.
In traditional Chinese culture, women were taught to hide their talent and beauty so they could be perceived as decent and noble “creatures.”
Underwear was originally called xieyi (緳衣）with xie （緳）translating to “frivolous,” which infers that it should not be shown in public.
Even though Communist China may have posed a bump in the til-fashion-season-do-us-part marriage between women and their clothing at large, things were slightly different before. In ancient China, for example, outer garments symbolized the wearer’s social rank and status.
Women often opted to express their feelings and sense of individuality through their undergarments by adorning these with their sowing craft and designs. Underneath it all, a woman could (ironically) stand out.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) witnessed the surge of the dudou (肚兜； just think “halter top”); a diamond-shaped cloth with straps running over the shoulders and cinched in on the lower back was the La Perla among well-heeled women. Some dudous even bore pockets for storage. Practical.
The garment remained chic throughout the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) until it was replaced by the bra in the 20th century.
Yet the arrival of the bra did not entail the time to shine for women across the Middle Kingdom with the arrival of the bra. From unspoken status-esque communication to communism, they moved…
L’Unisex Fait la Force
Mao’s unisex get-up, to be specific. For years, every person in China wore the Mao suit, but despite the call for uniformity, it was an expression of equality. The unisex tailoring gave equal status to both men and women. Power to the people?
Jumping right into the man’s OG power wardrobe, the unisex getup was originally taken from Sun Yat-sen and his Nationalist government (1920s), who took it from the Japanese, who in turn had copied it from the Germans — gotta love the originality here. Allow us to unbutton — we heart cheesy — its PRC-PC main components for you:
- Five front buttons for the five branches of government (Executive, Legislative, Judiciary, Investigatory, and Supervisory);
- Four pockets for the Confucian virtues: Propriety, Justice, Honesty, and Shame;
- Three cuff buttons for the Three Principles of the People: Nationalism, Democracy, and Livelihood.
Times continued to drastically change in China’s post-revolutionary — i.e. post-Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) — days and when in the late 1970s the time had come to ditch the suit, a personal sense of fashion and style marked a new palpable sense of power was on the rise; one bound to venture off into lingerie land in the decades to come.
As the nation unwaveringly opened up its market to international fashion brands, China witnessed an influx of new “foreign” lingerie styles. And a constant market growth in the niche since 2009 is showing no signs of slowing down and, moreover, encourages the idea of women celebrating their body, accentuating their femininities and qualities, instead of hiding them away.
Lingerie in China throughout previous decades was simply a practical tool all about comfort, durability, and practicality. Heavily laced, highly-padded and high-waisted made up the standard triple threat checklist for underwear on sale inside Asian stores.
Now, accelerating into 2021, the revolving doors of time are spinning into overdrive.
China’s lingerie shop clientele is on the rise. The Chinese aesthetic has always been predominantly about being “skinny,” a physical and vernacular code for “pretty.” However, this attitude, too, is gradually venturing out on its own as more and more women want to be fit and healthy to go on and flaunt what they got in their lingerie. Expressing physicality and sexuality is no longer a metropole taboo.
Post-80 (those born after 1980) Chinese women are now more self-sufficient and independent and a movement of confident women embracing their bodies is rapidly spreading across the nation’s first- and second-tier cities. For Chinese women, a more empowered relationship with themselves is now developing.
China’s younger generations are becoming more sex positive and explorative these days and seem to have accepted quirks, fetishes and “dirrty thoughts” as part of being human.
To Market, To Market
China’s underwear market in 2019 reached some 200 billion yuan, with women’s underwear accounting for more than 60 percent of the total market size, according to CBNData’s Underwear Industry Trends Research. Moreover, 112 new underwear-based companies were added in 2019, an increase of 38 percent year-on-year from 2018.
More and more lingerie brands are starting to pay attention to women assuming a variety of roles in life. The workplace, sports, painting the town red, breastfeeding — perhaps we should reorder those — wellness, just sleeping, plus a host of additional scenes and settings where style is or can be required, are coming into play when chasing down the Chinese lingerie aficionada. Altering China’s traditional views on marriage, relationships, and sexuality.
Arguably, lingerie is changing the way Chinese women view their bodies. Instead of supporting the previously pushed-forward ideal of big breasts as a woman’s ultimate prerequisite for bodily poise or simply functioning as a means to a practical end, the women of China are seeing lingerie as a way to express the inner self.
Unlike their dynastical peers, and no longer hidden from view, they vocalize their thoughts and ponderings to stand out in the world.
One example on the more extreme end of all things strappy, is that of Taiwanese designer Bei Kuo, founder of The End lingerie. Having felt sexually and creatively stifled in her upbringing, Bei found herself drawn to design as a means of self-discovery and -.
Bei holds the belief that everyone, whether it be out and proud or hiding deep within the underbelly, has their own fetish. And fashion can be the perfect gateway to a kink that you simply haven’t discovered yet. She boosts this kind of adventurous sensibility through her lingerie line, The End, made with “eco fabrics and naughty thoughts.” For her latest bodysuits, she turned to the world of BDSM for some more “belted” inspiration.
Metal hoops, barbells, i.e. a reference to intimate piercings, an abundance of industrial-style fastenings, and crotchless “entry- and exit-ports”… The End marks the beginning of not your average not underwear fare.
Minor detail: both men and women alike have been rocking The End according to Ruoyi Jiang, owner of New York-based Chop Suey Club aka one hot China-oriented retailer carrying the brand. Gender fluidity is off the hook. But that’s for another time.
From imperial repression to the “revered” unisex suit of yonder to embracing their feminine power (suit)…
Admittedly, Mao did say it first: Women hold up half the sky.
FEATURED IMAGE: The 2020 BDSM collection by The End lingerie.
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