We are living in a material world. In ancient China, there have been times when men were dripping in jewels as much as women–to represent wealth and nobility. What about today’s bold and beautiful swag?
In recent years, the codes governing masculinity have been loosening up, and with this the traditional lines between masculine and feminine fashion are blurring.
Although jewelry is conventionally a female domain, we’re now seeing men experiment with it more than ever before. The question beckons…
What does the icing on China’s male fashion cake look like in the Roaring Twenties 2.0?
Chinese culture valued silver and jade over gold and held each material and subject matter with symbolic significance. These symbols were usually derived from puns, and included luck, health, love, prosperity, success, longevity, and fertility.
Bracelets, necklaces, hair pins, earrings, rings, and various headdresses and headbands were among the many kinds of jewelry created in China. Ancient jewelry, particularly that of the royals, was buried with the deceased owners. As a result, much of these ancient works survived to modern day. Lapis lazuli, pearls, cloisonné, ivory, and glass beads were added to the repertoire of materials used to embellish jewelry. The more jewelry the wearer had, the more prestigious they were in life.
Throughout history, people paid close attention to the symbolism of color in jewelry. Blue kingfisher feathers, blue gems, and blue enameling, for example, were reserved for nobility only.
Lord of the Rings
Terese Tse Bartholomew has spent her life living among Chinese symbols and motifs, including almost four decades as a curator of Himalayan and Chinese decorative art at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
A major preoccupation of Chinese iconography concerns the education of a family’s sons. For roughly 2,000 years, advancement in Chinese society revolved around how well one’s son did on the Civil Service Examinations, which ceased in 1911 when Sun Yat-sen led the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). “When the Republic of China was set up, that was the end of the Civil Service system,” Bartholomew explains. “But that history is why Chinese parents today are always pushing their kids to study. Even though the Civil Service is gone, they still push their children. It’s a 2,000-year-old thing.”
Thus, jade objects are often decorated with three round rings. “That means, ‘may you give birth to a son who can pass the three Civil Service examinations’. In China, the only way to get ahead was to pass the exams. There was the provincial one, which you’d take in your provincial capital. If you passed that, you took the next one in the capital of China –different dynasties had different capitals; during the Qing, it was Beijing. The last test was taken right inside the palace. If you passed all three, you were set for life.”
Once a son was born, he would be “protected” by decorative talismans shaped like locks. The idea was that when the boy wore it, he’d be locked to Earth so he wouldn’t die. “Wealthy families gave their sons jade, gold, or silver locks,” Bartholomew says, but even families of limited means made sure their sons were tethered to terra firma. “When a son was born to a poor family, his parents would go to 100 families and ask for a penny from each to buy an inexpensive silver lock. In this way, he was protected by 100 families.”
The lock is not the only object whose meaning in Chinese jewelry is related to its actual purpose or physical characteristics. For example, pomegranates are filled with seeds, so naturally they symbolize fertility, specifically for the birth of many sons. #TemperTeachings
From ancient man, we shift the focus to his “innocent but sexy,” “fashionably fresh” contemporary peer…
Diamonds are a Guy’s Best Friend
We had to, just had to, go there. Chinese millennials account for 68 percent of diamond sales in China, making it crucial for the diamond industry to tailor to their needs. When searching the word “diamond” (钻石| zuànshí in Chinese) on social media and e-commerce platform Little Red Book ( 小红书| xiǎohóngshū), one of the first search results is an account with custom-made jewelry–boasting 8 million followers; next in line we have a similar account, with 7 million followers. These data reveal the need for self-expression through diamonds, according to reigning market research firm Daxue Consulting.
The idea of diamonds as a self-purchase and form of self-expression is not limited to Chinese women. China’s diamond market is unique in that men are interested in buying diamonds for themselves. Chinese men are not satisfied conforming to traditionally masculine jewelry like chains, gothic styles, so they turn to diamonds and unisex pieces. Young and handsome, more and more male celebrities and influencers with an androgynous style have made feminine aesthetics a fashionable and desirable look for men, breaking conventional stereotypes about men’s fashion.
In 2020, Tiffany&Co appointed Chinese actor Jackson Yee, who wore rose-gold jewelry in the campaign, as brand ambassador for China. Jackson Yee was nominated for Most Popular Actor at the Weibo Movie Awards 2021 bringing great exposure to Tiffany’s, who later promoted him to global ambassador. However, most big brands have been rather slow to pick up on the trend of male consumers buying feminine jewelry, so many male Chinese consumers have now no choice but to dabble in the female collections.
Chinese men are showcasing a healthy appetite for jewels and diamonds: among Chinese male consumers in the 30-44 age group surveyed by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, 67 percent of them declared wishing to own diamonds. Nevertheless, current supply cannot meet Chinese men’s demand for something more than gothic rings and rapper chains, inducing them to purchase women’s jewelry with androgynous designs.
Speaking of androgyny…
“G” Stands For Genderless
Since 2018, Chinese authorities have repeatedly advocated for traditional gender role beliefs with the increasing “feminization” of its young men. In February 2021, China’s Ministry of Education issued a notice that called for schools to promote education that can “cultivate male students’ masculinity.” Nevertheless, Chinese millennials and Gen Zs continue to hail the genderless, edgy approach to men’s fashion. Whether it is putting on pearl necklaces or wearing lipsticks, they see men’s style evolution more as a makeover of old, outdated social standards than an effeminate vision of manhood. Looking for a more edgy look, young trendsetters are branching out to lesser-known, gender-fluid jewelry and fashion labels.
“In China, emerging domestic companies like clothing label Bosie and beauty brand Hashtag are among those leveraging sales of genderless products to a younger generation that is increasingly rejecting gender binaries,” according to Jing Daily. “By removing gendered marketing, these labels have created a sense of novelty for a market that has yet to see many androgynous or non-binary offerings.”
Little Red Book’s “2021 Lifestyle Trend Keywords” report ranked genderless swag (⽆性别穿搭| wú xìngbié chuān dā) as one of the top 10 themes on the platform. According to the data, views of genderless dressing posts saw a 182 percent year-on-year increase, while the number of users posting about the theme grew by 83 percent.
For Chinese Gen-Zs and younger millennials, seeing their favorite male stars decked out in necklaces, bling rings, and OTT jewelry is the new normal. While the desire to wear unisex jewels signals a search for male style upgrades, the gender-fluid trend might also come from male Chinese pop stars increasingly wearing dressy jewelry on-screen, helping audiences accept more adventurous male styles.
The Roaring Twenties 2.0 are slated to see more and more (online) celebs in China embrace a hybrid look that features “masculine” streetwear and “feminine” accessories, like a pearl necklace. Generally speaking, we more than stan this phenomenon. Though Temper might consider the pearl necklace/ male combo somewhat, eerm, “unbecoming.” #thatmightjustbeus
Ice Ice Baby.
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