Living in China often feels like a futuristic experience as the turbo charged economy generously delivers a bounty of new airports, new train stations, new hotels, malls, shops, even entire new cities. Name any kind of infrastructure, and there is likely to be a new one of its kind opening or being built in China, and its probably the biggest/tallest/fastest in the world.
With all of this state-of-the-art infrastructure and everything new, it’s easy to get caught up in modern China and forget that it’s developing country, still facing the challenges of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
Venture down narrow alleys in any major city and you will find dilapidated neighbourhoods with people living in cramped conditions and poor sanitation well below that of any developed country. In Beijing’s CBD right beside the new five star hotels, luxury car show rooms and glittering fashion boutiques there are consumers people living in strenuous circumstances.
Whenever I’m at China’s super modern train stations boarding new high-speed trains, I marvel at the fortitude of peasant workers who lug around everything they own and need to exist stuffed into a duffel bag. I then witness these migrant workers in the cities living in makeshift shelters and tents, right next to the construction sites and smog choked highways.
Still, through my fashion eyes, I observe what all these migrant workers, low-income earners and even homeless people wear and consider how fashion relates to their lives.
To gain introspection on how different segments of Chinese society include fashion in their lives I’ve been utilizing Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theories on the different stages on human development. Better known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see image below), these theories imply what motivates all human behavior.
Below I’ve attapted to do a bit of my own psychological analysis on how fashion fits into to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs in the context of Chinese society.
Physiological needs are the basics of human survival and must be met in order to for the human organism to function. Fashion, or rather, clothing, falls under this category as it provides essential protection from the elements including: cold, rain or the sun’s rays, etc.
For the construction workers living in the tent on my street, fashion is a physiological need. Besides having shoes to protect them from rusty nails and jagged metal or glass, a simple T-Shit and Trousers, plus thick coats in winter, they don’t give fashion a second thought. For them string will even do just fine for a belt.
Love and Belonging
Human’s need for love, belonging and acceptance can be found in small units such as families or larger friendship, work and religious groups etc. Fitting into a group usually requires adherence to the group’s dress codes whether it be a police uniform, business suit, Buddhist prayer beads or the latest Nike basketball shoes.
In China, fitting in was a very fundamental part of the Communist doctrine. This was clearly evident between 1949 and the 1980s when most Chinese wore navy blue, grey or khaki Mao Suits. Even today, some older Chinese still stick to these three standard colours for anything they wear. As China’s top haute couture designer Guo Pei told me in this interview, when she was growing up it was a scandal to dress in anything else. Under communism, if everyone is equal, why would you even consider dressing differently?
The level of Self Esteem is where most fashion conscious Chinese consumers fit into, with social status being a big motivating factor for many fashion and luxury purchases. Showing you own branded goods implies you have a certain social position and commands respected, as highlighted in this post, even your car and number plate in China define your social hierarchy.
In their own home Chinese are content to use Chinese brand appliances as they rarely invite guests over, yet for things like fashion and the family car that are on public display foreign brands are preferred. This is one reason why logo heavy luxury products sell so well in China.
Recently, I had great difficulty finding yellow shirt material in Beijing. The reason I soon discovered was that during the Beijing Olympics yellow became the standard issue shirt colour for Taxi drivers. After this everybody else stopped wearing yellow shirts because no one wanted to look like a taxi driver.
According to Maslow, self-actualisation is the highest level of the human needs cycle and to reach this state you must have already fulfilled the needs of all other levels.
Once self-actualised, a person may move away from logo goods because they are comfortable with who they are and don’t need to prove themselves anymore. This is when people start to express themselves and display their identity and personality through fashion, even if it means not fitting in.
While this may is a simplified version of how fashion fits into people lives according to their income demographic, it gives an extra dimension to the world of fashion that extends beyond products and the latest season’s collections.
The world’s leading fashion brands understand human psychology, behavior and motivation all too well. This is why so much fashion brand advertising is ‘aspirational’ and appeals to almost everyone with any ounce of ambition. Who doesn’t want to make the move up the ladder into the next level of society, or the next level of Maslow’s Pyramid?
For readers of Maosuit, try and determine the underlying reasons for other people’s fashion and luxury purchases. Is it a basic human need for them or are they seeking self-actualisation? This can be very interesting, but be careful, as it may also reveal something about your own shopping habits and motivations.