What does the word fashion bring to your mind? The privilege of the moneyed? The no-way-I’m-going-to-wear-that-to work design on the super lit Paris runways?
Recently an unusual wave of fashion has caught the eyes of many — Chinese street fashion. On TikTok, an immensely popular Chinese short-form video app estimated to have 80 million monthly active users in the US, compilations of highly fashionable Chinese walking down the city street are enthralling viewers from all corners.
In an endless loop, those featured dress like they are straight off the runway, and yet there is also something in their outfits relatable to us mere mortals. They walk alone or arm-in-arm with their friends, looking like they are about to hit the gym, do some shopping, or enjoy a cup of coffee with their best mates. They seem to be caught off guard by the camera; but then they look into it with a cool and confident stare or a smile, and carry on. Quite like the super models you see in a fashion show.
These videos are now racking in millions of likes on TikTok. You could easily spend hours hypnotised. Users are not only admiring the aura of the subjects; some are even asking for their numbers. True, the videos are not really random footages of ordinary Chinese roaming in the street; it is a planned fashion move by some influencers and models trying to attract eyeballs. But I find it a very welcome change in a country known more for its time-honoured history but less for its modern vibe .
Even Today, foreigners who have never been to China would still associate the Chinese culture with the ancient dynasties, the exquisite palaces, martial arts, the big lanterns, and old songs like The Jasmin Flower. While these are undeniable critical elements in a culture uninterrupted for thousands of years, they fail to represent of the life that is happening in China as we speak.
In a foreign mind, these cultural products make China a prisoner of the past. Just like some generalisations about Zimbabwe and other African countries entrench an image that is either outdated or simply untrue.
In the past decades, China has seen a crazy explosion of ideas and creations, an obsession with new technologies, an ever-shortening life cycle of cultural phenomena, and a dazzling change of trendy topics on social media. While we respect and preserve the traditional, we are even keener to make something new.
The viral videos of Chinese street fashion put the spotlight not on skinny models doing the catwalk, but on ordinary persons walking down the street. They are not about setting the latest trend in fashion, but how personality shines through fashion. Simply put, it celebrates not the wear but the person wearing it. This marks a subtle but definite change in the Chinese social code.
For thousands of years, Chinese society, how the country should be governed, and how we should behave towards one another, are undergirded by a set of values originated from the dawn of the civilisation and systematically coded by the great Chinese sage Confucius and his numerous disciples. This system of philosophy sees the universe as an integrated, organic, continuous, and dynamic whole.
We exist in it not as independent atoms, but part of something larger, be it familial, social, political, or cosmic. From this perspective of connection comes a general preference for conformity. Individuality that stands out, does not fit in well or even contradicts the context is considered jarring.
This may sound a bit too metaphysical, but it is very real in regulating how an ordinary Chinese conducts him/herself. Take myself for example. From a very young age, I have been inculcated by my family and schools with the “virtues of a good girl”, the most important of which is to conform to norms in all the places I find myself. To be different is to be frowned upon.
At school, we would wear the same baggy uniforms that make boys and girls indistinguishable from the back. Our teachers persistently encouraged girls to either kept their hair short or tie up their long hair in a pony tail to avoid attracting unwanted attention.
Event after I became a university student, I still had this curious sense of guilt whenever I wanted to do something about my looks, as if beauty itself is wrong.
With the economic takeoff in the country in recent decades, more options in lifestyle emerge, and the mindset is also changing fast. The younger Chinese are increasingly interested in bringing out their true self, fashion has become a great way to make a statement about self-perceptions.
Fashion should not be a privilege exclusive to a few. A well-chosen attire not only says something about the kind of person you are, but can also be a great way to start a wonderful day. For me, I am just glad I have bid a permanent farewell to my dull, uninteresting wardrobe as a teenager. Every Monday, getting myself into the right dress or top makes me feel like I can slay the whole week!