Revolutionary red is a big fashion color in Peking this summer. And ``revolutionary'' is how one Chinese fashion expert describes the changes that have taken place in the way urban China dresses.
Young, educated people are in the vanguard of this revolution in color, style, and attitude. They are the initiators and financial supporters of fashion change.
They don't hesitate to spend money on looking good. Unlike their parents at the same age, they don't save. Many say there are too many things to buy and few reasons to save.
``A lot of psychological changes have taken place in recent years,'' says Bu Yuan, a 24-year-old student at the Peking University Institute of Iron and Steel Technology.
``People's attention has shifted to ourselves. We began to dress ourselves better, not like five or seven years ago when we never paid attention to the way we dressed. We just always conformed to others, to society.''
To get a perspective on how dramatic the changes are, you only have to look back to 1966, the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76). It was a time when, as one older Chinese put it, Westerners' disdainful description of Chinese as ``blue ants'' was not inaccurate.
Lei Lili was 13 when Chairman Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution began.
``I remember at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution the Red Guards going into the street to cut the clothes on women that they considered too bright or too fashionable,'' she says.
The colors of the calamitous 10 years were blue, green, gray, white, and black. For adults, unisex and severe were the operative styles.
``All things concerning beauty, love - or even recreational things - were considered to be bourgeois,'' Zhu Beilan says. ``The more plain your clothes, the more revolutionary people considered you to be.''
Even leather shoes were taboo, since they were considered ``bourgeois,'' too. One Chinese journalist recalls an inspection by revolutionary Red Guards on a Peking bus. Those who had the misfortune to be wearing leather shoes went home without them.
When China's door swung open to the outside world in the late 1970s, Western styles began pouring in. At the time, Peking was ill equipped to meet the changes. There was only one clothing manufacturer, Peking Apparel Company. Today there are 100 local manufacturers producing goods for the domestic market and 10 companies making clothes for export.
Most people say the official endorsement of fashion dates from November 1981, when Premier Zhao Ziyang attended the largest fashion show ever held in Peking. Then he and former party leader Hu Yaobang said Chinese should wear beautiful clothes.
But just what is beautiful? Even in the early '80s, people were struggling with not so much an individual response to the question, but rather what society thought was acceptable. The vestiges of the Cultural Revolution and, many Chinese will argue, a feudal past had yet to be erased. City folk as much as anyone else feared the judgment of others.
In 1983, American journalists Jay and Linda Mathews wrote, ``Chinese women of all ages are so fearful of seeming the least bit provocative that they hid their figures with oversized blouses and padded jackets. Anyone who tucks her shirt into her pants or otherwise shows off a curve or two risks being branded promiscuous.''
But in the summer of 1986 young women were not only cinching their belts to show off their waists, but also baring their arms in spaghetti-strap sun dresses - and almost baring their legs in shorts.
Most girls wear sheer stockings with their shorts. One woman says shorts without stockings would be too provocative. And besides, hose cover the complexion of the legs, which, she says, many women fear is unattractive.
Spring 1987 brought even bolder changes. In the early months of the season, black, leg-hugging stirrup pants were the hot fashion item. Zhu Beilan says now women aren't worried about what people will say about their character if they wear such clothes - but rather what they'll say about their figures.
This year, too, women began wearing skirts earlier than ever before. The old rule was you didn't wear skirts until June, no matter how hot it got. One middle-aged woman says a few years ago friends teased her once about wearing a skirt with a long-sleeved blouse and sweater. It was obviously too early to wear a skirt if she had to wear a sweater, they said. The rule: Skirts are to be worn only with short-sleeved blouses.
Pan Xuejin, a 23-year-old graduate student of English, says young people today are answering for themselves the question, ``What is beautiful?''
``We seldom mind about other people's comments. We dress in a way to please ourselves, to state our individuality.''
Classmate Wang Xiaoping says the changes in people's attitudes are good. ``It shows the society is advancing.''
Peking strives to become China's fashion showcase
Once she saw Peking, Lily was never the same.
Only 18 miles away from Jinan, the sleepy capital of Shandong Province, and she didn't have a single dress left from her hometown.
Her Jinan clothes had been woefully old-fashioned.
During Lily's first year in Peking, she and her husband spent most of his monthly income - $27 - on new clothes for Lily. These included a shiny pair of blue plastic, skintight pants with red zippers running from waist to ankle.
``Women's dresses in Jinan are out of style,'' says Lily, who is in her mid-20s. ``People don't think about fashion there, because it's not easy to buy pretty clothes, not even for young girls.''
Chinese officials may not think highly of this young couple's spending habits, especially with renewed calls from the Communist Party for thrift and simple living. But the officials might be pleased by Lily's endorsement of Peking fashion.
Incongruous though it may seem, the ever blue-and-gray-clad officialdom aims to build Peking into China's fashion capital. In fact, many visitors from the provinces find Peking already awash in the latest styles.
One Peking businessman predicts that by 1990 the Chinese capital will preempt Shanghai, Canton, and the special economic zone of Shenzhen (near Hong Kong) to become China's fashion showcase. As a manager of China's first Sino-Japanese clothing boutique, Luan Shan-qing is committed to the state's goal of bringing Peking's garment business out of the ``dark ages'' and into the 1980s.
Mr. Luan's store, named Junko Koshino, is in the heart of old Peking and across the street from stores that create the elaborate costumes for the Peking opera. It offers clothes created by the store's namesake, a Japanese fashion designer, and manufactured locally.
Luan, who himself prefers a Mao tunic to a Western suit, says China's seventh five-year plan calls for Peking to produce three types of consumer goods: food, clothing, and household appliances. Peking will be developed as a light industry center. It will include an up-to-date fashion industry, he points out, as if the results of the state's central plan were inevitable.
The Junko Koshino joint venture is housed in a three-story, pre-1949 building that could fit on New York's Madison Avenue. It's a product of two forces pushing Peking officials: the need for foreign exchange and the Chinese consumer's demand for well-made, stylish clothes. Junko Koshino clothes are 30 to 70 percent more expensive than clothes in state-run stores, and only Peking's most prosperous citizens can afford them. Luan says half the store's customers are foreigners, mostly Japanese who have never seen such bargains. Since the ``Made-in-Japan'' label knocks prices out of sight in Japan, the plan is to export the Peking-made Junko Koshino wear to Japan, where there is big demand for moderately priced clothes.
Fashion is a risky business, especially in a country where the public is just becoming interested in personal appearance. Educating the public and China's future clothing designers about style is the work of the newly established China Garments Research and Design Center.
Tan An, deputy director of the center, says China Garments is the country's first fashion research center, established in 1982 with the blessings of China's top leaders. Its success will largely determine whether Peking will beat out other cities to become China's fashion capital.
Mr. Tan has big plans for the future. First, the center will be housed in a 28-story building in eastern Peking, the high-rent district where diplomats and journalists live. He says the location is significant, because prime real estate is made available only to important enterprises.
Construction has begun, and is scheduled for completion in 1989. The center will eventually employ 400 people and will focus on clothing design, research, and designer training. Tan says the center will be a network headquarters, linking China to the world's fashion capitals and Peking to China's coastal cities and other provinces. The new center will invite foreign designers to help train the 100 to 200 students who will be studying design each year. Tan has already made contact with world-famous designers. Last November, Yves Saint Laurent, the French designer, and Pierre Berge, president of Yves Saint Laurent Corporation, were made official advisers to the center.
Tan hopes that China's clothing industry will meet the rising demands of young, fashion-minded Chinese. He says it won't be easy after a whole generation of baggy blues and grays.