Men in Black

Inside the fashion of Chinese politics.

Guang Niu/Getty Images
Guang Niu/Getty Images

BEIJING — Much has changed in China over the past decade, from the tens of millions of former peasants who are now members of the middle class, to the Prada, Hermès, and Gucci boutiques that now crowd the malls of Beijing and Shanghai — but not the fashion stylings of China’s top leaders. The single-breasted navy two-button suits, semi-spread-collar white shirts, and unmemorable ties in a Windsor knot remain obligatory. Almost without exception, top leaders still sport iconic jet-black dye jobs, intended to conceal age just as the boxy suits conceal differences in physique. At a time of transition, the Chinese Communist Party is all the more determined to show unity, continuity, and commitment to stability, making sartorial adventurism inappropriate.

If anything, top leaders are even less stylish now. Gone is the only item with personality, the one that might have endeared China’s heavyweights to hipsters in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, London’s Shoreditch, or Beijing’s 798: the huge, square nerd glasses reminiscent of Henry Kissinger that are now de rigueur all over the hipster world. These define Wu Bangguo, since 2002 the second-ranking man in the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body. He will step down this week and take with him the brow-line frames. Before him, former Premier Li Peng, the leader most associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre, wore nearly identical glasses, which meshed strikingly with his bushy eyebrows. Most memorable are the enormous tortoise-shell glasses of the jovial former president, Jiang Zemin. Chinese today view the huge glasses as more old-mannish or, at best, professorial and serious — certainly not retro chic. Still, it’s a shame; the over-the-top frames were all that prevented China’s leaders from achieving an utterly unnoticeable look.

Outgoing President Hu Jintao’s specs are large, though in a more subtle wire frame. A few of the men likely to reach the Standing Committee when Hu and most of his colleagues step down on Nov. 14 wear smallish, contemporary, very unremarkable frames, but most must have gotten laser surgery, have perfect eyesight, or are wearing contacts. But the absence of nerd glasses, or indeed of any stylish flourish, marks the current leaders as contemporary men rather than holdovers from a previous generation. It also puts the new emperors in the dullest camouflage possible: nine (or seven) nearly identical men in suits.

China’s top leaders have been choosing Western business suits over the native-grown Mao suit, or Sun Yat-sen suit as it is known in China (after the founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen), ever since Hu Yaobang, top man in the Communist Party from 1981 until 1987, wore them. China’s most reformist leader, Hu tried to bring accountability and transparency to the government, requiring Han Chinese in Tibet to learn Tibetan and even supporting the use of forks instead of chopsticks. So it’s no surprise that he was the first major Chinese leader to choose a suit and tie. His liberalism brought his ouster, but the preference for Western dress stuck. As the 1980s and 1990s wore on, fewer and fewer photos depicted leaders wearing the Mao suit. Hu Jintao only deployed it for military parades, and it’s unlikely that incoming President Xi Jinping will favor the look, which he might associate with the suffering he and his peers experienced during the Cultural Revolution.

The preference for Western attire is in line with the economic openness that has brought tremendous growth to China. It represents a hand extended to the West, an interest in modernization, an "open for business" sign, an indication that China is eager to rise to the top by accepting much of the prevailing world order. The message is different from that of leaders from countries like India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, who occasionally choose distinctly non-Western dress. "Wearing a Mao suit reminds foreigners too explicitly that they are facing officials of the Communist Party," says a fashion designer in Beijing, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of speaking about top leaders. "Besides," she jokes, "at the end of a meal, you can open the buttons on a Western suit. Mao suits are always worn buttoned up to the collar." (And current leaders, she notes, are somewhat portlier than their predecessors.)

Some Chinese citizens see their leaders’ Western dress as representing China’s lack of a distinct style and voice on the world stage. An IT salesman whose girlfriend works in fashion PR and who asked to remain anonymous wishes the leaders would wear Chinese clothing, but "unfortunately, they have to appear modern and there is no modern Chinese form of dressing or sense of etiquette." A Beijing resident who runs a business renovating high-end villas, often for government officials, observes that modern China lacks its own personality: "It can only absorb from others, but this also makes us better able to survive and prosper."

High-ranking officials’ casual wear also lacks character. When they need to appear one with the masses, a short-sleeve white dress shirt, usually tucked in, functions as the summer uniform. Winter comes with a lumpy navy puffy coat, though the leaders do wear wool overcoats when being officially photographed, especially on the tarmac when landing in foreign countries. Autumn and spring bring a dark, waist-length jacket in some generic synthetic material. This jacket is more notable for all the things that it isn’t — a blazer, a leather jacket, traditional Chinese dress — than for any cultural associations it does have. Given its cheap material, dumpy cut, and grim color pallet of dull gray or black, this item really does seem to say "everyman."

These uniforms are the safest options. Lack of personality is precisely what Communist Party leaders are going for. Heads of autocratic countries who have dressed in more interesting ways have not been meeting good ends of late. Just ask flamboyant ex-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who favored tailored pinstripe suits paired with loud silk pocket squares, and former Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi, famous for his shirts with custom prints of the African continent. Even former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a man with more subtle taste, had his name woven into the pinstripes of his bespoke suits, a message that the public must have read as "I pilfer national resources." Disgraced Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, the most colorful Communist Party elite personality since Mao, wore well-cut, three-button suits and favored a very large tie knot that he sometimes even dimpled. These are hardly extravagant sartorial flourishes, but with his charisma, imposing physique, and expressive, handsome face, Bo stood out against the boring backdrop of his colleagues. Like an entrepreneur or Wall Street financier surrounded by dowdy Midwestern middle managers, Bo was pretty enthralling, according to a New York-based consultant who frequently met with him.

Whatever combination of factors brought about Bo’s demise, his good looks could not have helped. His appearance was one of many factors that made him appealing to the masses, underscoring his demagogic persona. Still, the citizenry do not find the facelessness of other top figures endearing. Several young Chinese have told me that their leaders dress badly or even in a way that "embarrasses" China. Given the uncontroversial — if not outright dowdy — nature of their attire, these reactions seem more linked to the unreachability of the leadership than actual dislike of their dress.

But, ironically, when anyone associated with government does dress distinctively, the reaction — on the Internet, at least — is usually outrage. Li Xiaolin, daughter of Li Peng (of the nerd glasses), one of China’s most successful businesswomen and delegate to China’s legislative body, the National People’s Congress, has been criticized for her collection of Chanel, Hermès, and other expensive foreign brands. The outcry over the watch collection of Shaanxi transportation official Yang Dacai has also led to an unofficial ban on expensive watches for anyone in government, thus eliminating one of the few ways an official could express a degree of individuality. "Officials are the main VIPs at all the luxury stores in China," says the Beijing designer, but their spending power must be used on behalf of family members, similar to the way Premier Wen Jiabao’s influence brought wealth only for his wife and relatives, and not himself. This speaks to perhaps the main reason officials cannot put on much of a sartorial display: It would be an immediate reminder that official families usually have much greater wealth than their low formal salaries would allow.

There really may be no good option for officials when it comes to style. Given their fragile relationship with the governed and the high-stakes race with colleagues to achieve higher rank — a race in which success comes from avoiding controversy and building consensus — the current cloaks of invisibility may be their best choice. Hermès ties or Armani suits would probably invite accusations of graft, while Mao suits seem a dangerous throwback. In the end, it’s just better to be boring.

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