The Chinese tunic suit known as the Mao Suit in the West and as Zhongshan Zhuang in Mandarin first graced the catwalks of China in 1911 when Sun Zhongshan (called SunYat Sen in Cantonese) overthrew the imperial Qing dynasty and founded the Republic of China.
Sun just wasn’t getting the attention he wanted as he strutted around town 100 years ago. Sadly, the imperial garb and other royal attire of the Court was just too ‘last century’ to raise an eyebrow or require double take as one passed on the streets. A creative overhaul was needed. Assuming the role of Creative Director, Sun did away with the Dragon Robes and embroidery and fused Japanese cadet uniforms with Western business suits to design the Zhongshan suit. A new national costume was born and before long was widely acclaimed by magazine editors across the country as being fashion forward and international, whilst not adhering to the Western standards of dress.
By the time Sun left this world to join the Fashion Immortality Guild in 1925 he had instilled a revolutionary and patriotic significance into his Zhongshan suit. The four outside pockets came to represent the four ancient Chinese virtues of propriety, justice, honesty and honor, while the five center-front buttons which lay people thought were practical fasteners, were in fact there to represent the five branches of government. Sun even squeezed in three cuff-buttons to symbolize his own ‘Three Principles of the People’ (nationalism, democracy and welfare).
Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 the Zhongshan suit became the mainstay of Chinese fashion and the envy of every designer from Shanghai to Shangri-La. The suit became the must-have piece of attire and was proudly worn as a symbol of proletarian unity and conformity in a time when it was definitely hip to be square. During the cultural revolution (1966-76) being seen in anything but a Zhongshan suit was quite a bold statement and akin to saying “I am bourgeois”, and you were likely to be banished to the countryside for re-education through many years of manual labor. With this type of condemnation you wouldn’t have caught me in a Gucci or Bape sweater either.
The name “Mao Suit” comes from Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s affinity for sporting Zhongshan suits and they have thus been linked to him and (Chinese) communism in general in the Western imagination since the 50s. This is reflected in popular culture and movies where it is not uncommon for the ‘bad guys’, to be clad in Mao type suits.
The Mao Suit survived 80s relatively unscathed and if any one in China tried a neon or shoulder pad remixed version they surely kept it to themselves. It remained the standard formal dress for Chinese leaders until the 1990s when its popularity waned in favor of Western business suits, which by then were the standard of international dress. Today, it’s rare to see the suit worn by the younger urban generation although it is enjoying a renaissance among some fashionistas and features heavily in Chinese contemporary art.
In the Chinese countryside a bespoke Mao suit is still regarded as formal attire by older generations and the ready to wear version is a common form of casual dress for millions of peasants. State and government leaders often opt to don a Mao Suit as their regalia for significant domestic occasions while keeping their Western suits for international affairs.