In the West, women’s suits have had cultural momentum during the 1970s’ feminist movement. Photographer Helmut Newton’s iconic, woman-in-tuxedo shot on French Vogue in 1975 elevated YSL’s Le Smoking look to a cultural statement — a controversial statement of femininity at the time. In 2019, the Chinese TV series “All is Well,” featuring actress Yao Chen dressed in a suit most of the time, underlines the beginning of China’s Le Smoking moment.
Having topped Weibo’s top-ten most searched topics for 20 consecutive days and streamed over 390 million times online, “All is Well” has been a national sensation for the past two months. The series portrays the life of a typical Chinese middle-class family, which traditionally values sons over daughters, with women as “second-class” family members. Its storyline has particularly struck a chord with Chinese women through the protagonist Su Mingyu (acted by Yao Chen), who confronts the gender bias in her own family with fierce independence. Armed with a suit in every episode, Su Mingyu has dominated Chinese social media with her handsome suit styles and has led a national shopping trend for “women’s suits.”
On the lifestyle sharing platform Little Red Book, there are now over 4,600 posts under the hashtag #Su Mingyu outfit” that analyze the character’s fashion choices from head to toe: Burberry suit, Max Mara coat, Erdos cashmere sweater, Valextra bag, Stuart Weitman boots, and so on. Her style consists of contemporary, work-appropriate pieces from luxury brands, promoting the idea of what a new-age, successful Chinese woman looks like. Su Mingyu has projected the ideal persona that most Chinese women aspire to but are often afraid to be: luxury-suit-wearing, financially independent, and mentally strong despite going through gender discrimination all her life.
But the suit trend led by Su Mingyu didn’t happen by chance. For more than a year, an exponentially growing amount of Chinese women have been chasing after the affirmative, Alpha-female look. According to the “2019 China Fashion Data Report” issued by Alibaba, “suits” was female shoppers’ top-searched keyword on Taobao last year, with the sales volume of women’s suits surpassing that of men’s suits for the first time on January 27, 2019. Search volume for the term “大哥廓西,” literally meaning “Big-bro, shoulder-padded suit” in Chinese, grew 317 percent year-on-year, with sales increasing 39 percent. While Alibaba data shows that Chinese women are pursuing a more alpha look, Chinese men are embracing a more “feminine” style in the fashion spectrum: “lace,” “transparent,” “earring” topped the list of growing search keywords. The report expects that in ten years, the number of Chinese women owning suits will far surpass that of men.
Before the Su Mingyu suit-look dominated the Internet, female celebrities sporting suits had already started to grab the public’s attention and admiration. On February 27th, actress Tang Yan wore a beige oversized suit with a pair of street-style sneakers to the airport and made the hashtag #唐嫣西装配运动鞋# (“TangYan in suit and sneaker”) one of the most-searched terms on Weibo. Lately, a genre of posts comparing Chinese female celebrities’ suit styles has also populated China’s lifestyle accounts.
This current appetite for women’s suits has a deeper cultural connotation than just being a style trend. After all, it wasn’t until recently that the “Alpha female” image became widely accepted in the Chinese public. Historically, Chinese media tends to depict women as docile, soft-tempered characters that avoid an assertive, successful role like Su Mingyu in “All is Well.” Despite the country’s rapid modernization as a whole, patriarchal values run deep in its everyday social fabric.
The gender-charged issues that Su Mingyu experiences, such as her willingness to prove her personal worth as equal to her brothers by acing her career, are heartfelt issues that Chinese women are collectively facing today. In this context, suits have become their armor, a stylish escapade to free themselves from the outdated gender expectations they grew up with.
In the West, suits continue to be a pivotal vehicle for women to convey an empowering message. For example, in October 2018, Lady Gaga’s wore a Marc Jacobs power suit while delivering a speech against sexual assault. It was a conscious choice to express her solidarity towards the global #MeToo movement. Although #MeToo is much more muted in China, the gender issues they face are no less complex. It’s a time when gender fluidity and “Pretty in pink” expectations are the norm to coexist for women in the workplace. The degree of assertiveness and freedom Chinese women seek in clothing is often proportional to the intensity of unfairness they live with day-to-day. For any brand that wants to stay relevant in China’s she economy, taking this social shift into account would be crucial for delivering the next truly empowering message.