Adaptations to Western Styles



In the first decades of the twentieth century, many of the elite families of China sent their children abroad for study.  Western ideas of modernization and industrialization became familiar to a whole generation of young educated elite in China, and many of them came to associate western styles of dress with modernity.  While some people fully adopted western style dress, others took to wearing clothes that retained symbolically important elements of traditional dress.

To the right is a cartoon from a magazine in the 1920s showing a "modern" day couple.  

What do you notice about the clothing styles?

Take a close look at the first frame.  

Can you guess what is happening in this frame?  What do you think the figures in the background represent?

SOME THOUGHTS:  The first frame illustrates the tensions between traditional Chinese culture and the influence of western culture during the 1920s in China. The trousers and blazer worn by the 'westernized' man shocks the sensibilities of the men in the background.  Although the two men in the background also adopt subtle hints of westernization in the hats they wear, overall they maintain a more conservative form of Chinese dress.













SOURCE:  Funu zazhi Vol. 13 no. 1, January 1927.

MORE 1920s magazine pictures

Many of the social, political, and artistic leaders in the early decades of the twentieth century had studied abroad. Song Qingling, the intellectual and political activist of the revolutionary period and the wife of revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, studied in the U.S. 

Below are two photos of her. The photo on the left was taken while she was a student at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. In the photo on the right, Song Qingling sits to the left of her two sisters Song Ailing (the future wife of Chiang Kai-shek) and Song Mei-ling (who married Shanghai financier T.V. Song) after her return to China.

In looking at these two photos, what differences do you notice in how clothing carried markers of gender, wealth, and fashion-consciousness? Why do you think Song Qingling would change back to a Chinese clothing style when she returned to China from her studies in America?


Notice anything about these women's shoes?

SOURCE:  China Reconstructs 31. 9 (Sept 1982):  33.


During the political upheaval of the early twentieth century, Chinese men frequently expressed their political allegiances through the clothes they wore.

Below is an old photo of a meeting of Nationalist Party (Guomindang) political leaders in 1930.

How many different styles of dress are illustrated in this photo? What different political allegiances do you think their clothing reflects?

SOURCE:  Jiang Jieshi yu guomin zhengfu. (Hong Kong: The Commercial Press Ltd., 1994),  p. 133.
ANSWER:  The 1920's and 30's were tumultuous years in Chinese history. Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist part contended with local warlords for control while communist rebels and Japanese troops continued to threaten Chiang's tenuous hold on power. The different styles worn by these men can be viewed as a reflection of the disunity and instability common during this period in Chinese history.


To the right is a photo from 1985 of two doctors, one specializing in traditional medicine, the other in modern, Western medicine.

Is it surprising that a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine would also choose to dress in a traditional way? 

SOURCE:  Across China. China Pictorial, ed. (Beijing: China Pictorial, 1985),  p. 54.


During the twentieth century new modes of dress were created in an attempt to integrate both traditional Chinese and western cultural influences. The most influential were the qipao for women and the Mao suit. Today, however, many men wear western-style suits, just as women wear western-style clothing.


Mao suits

Western-style suit