My observations on fashion in China has been published on the website, Teach English in China. To view my article, click on the link above.
Instead of fake tan, there is a big demand for skin whitening products in China. During a trip to one of the local supermarkets, I noticed a huge L’oreal poster that was advertising skin whitening cream in the same glamorous way other cosmetic products were being marketed- with the message being that having lighter skin would add beauty to a person, just like lipstick or eyeliner supposedly does.
Despite the language barrier when watching TV, I still spotted adverts that were endorsing the use of whitening cream. These particular adverts consisted of both men and women rubbing some of this cream onto a part of their skin and then suddenly they became lighter. This advertising ploy clearly communicated the skin lightening message very effectively as even I managed to understand how to use the product and the results that it would apparently bring, without being able to understand what anybody in the advert was saying. Skin whitening was subtly advertised everywhere- especially on billboards. During my daily commute into Shangyu, I would walk past shopping complexes that sold clothes and other fashion accessories. On the outside of one of the fashion outlets, there were various billboards that featured Chinese models that looked considerably different to the girls who were out shopping because of one very noticeable factor- the colour of their skin. It was obvious how photo-shopped the posters were as the models wearing fashionable dressed and posing with expensive jewellery had skin almost as white as the paper they were printed on.
A lot of Chinese girls hid under umbrellas when the sun was out. I walked round with one too as my factor 50 sunscreen was not strong enough to protect my skin from burning and an umbrella provided some much needed shelter from the cloudless sky. All umbrellas got battered when the heavy winds and rainfall of the typhoon hit China but during the sunny weather, they were more than just for preventing the dangerous rays from the sun and were used by girls primarily to stop the dreaded tanning of the skin. A student also told me during a free talk lesson that makeup was a good way of stopping getting tanned in the sun and the other female students agreed with her. These students were only in their early teens but yet the message of lighter skin was deeply imprinted in their understanding of the Chinese beauty ideal. The health risks of using skin lighteners are obvious as the creams and lotions will ultimately alter and damage skin pigmentation but it’s a trend that is really difficult to escape from in China.
Skinniness is in fashion in China. Both boys and girls are not afraid to call somebody fat. However, they don’t do it to be deliberately cruel, it’s just the culture. Being thin is the preferred body type in China and anyone who isn’t does stand out. One student described her younger, pre-teen sister as ‘thick-skinned’ in a conversation but it was just an observation. The people there are very literal and will say what they see, rather than gossip. It’s not a bad thing though as it means they are generous with their compliments too.
Restaurants always revealed certain eating habits in China. It was common for girls to eat small portions no matter what they ordered. I was once sat at a table next to a girl who ordered a really nice seafood lasagne but only ate a tiny corner and left the rest. One evening, we also went out for a pizza hut meal with one of the teaching assistants that we had made friends with at the school called Echo. We shared a pizza between three of us and while Echo struggled through two slices, we were hungrily examining the menu for our next order.
Takeaways and fast food are a rarity for Chinese people and the students in my class revealed they would eat unhealthy food such as burgers and chips only around once a month. School lunches consisted of rice and vegetables with meat or fish and these were the staple foods of the country. At breakfast people ate dumplings, noodles and rice and I think this sort of wholesome diet contributed to the reason why everyone stayed slim. It also meant that we saw a few people being sick on the bus during our daily commute to the school due to such a heavy meal at the start of the day.
Chinese girls tend to look a lot younger than they really are due to being tiny in size. Being short and skinny is reflected in the fashion industry of China as after visiting numerous clothes boutiques and wanting to buy nearly every dress and pair of shorts that they sold, I quickly discovered that a Chinese large size seems to be a UK small. As a result, I focused my attention on the jewellery and shoes instead.
There are many recognisable fashion brands in China. I spotted many European retailers like H&M, Zara and Mango scattered around the each of the cities I went to and also found it impossible to walk round Shanghai without passing the huge American corporations such as Gap and Forever 21. Makeup brands like Maybelline and L’oreal filled the counters of the department stores and local supermarkets, meaning that shopping often did not feel too different to a day out in Oxford Street in London. Although there is a lot of western influence, Chinese fashion is still unique and different in many ways to the styles we have over here in the UK. The fashion is far from the traditional style of silk blouses and long gowns with oriental prints, as the more common female style of clothing includes jeans, shorts, t-shirts and dresses in an array of bright colours and mixture of patterns. A lot of the t-shirts that both males and females wore had cartoon style pictures printed on them or random words in English like ‘Wanted’ or ‘Let’s go’ and would be paired with a pair of shorts or leg wear that often had checks, stripes or tie dye patterned on.
As well as western establishments, there are also little boutiques that sell Chinese style clothes. The fashion is to wear clothing that covers a girl’s chest and sometimes shoulders but it is fine to keep the legs bare. As a result, these little boutiques sell a lot of long sleeved blouses, t-shirts, short skirts, shorts or dresses. These sorts of shops are also often decorated in a more personal way than the bigger global stores and so are interesting to visit as each one is different to suit the owner’s taste.
A cheaper alternative to high street shopping is to visit the markets that are usually open at night, as they sell the same style and quality of clothing at a price that can be haggled. Most shops are usually open until around 9pm and on an evening a worker of a shop will be stood outside shouting into a microphone and playing loud music in order to entice people into their shops. Shopping is therefore more exciting during evening, especially as the city is lit up at night.
I really loved the shoe styles over there. Crocs were weirdly quite popular amongst the males and my friend even found a pair of ‘Gangnam style’ shoes however, I was drawn to the flat shoes that the girls wore. I bought myself a pair of flip flops with thick wedge soles that were really cushioned and springy and one girl in my class even had her own panda themed pair of these shoes.
Teenage fashion is cute and innocent. My students told me that they are restricted with how they can experiment with their appearance as school rules are strict. Most girls aren’t allowed to wear jewellery or makeup and their hair has to be no longer than shoulder length, even though a lot of them would prefer a longer style. As a result, the teenage girls don’t particularly follow fashion trends too much and style themselves a lot younger than typical teenagers in the UK and America. Instead, they tend to wear pretty dresses and casual clothes like t-shirts and jeans or shorts and have little bows and clips styled in their fringes and short hairstyles.
Every day I saw something different. One day we went on a trip to Hangzhou and visited the picturesque West Lake. While we were there we noticed a few couples on their wedding day, having their picture taken by a photographer with the scenery of the West Lake in the background. The brides had white wedding dresses and held a bouquet of flowers, while the grooms wore a suit and tie. I had always thought brides in China wore red wedding dresses and so it was a real eye opener to see that western white dresses are also worn by brides all over the world. So much of the Chinese fashion blends with styles from all over the world but ultimately there is still a unique fusion that can only be fully appreciated when you are truly surrounded by the culture in China.