To what extent did the Cultural Revolution impact designers Vivienne Tam and Han Feng and how did it affect their work?
In 1949, after several decades of foreign aggression and civil war, the Communists took control of China and Mao ZeDong assumed power in the country. At the ceremony in Tiananmen that proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, he began his long term of office wearing what was to become know in the West as the “Mao suit”. This was symbolic in signaling the inauguration of not only a social but also sartorial revolution.
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The years following the establishment of the PRC were a time of consolidation, reconstruction and reform. The communists believed in the power of mass movements, seen as a necessity to maintain revolutionary spirit and these took place frequently, eventually culminating in the ferment of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. During the 10 years from 1966 to 1976, the Communist Party attempted to politicize every facet of life and anything that might be regarded as “bourgeois” or “counter-revolutionary” was severely repressed. The Red Guards, essentially the shock troops of the Cultural Revolution, were instructed to attack elements of old China; “old customs, old habits, old culture and old thinking”.
Clothes were highly visible in all four categories and, inevitably, fashion was highly liable to attack. Contemporary fashion was attacked as “foreign” and traditional clothing as “feudal” and in general a concern with personal appearance was interpreted as an expression of “bourgeois tendencies” and extreme “individualism”. Indeed, one of many accounts describes the humiliation of a young woman “seized by the Red Guards who forcibly removed her fashionable trousers and shoes in front of a jeering crowd” and illustrates the sartorial terrorism which was common throughout China during the Cultural Revolution.
It was therefore tacitly understood that dressing in a simple “proletarian” way was the appropriate order of the day. The government encouraged people to adopt the attire of the workers, peasants and soldiers who were regarded as the ultimate benefactors of the socialist state. The uniform of the People’s Liberation Army was of green cotton cloth, civilian cadres wore a grey administrative uniform and workers and peasants were clad in dark blue tunics and trousers. What therefore resulted from the mass adoption of the new socially acceptable attire was a “spectacle of blue, green and grey”.
A spectacle that both Vivienne Tam and Han Feng vividly remember.
Both Vivienne Tam and Han Feng were born at the height of communist power in China and albeit in different ways, they both lived through and were influenced by the Cultural Revolution. Their individual experiences shaped their attitudes towards fashion and they are now prominent designers, recognized wordwide as well as in China.
Description of Han Feng and Vivienne Tam
How their lives are different:
Vivienne does not live in China during the Revolution; Han Feng does
Vivienne exploits Mao cult, imagery, symbolism; Han Feng opposes it completely
Vivienne escapes to HongKong, remains in Chinese spectrum; Han Feng leaves to US (abandons home country completely paralleled in the abandonment of everything Communist China represented.
Theatrical and artistic approach, not only fashion approach
Vivienne Tam was born in Guangzhou in 1957. Her father was a landlord and as the PRC was striving to eliminate private ownership, landlords were accused of exploiting people for their own profit and were thus targeted for being insufficiently devoted to state directed socialism. Tam’s family found themselves in a vulnerable position and as she recalls “It was a really difficult time”. They therefore fled to the Hong Kong, escaping the threatening Communist doctrine. Tam was left behind with her grandparents until she was three years old when she was finally able to join them helped by a couple who told authorities she was their daughter.
While living in Hong Kong she was able to maintain a Chinese lifestyle while being open to the rest of the world. Hong Kong was a thriving British colony and trade center and while she continued to speak Chinese at home and followed Buddhist religious rituals she attended a Roman catholic school and began to learn English in earnest. It was this opportunity of having a bi-cultural upbringing and a hybrid way of life which not only fueled her fascination for the East meets West nuance but also taught her to be “more open and accept other people and other cultures”. Meanwhile, mainland China under the Cultural Revolution was not only shutting out Western culture but also Chinese culture itself, deeming it “bourgeois” and anti-communist.
Much that was lost to the revolution in China continued to grow and develop in Hong Kong and this offered Tam a freedom of inspiration. As a fashion design student of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, she was able to absorb the Western influence present in Hong Kong and at the same time freely investigate her Chinese cultural and sartorial heritage, an exploration which meanwhile was strictly forbidden to students in mainland China. As students in China lived under extreme repression, Tam experienced the Cultural Revolution as an observer, acknowledging the hardships but not being directly affected by them. This freedom from repression shaped her approach to seeking inspiration from the Cultural Revolution.
Indeed, when she returned to visit China in the late 70s to early 80s, she experienced China almost as a tourist would. She was fascinated rather than dismayed by the “blur of green and blue” that surrounded her and was intrigued with “Mao fashion”- or anti-fashion- of “putting everyone in a uniform and trying to make them equal- an attempt to cover up very real differences”. She even admired the loose but tailored cut of the Mao suit and it’s unisex appeal; it highlighted the communist principle that men and women were equal and offered women freedom in physical movement. She noticed that this element of practicality had replaced fashion; “window displays were filled with practical things instead of fashion”, and she therefore ventured into the arts and crafts and home and furnishing sections of stores where she found inspiration and sources for her materials in such textiles as bedroom linens, bedspreads and towels.
However, what struck her most from her experience visiting China and ultimately inspired her to create her most controversial collection was the remarkable power of Mao’s image. During the Cultural Revolution, portraits of Mao were ubiquitous; they hung in every living room, class room and office and Chinese people all owned Mao badges, mirrors, weavings and needlepoint works and fostered what became a cult of personality that did not immediately end with his death. People valued these items as good luck charms and Mao was effectively venerated “like a God, complete with a halo”. Tam was absorbed by all these style elements left from the Mao cult and collected such “vintage” items as inspiration.
In 1994, Tam was introduced to artist Zhang Hongtu, the first artist to use Mao’s image in his work. She was inspired by his background and the concepts behind his work and collaborated with him to create her “Mao Collection” for Spring 1995.
It is interesting to note their individual approaches to the project. Zhang Hongtu was born in Gansu province, attended highschool in Beijing during the sixties and later trained at the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts. He left to New York in the early 80s and, having experienced the intensity of Communist indoctrination and the overwhelming power of Mao’s image, began painting Mao in only a lightly humourous way, separating the image from its political undertone. It was only after the 1989 Tiananmen events that, albeit having to overcome initial strong feelings of guilt, he decided to exploit Mao’s image as “mental therapy” and as a way of expressing his own political feelings. It was an ironic reversal of the way he, as an artist, had been exploited to create propaganda art for the government.
Tam sensed this political resonance in his work but instead chose to focus on its humouros element, aiming to “loosen it up” by amalgamating it with fashion. While Zhang Hongtu was directly responding to a need to “get away from the shadow” of Mao’s repression, escaping the authority of his image and being able to express himself politically, Tam saw the power of image and exploited it humorously as a representation of the new openness of China, using “humour and warmth” as a way to express the growing freedom of the Chinese people from Mao’s image. This highlights her inherent detachment to the emotional hardship behind the Cultural Revolution that artists who grew up under its repression feel.
Tam, perhaps as a result of this detachment and thus not quite grasping the extent of the power that still lay behind Mao’s image, was even surprised by the strong reaction that the collection provoked. The collection comprised of 8 images of Mao; 6 of which included “Mao So Young”- with pigtails, a peterpan collar and gingham dress, “Ow Mao”- cross eyed with a bee perched on his nose against a black and yellow striped background, “Holy Mao”- with a clerical collar, “Psycho Mao”- with dark hypnotic glasses, “Miss Mao”- with lipstick and “Nice Day Mao”- as a smiley face. She printed four coloured images in a checkboard pattern, reflecting Mao’s changeable character and, in another design, expressed his positive and negative effects, printing the images in black and white. She also printed the images on T-shirts, deepening the texture with patterns and sequins to make the designs alive with movement and light.
The striking juxtaposition of colours and textures with Mao’s political imagery and the resulting strongly humorous element in the designs was highly controversial, some responding to it as almost blasphemous while others deemed it “tasteless”. The images were compared to Warhol’s depiction of Mao, but, while Warhol had used the image of Mao as merely another mass icon like Marilyn Monroe, Tam and Hongtu had exploited it as a political figure which thus prompted the reaction “If Mao was a dictator like Hitler or Stalin, how can it be okay to use his image as pop art? Isn’t it tasteless to make fun of the suffering they caused?”
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Tam and Hongtu contended that it was a form of critisicm to the continuing use of Mao’s ideology, image and flag in China and a way to further undermine the authority of Mao’s image; “any use of Mao’s image which makes him less godlike, is a form of criticism. And it’s necessary”. Yet Tam admitted that she “had no idea there would be a strong reaction to the designs” and it was observing the attitude towards the collection that enabled her to “gain a lot of insight into Mao and his power”.
Han Feng was born in Nan Jing in 1962. “I grew up during the Cultural Revolution and it was difficult” she explains and when she was 1 year old, authorities sent her father to another city and her parents were forced to separate. Her father hung himself and later another man she was close to also commited suicide during the Cultural Revolution.
She grew up in HangZhou, China’s artistic center, and, pursuing her childhood flair for creativity, she attended the China Academy of Fine Arts, training in graphic design as there were no fashion design programs. “I started out painting how my teachers wanted me to” she recalls, “but then I became this crazy person who wanted to be different”. It was no doubt having to endure the imposed Maoist dress code and how it stifled non-conformity which fueled Han’s determination to distinguish herself; ” I got a T-shirt and jeans and grew my hair long so I would stand out” and she gained a reputation in the academy as being “a bit of a blacksheep” due to her desire for experimentation and refusal to merely copy what had been done before; “I wanted to learn, not copy. My teachers didn’t understand that”.
Communist indoctrination was such that expanding creative horizons was virtually impossible. She was one of many who wished to escape the stifling repression of the tight grip maintained by the Communist Party on creative expression; “We all wanted to leave China in the 1980s because there was too much pain.” She met her husband who was an English teacher of the art academy, and, seeking freedom and a larger stage for her interests, she moved to New York with him in 1985.
Leaving China was symbolic in asserting the approach she would take towards designing abroad; “I thought, God, the Chinese-who cares? I am from China. I want to forget where I’m coming, forget my past. It’s just too painful to remember.” The pain and struggle that characterized Han’s experience of the Cultural Revolution not only determined her to leave China, but also inspired her to create designs that (whether intentionally or subconsciously) completely opposed all the elements of Maoist style, perhaps as a personal provocation and rebellion against everything it had tried to impose.
“When I left China” she explains, “everyone was wearing exactly the same thing. And it was grey”. It is no coincidence that her designs are now widely recognized for their rich and innovative use of colour and that she is credited “one of the most brilliant colorists in the New York fashion world”. After having been limited to blue, black and red dyes which were the only ones available in dyeing shops in China during the Cultural Revolution (Antonia Finanne, 237), Han now embraces the freedom of using vibrant colours; “I love designing with pure, bright colors because I didn’t experience them as a child” she says. Red is particularly prominent in her pallet, varying in “geranium” to “cerise” shades, as are green and blue shades of “chartreuse and lime to lapis and turquoise”. Her collections combine colors in subtle ways highlighted in items mixing burgundy with fuschia or pairing the different shades of green or blue, often placing paler colours alongside more intense ones for artistic effect.
In addition to her use of colours, Han Feng is also known for her creative treatment of fabrics and her designs are equally characterized by their materials. Escaping the drab conformity imposed by Communist Doctrine, Han Feng reversed the changes that the Cultural Revolution had forced upon the use of fabrics in China. Chinese people had been obliged to abandon traditional Chinese fabrics such as silk and satin which, according to the Doctrine, carried a strong feudalistic connotation, and were required to adopt revolutionary cotton or “patriotic wool”.(Hua Mei, 98) Instead, Han Feng abandoned the bland cotton and crude wool that characterized Maoist style and zealously explored the realm of fabrics and materials that was newly available to her. Perhaps as a result of growing up in Hang Zhou, a city which had been reputed for its silk trade, she developed a keen appreciation for silk, wistfully reviving it as the fabric of her heritage.
This passionate exploration and revival of fabrics and materials is clearly expressed in her collections. She works with a diverse array of materials including silk (occasionally blended with wool), organza, velvet, satin, stretch chiffon and fine polyester. These light, pliant and diaphanous fabrics which characterize her collections certainly contrast with the coarse thickness of the cotton and crude wool which she had no choice but to wear when living in China.
Yet her endeavor went further then just exploring fabrics. What sparked her interest were the ways in which she could treat and manipulate the fabrics creating different textures and styles, once again delving into a creative realm which had been restricted during the Cultural Revolution. The uniformity of the Mao suit was constrained to straight ironed cotton, occasionally padded or patched, and did not allow for ruffles or any such touches of originality. It was shapeless, defined only by the square, linear attribute of the typical uniform.
The description of Han’s collection of 1993 in the New York times, best signaled her approach to investigating materials; “She pleats fabrics into gnat-sized accordions: the tiny folds in the fabrics give drama to even the plainest polyester georgette. Her chiffon A-line dresses were cut in spirals, like orange peels. Velvet was crinkled and pleated to make a simple tank dress fit for the wedding of a barefoot contessa.” Indeed, the transformation she underwent as she explored and discovered new ways of using materials is clear in the development of her designs, in particular that of her signature scarves. While she had initially launched her career in selling pleated scarves, her collection of scarves are now paisley, plaid, fringed, crinkled, embroidered and featuring colorful woven ribbon inserts; techniques that she then applied to other clothing designs. Her Spring/Summer 2001 collection highlighted her accordion-pleated skirts and crinkled silk blouses printed with impressionistic floral patterns.
Han also styles fabrics in a distinctly original way, rejecting conventional tailoring and, perhaps paralleling her appreciation of the enveloping quality of scarves, she focuses on creating clothes which wrap and veil, “assembling the garment as a light sculpture on the body”. This quality has been admired and her clothing has been described to “wrap the body as the clouds enclose a mountain”. Her collections have often been defined by the way she drapes soft jerseys and chiffons and folds back the fabric as well as by the untailored loose panels of fabric floating from the backs of dresses, uneven hems and asymmetric cuts.
What emerges as a result of the blending of diaphanous fabrics, textures and colours, untailored and wrapped around the body is a light, weightless and “dreamily” feminine appeal. This quality is perhaps what most manifestly contradicts Maoist uniform and its fundamental principle of de-feminizing women. While the squarely tailored Mao suit was specifically designed and imposed on women to conceal their curves and natural movements, Han strives to create clothes which accommodate and embrace them. She maintains that “women should enjoy their bodies more and not try to hide themâ€¦the body is beautiful”. She thus takes pleasure in”playing with shape” and “making women look more feminine in a subtle way”. Her 1995 fall collection, for instance, was based on curves; “curved seams that bring the jackets close to the body, curved collars that frame the neck, curved backs that give a cocoon-like shape to pleated silk evening jackets or velvet coats”.
Emphasizing the reassertion of feminity in her style, she complements her outfits with accessories including scarves, gloves and hair ornaments. While accessories during the Cultural Revolution were limited to Red Guard armbands, army caps, Mao badges and his little red book, Han’s collections feature trimmed iridescent shawls with gilded tassels, black wool gloves weaved with rows of pink bows and polytail holders linked with velvet buttons. She even makes this twist literal in her 1999 collection; one item is a high-collared Chairman Mao jacket accented with a chinchilla scarf, a subtly controversial pairing of the strict suit with the elegant touch.
With the revival of feminine allure comes the emotional feeling of her clothes. Although her designs remain simple and practical, their unparalled inventiveness and originality hold a hint of “haiku-like” poetry, highlighting her romantic vision. In fact her fall/winter 1998 collection was inspired by the story of a love affair between a fabric trader and a young woman along the silk road to China. No doubt she was enthused by the controversial appeal of the story, exploring its romanticism and creating a more emotional collection; emotion being an element which was wholly non-existent in the cold, military allure of the Mao suit. She later skillfully accentuated the emotional and dramatic aspect of her designs to the height of “theatrical flair”, leading to her debut as a costume designer and ultimately her success in designing costumes for director Anthony Minghella’s English National Opera production of “Madame Butterfly.”
Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 brought an end to the Cultural Revolution. Later that year, the downfall of the Gang of Four, including Mao’s widow Jiang Qing who had implemented the most extreme policies, led to a slow loosening of laws related to dress and social constraints. In 1984, under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership and the open door policy of reform, certain cities were designated “open” as part of a new strategy inviting foreign investment. In October 21, 1984, Hu Yaobang, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, appeared on television at a meeting of the Central Committee wearing a dark-blue western style suit. Although his move was possible because of the more relaxed atmosphere following the ascendancy to power of Deng Xiaoping, he was still making a bold sartorial statement.
While both Vivienne Tam and Han Feng were able to escape the confines of Communist indoctrination and establish themselves as designers in New York, they left a China that was struggling to reassert itself within the international political stage and the global economy. This struggle was (and still is) reflected in the clumsy approach people began to take to new fashions and Western styles entering China; Tam herself commented that their style was “borderline bad taste and hip because they were borderline Cultural Revolution and Western modernity”.
Unavoidably the new danger to China’s sartorial identity is the influx of Western brands which are threatening to create yet another type conformity and as Tam rightly observes “American influence is diluting the distinctive flavor of China’s fashion industry”.
Both Tam and Han Feng are now challenging the dominance of mass produced Western brands in China. Having experienced the Cultural Revolution, they do not want to see the uniformity of the Mao era simply transgress into a new Western uniformity. What they therefore want to highlight is the importance of maintaining “imagination and individuality”;”Everything we do should express feelings and experiences. We should create not just follow fashion. Each fashion designer should have his or her signature style”.
While acknowledging the need for recovering individuality in China, they are both optimistic in China’s potential; “it is growing, fashion here will soon have it’s own personality”; “We had great fashion for thousands of years, then no fashion at all. Now we are finding our contemporary design voice.””
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