Asking a Western millennial working woman to “dress pretty for work” seems like an obsolete idea in 2018. To the Western millennial mind, to dress cool and be taken seriously in a business setting don’t necessarily contradict each other.
But, contrary to this popular belief in the West, the successful dress code for Chinese millennial women remains rigid and gender-charged.
Chinese millennials believe they live in a time of the appearance economy (“颜值经济” in Chinese)–a time when prettiness translates into serious social capital. Watchwords like “pretty is justice” (颜值即正义) are more than just socially acceptable: On Weibo, the hashtag #prettyisjustice has been invoked more than 93,000 times.
The pressure to present oneself attractively extends to the workplace. Maimai, a Chinese career network site, conducted a survey in 2017 of nearly 10,000 working millennials on the importance of appearance at work. Nearly 70 percent of participants linked better appearance to better career opportunities, plus healthier colleague relationships, more interview opportunities, and faster promotions. Another report on the “appearance economy” shows that the WeChat search index (from June 2018 to July 2018) for Yang Chaoyue, a pop star famous primarily for being pretty rather than for any particular talents, was 20 times higher than that of the #metoo movement.
And luxury brands and retailers are using the “pretty is power” association to market their goods. In 2017, luxury-closet rental app YCloset’s controversial ad went viral on Chinese social media. In the video, an entry-level office worker has beaten down candidates more qualified than herself during a job interview, later replaces her supervisor, and makes it to the cover of Forbes magazine, all because of her killer styles. The video, called out as being particularly “bitchy” by Chinese netizens, sparked public debate on whether a woman’s appearance or her ability should count more in the workplace.
A popular TV series has also greatly influenced the “pretty is power” mindset. Since its debut in June 2018, Korean TV series “What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim” has been trending on Chinese online style communities like Little Red Book and Weibo. Chinese millennial women see the series’ leading role–Secretary Kim–and her makeup and outfits as textbook-worthy examples of the ideal working woman.
On Little Red Book, there are more than 5,000 user-generated posts on decoding and imitating her beauty and fashion choices: Shiseido lipsticks, Chloé handbag, Jimmy Choo heels, Ferragamo purses, etc. Even top Chinese fashion influencer Gogoboi has published a WeChat article on how to recreate Secretary Kim’s office styles following fans’ requests.
Compared to the Western concept of the power work outfit, Secretary Kim’s style is far more stereotypically feminine. Her workwear aesthetic favors tight, curve-revealing pencil skirts, silk blouses, cute accessories over suits and pants—and the color pink. While Western millennial women might aim to look sharp and ultra-confident in the workplace, Chinese millennial women are looking up to K-drama stars like “Secretary Kim” to look professional yet feminine. After all, adhering to China’s conservative beauty norm is a much safer choice for millennial working women than dressing against the norm.
In this global moment of the #MeToo movement, China’s zeitgeist of “Pretty is Justice” might appear as a feminist backlash. But the issue is more complex than that. Under the popular belief of pretty being power, Chinese millennial working women aim to look more conventionally attractive so that they can advance in careers and achieve greater independence. However, by doing so, they also feed into the system of traditional beauty codes that are often dictated by men.
Whether this appearance-first mentality will last in the long term is uncertain. But what luxury brands do need to realize is that the Western “power suit” means something entirely different in the Chinese millennial workplace.