Fashion from Mao to Now

The Oriental by Wu Haiyan

The Oriental by Wu Haiyan

How do politics shape fashion? "In Mao to Now: Chinese Fashion from 1949 to the Present," curators Dr. Juanjuan Wu and Dr. Marilyn DeLong from the University of Minnesota's College of Design, and Minxin Bao, Professor from the Art and Design Institute at Donghua University, take a look at how clothing has been informed by the changing political and cultural climates in China. Beginning with the last days of dynastic rule, to the war lords of the late 1910s and '20s, to the Japanese invasion, to the civil war, to cultural revolution under Mao, to contemporary China, the smart exhibit takes a look at not only what people were wearing, but the cultural beliefs and trends behind the clothes.

The exhibit, located at the Goldstein Museum of Design at the U of M's St. Paul Campus, has some absolutely gorgeous examples of the qipao, a fitted one-piece dress for women. Qipaos generally have side slits, curved asymetrical side closures from the neckline to the underarm, and are decorated with narrow piping and frog buttons.

According to the notes at the exhibit, the qipao originated in China, and were a blend of Han Chinese and Manchu styles, along with Western influence. Originally a symbol of gender equality (as well as femininity and sexuality), the meaning of the qipao has changed over the time. During the Mao years, the qipao became known as symbol of bourgeois "backwardness." Today, they are formal attire, worn at festive occasions.  

The examples of qipaos in the exhibition are made of such materials as silk crotchet, brocade, silk lace, gauze, and velvet, in a later period example from the 1940s. Meticulously made, with soft lines and simple decorations, they are just lovely.

The exhibition also has some examples of military clothes, including a women's double-breasted Lenin suit jacket from the 1950s. The Mao years meant asexual clothing, with drab colors and formless shapes. The Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, called for an end to elements of anything bourgeois, and much art, as well as fashion, was not deemed appropriate for the political climate. 

The main focus of the show is the work of four contemporary Chinese designers: Wu Haiyan, Liu Camming, Wang Yiyang, and Zhang Da. Each of have a unique style, but there is a strong sense of shape in each piece, as well as bold color statements.  

For example, Wu Haiyan's all black and white designs use geometric shapes and diagonal lines, as well as plenty of frills and ruffles. The result is some jaw dropping pieces that harken back to early 20th century lines with 21st century pizzaz.  

Zhang Da has a more simple style, although the designer also incorporates the use of black and white. Less about the frills and more about the way that the fabrics fit onto the body (loosely, but sensually) Da's garments evoke a sense of minimalism with a contemporary freedom. 
Wang Yiyang's designs featured in the exhibit have a very urban feel, but still utilize shapes, often disarmingly so, like the t-shirt with the very large blue rectangle attached to the front, or the long pleated plaids skirt paired with a puffy printed jacket.  

"Mao to Now: Chinese Fashion from 1949 to the Present" runs through January 17, 2011 at the GMD Gallery (1985 Buford Ave., 
St. Paul; 612.624.7434).