How China Made My Clothing Cuter

Cute clothing from China
Before I went to China, I never believed in wearing cute pastels. But after living in the Middle Kingdom, adorable outfits slowly creeped into my wardrobe, and changed forever just how I saw clothing (photo by marco microbi reckmann)

Before I went to China, I couldn’t even remember the last time I wore a pastel. I’d exorcised everything pale pink and peach from my closet, instead preferring the deep, scruffy olives and maroons and blacks of my thrift-store wardrobe. No one would mistake me for some prep princess, ever.

But over the years, pastels started creeping into my wardrobe. It started with a T-shirt here, a tank top there. And before you know it, I’m wearing an outfit — just as I did yesterday — that would leave the old me screaming in horror: a cheerful pastel striped knit tank with blinding white cargo shorts (ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!).

China changed me.

I’ll never forget my first full day in the Middle Kingdom. I dressed in my usual, defiant clothes — a military green knit top, and don’t-mess-with-me khaki shorts, baggy (just to make me look even more dominant) — as I flitted from one famous Beijing site to another: the Forbidden City, Beihai Park, Tian’anmen Square.

But as I wandered around town, I couldn’t help but notice the young Chinese women — and what they wore. It was as if they were all in some strange, off-season Easter parade: pretty pastels, sweet, soft-colored shorts and skirts, and the kind of cute little hairclips I threw out before entering junior high. When did Chinese women start looking so…well…adorable? I wondered.

By the time I arrived in Zhengzhou, I knew it wasn’t some feeling Beijing craze.

I remember strolling down Huayuan Road, days after I set foot in this loess-swept Central China city, and peering into Baleno, this hip clothing retailer from Hong Kong that blasted a wave of techopop into the streets. I peered in, curious, and the colors and styles looked like a Disney cartoon had exploded everywhere.

So did my classroom — or, at least, the half with my female students, who dressed like never-been-kissed ingenues.

And my first Chinese boyfriend, a dark James Dean type from Zhengzhou, wanted me to join them. “I’d love to see you wear some bright clothing,” he once whispered to me flirtatiously. Months later, he bought me a sweater in asparagus green with a raspberry stripes — it was my first step in the light direction.

As long as I stayed in China, brighter colors kept sneaking into my outfits. A sweater splashed with a bubble-gum pink and banana yellow pattern. A white tunic with an aqua-blue and magenta neckline. A baby blue knit top with pink and brown stripes. A turquoise polo with pink stripes. A cozy turtleneck sweater in salmon and coffee stripes. Pretty soon, my wardrobe looked dangerously darling.

But while I flirted with danger by dress, the public somehow approved. My husband, then boyfriend, would eye me up and down deliciously, remarking how feminine I looked. Chinese coworkers, especially women, showered me with praise for moving my clothing closer to their side of the color spectrum.

Still, old color connections die hard. That’s why I bought that fire-engine red plaid shirt from Giordano, and that navy-blue fleece jacket from the outdoor clothing section (secretly, my favorite) at Parkson’s. Ah, that navy jacket — it seemed to counteract any excessive cuteness in my tops.

But the navy jacket also did something else, especially after I cut my hair as short as a boy’s — people started to mistake me for a guy.

“Is there something wrong with me?” I asked my Chinese friends. “Can’t they tell I’m a woman?”

“Boys usually wear this color,” one told me, tugging at my navy jacket. And as I looked around, none of the men passing us by wore anything beyond the gray-brown-Russian blue spectrum. Mortified, I shoved my darkest tops into the back of my closest, and even donated away a few hideously unfeminine ones.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated an odd intermingling of adorable outfits from China and more edgy apparel from the US. And, while my pre-China self might cringe over the pastels, my post-China self knows better. After all, as the American wife of a Chinese, I straddle two countries and two sensibilities — why shouldn’t my wardrobe do the same?

Has China (or life in another country) changed how you dress?

6 Replies to “How China Made My Clothing Cuter”

  1. What a cute post! I can’t say that my clothing changed much while living in China, but I had a lot of fun noticing all those cutsie, girlish, colorful wardrobe items others wore, not to mention the hair styles. If anything, I think living in China helped me to appreciate a less baggy, more tailored appearance. But Italy and France did that too!

    Back in the 70’s, when I used a public restroom in the company of many Chinese women, I remember being stared at for my polka-dot underwear, such a rare sight that it was. My Chinese mother-in-law was thrilled to add some color to her navy/olive/gray wardrobe of the revolutionary past, but she stayed away from anything too bright due to her patriotic sensabilities.

    It’s never-ending entertainment to watch what people wear in China, to see the influences and trends that catch on (including pajamas, lol) and to try to understand the appeal!

  2. Two of my qipao are pink… My boyfriend once said that pink color is good for babies only.
    But it didn’t prevent him from painting the wall of bedroom into light-pink color when he prepared apartments for my arrival 🙂

  3. My Chinese husband is always complaining at me for buying only dark color clothing. I didn’t realize it was a cultural thing. I can’t help it, I have red hair and when you put me in pastel clothes I just look foolish. But at least I know where DH is coming from now!

  4. A off-season Easter parade, that is such a wonderful way to put it! I love the feminine way that Chinese women dress. I don’t think it’s changed the way I dress but I do enjoy the parade.

    I’m also fascinated by the way Chinese women can dress so elegantly and then jump on a bicycle and ride across town. If you asked most American women to do the same we’d be like, “Okay, I’m going to need a lycra racing suit, sweat-wicking organic cotton socks, some cleated cycling shoes, and polarized sunglasses. And a backpack to put all my work clothes in.”

    But Chinese women just get on their bike and away they go. 🙂

  5. Since I’m dating my Chinese boyfriend I never thought that my style was somehow boyish, he is always encouraging me to wear more “feminine” colours, skirts, and such. I am really into outdoors and I am an agronomy student , so my daily basic is jeans, my all stars sneakers and just a plain tank , but now I find myself wearing floral patters, cute shorts instead the cargo ones ..hahha even that I still comfortable, so I thank him because now I look cuter and this style hasn’t change the functionality of my clothes .

  6. I was just thinking about this! 80% of my daily wardrobe is black or gray. My roommate said bright colors would complement my complexion. Lately I’ve been dressing head-to-toe in black except for a pink winter hat with a single giant pom-pom. I think it’s kind of sweet that I can indulge my secret love of pink without feeling silly.

    On the other hand, it’s too bad that fashion is so gendered. Women are sometimes infantalized here and the fact that we can’t wear “boy colors” reflects that.

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