This summer in Peking, a young man's fancy is turning to thoughts of well-turned ankles. The skirt is making a comeback.
A decade ago the Chinese climaxed a burst of political indignation at old customs and bourgeois fashions by decreeing that women put away their dresses and skirts and wear only shirts and baggy pants. A few recalcitrant women who defied the ban sometimes had their skirts ripped off by angry Red Guards.
Now, as one more sign of a general culture thaw since the death of Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung, "you can actually see girls' legs," said one appreciative European resident of the Chinese capital. "It's wonderful."
Only a relative few young women in Peking have so far braved the old political, taboo and switched from their usual summer uniform of white blouse and dark pants to skirts. But Chinese sources in Peking report that a directive has circulated permitting skirts to be worn, at least for the summer. Lin Chia-mei, wife of the country's fourth-ranked leader Li Hsien-nien, has recently appeared at two ceremonial occasions in an evening dress.
At dinner in the Great Hall of the People this weekend, one female Foreign Ministry official teased two Western journalists for predicting a mass switch to skirts on June 15. But had the official recently bought a skirt for herself? Well, . . . yes, she said.
Peking's recently reopened Pei Hai Park has been a favorite spot for trend settlers to show off their new garb. Foreigners in the capital say the major city department store is selling fabric swatches precut to skirt length. "I saw two particularly colorful skirts just the other day," said a Canadian journalist who has been taking careful note of the phenomenon.
Before the Culture Revolution of the late 1960s, young women at school or working in offices generally wore dresses or skirts. Those in factories and approaching middleage wore pants in public, though they often switched to dresses at home. Peasant women, except for those who belong to minority groups which favor traditional costumes, have almost always worn pants. In the campaign to extol workers and peasants as the Revolution of a decade ago thus called for universial adoption of their style of dress.
As political issues often do in China the skirt debate became a personal matter between the wives of the two most powerful men in the country when the Cultural Revolution broke out. Wang Kuang-mei, the stylish wife of then president Liu Shao-chi, became the target of a vehment campaign organized by Chiang Ching, the former actress married to Mao. Wang disappeared from public life in 1967, but Chiang ironically followed her into oblivion exactly 10 years later. Both women were criticized for old fashioned, secret longings to wear a dress, which may explain why most Chinese women in Peking are still wearing pants.
It was a chilly morning in April 1967 when the Red Guards led Wand Kuang-mei into a hall at Tsinghua University and began their "struggle session." Her husband had been purged for challenging Mao's authority and she had to be discredited. The Red Guards, reportedly on instructions from Chiang Ching, insisted she put on the silk dress she had worn during a state visit to Indonesia the year before.
Finally, her interrogators grabbed her and slipped the offending dress over her.
"By wearing this dress to flirt with [president] Sukarno in Indonesia, you have put the Chinese people to shame and insulted the Chinese people as a whole."
By 1972, in the warmer cities of South China like Canton, a few dresses began to be seen again on young women. Chiang Ching herself entertained American university professor Roxane Witke in Canton in 1972 and wore the sort of calf-length skirt many Chinese women are now donning.
But in public, and particularly in Peking, skirts were still taboo, and Chiang apparently wanted to change that. After she was purged a month after her husband's death for allegedly trying to take over the government dressmakers in Shanghai exposed in an official radio broadcast her plan for "a national costume for women comrades."
"Under her instructions, the one-piece dress with an open-neck collar was concocted to be popularized among the broad masses of the people," the dressmakers reported. Chiang was accused of combing books on the Tang, Sung, Yuan Ming dynasties to produce a style worn only by "aristocrats and affluent ladies" of those eras.
Chiang is safely locked away and Chinese women are now able to exercise some cautious, individual taste. Three Chinese women who showed up at a state banquet for the Spanish king this weekend chose somber grey, calf-length designs.
In public morals and standards of dress, the Chinese are unabashed Victorians, perhaps one reasons, why the Spanish royalty received such a warm reception. But old standards are slipping a bit. The official New China News Agency had the audacity to cite Penthouse magazine in a recent dispatch from Peking. The agency merely referred to the magazine recent expose of Soviet espionage, but one wondered if they were able to resist looking at the pictures.