Trends and Motivations of Chinese Apparel Consumption

Hannah Reach

A stubborn past: Sexism and stereotypes in television advertisements of modern Spain

by Hannah Reach

Abstract

An immediate and visually impactful observation that any foreigner will make the second they step foot in another country is; what are natives wearing. You can consciously think about the apparel you see or you can let it just become an accepted aspect of your daily life’s backdrop, but, either way, it constantly surrounds you and is an essential part of that country’s culture. Clothing in a country cannot only indicate current trends and beliefs, but also historical values that are deeply engrained into that society. China especially has a culture strongly rooted in traditional ideologies and views that can be detected in the frequently seen attributes of clothing styles. My objective during my time in China has been to observe common themes in the apparel that local Beijing women have chosen and then determine the motivating factors for why they have chosen those items. I theorize that there are three main categories for clothing styles for women in Beijing, feminine, fashion conscious, and comfortable, and women are driven to choose these looks based on ideas of traditional gender role definitions, an emphasis on hierarchy, and value put into practicality.

Trends and Motivations of Chinese Apparel Consumption

An immediate and visually impactful observation that any foreigner will make the second they step foot in another country is; what are natives wearing. You can consciously think about the apparel you see or you can let it just become an accepted aspect of your daily life’s backdrop, but, either way, it constantly surrounds you and is an essential part of that country’s culture. Clothing in a country cannot only indicate current trends and beliefs, but also historical values that are deeply engrained into that society. China especially has a culture strongly rooted in traditional ideologies and views that can be detected in the frequently seen attributes of clothing styles. My objective during my time in China has been to observe common themes in the apparel that local Beijing women have chosen and then determine the motivating factors for why they have chosen those items. I theorize that there are three main categories for clothing styles for women in Beijing, feminine, fashion conscious, and comfortable, and women are driven to choose these looks based on ideas of traditional gender role definitions, an emphasis on hierarchy, and value put into practicality.

As I began my research, one of the first adjustments I had to make was to narrow down the group of people I was observing and the types of products I wanted to make conclusions about. I focused my attention on just women, particularly younger women, and the apparel industry. In general, women more than men use clothing as a form of expression. They have a wider range of options when it comes to clothing than men do, and more diversity in apparel characteristics allows me to make more detailed and firm conclusions about trends and decision-making factors. I chose to only observe apparel because any broader product range would have taken more time than I had in China and would have meant visiting a larger range of research sites. Additionally, I did not contract the product category any more specifically than apparel because it would have allowed me to conclude almost nothing. Very little can be determined, for example, by just t-shirts, or just shoes. However, entire outfits, when amassed and viewed in comparison to a large quantity of samples, can reveal a great deal about a society.

Bracelets at a market

Bracelets at a market

When observing these female apparel consumers, I wanted to identify what common trends I could find in what they wore. One person wearing a style can only tell you information about that one person, but when that same attribute is repeated among large groups of women then it becomes significant and a clue to how Chinese women make consumption decisions. Conveniently, wherever you go in Beijing you cannot help but observe the styles women are wearing. My field sites for these observations became wherever I went in Beijing, including Tsinghua campus, Wu Dao Kou, the subway system, the Summer Palace, several large counterfeit markets, Hou Hai, and San Li Tun. Importantly, these sites provided a group of subjects with an economic range. Since purchasing clothing requires money, one’s economic status plays a large role in what you buy. Counterfeit markets and public transportation systems allowed me to observe women who were more frugal with their money and tended to want less expensive clothing. Sites like Wu Dao Kou and Hou Hai, however, gave me access to women of a wealthier economic bracket because these areas had more expensive stores or at the very least had roads with intersections where I could peer into expensive cars driven by expensively dressed women.

Feminine Dress at U-Center

Feminine Dress at U-Center

 

 

The second style I identified is the fashion-conscious look. This style is commonly a complete contrast to the girlish look. These women opt for black, hipster, high-end label, on-trend, and edgy clothing. This style is defined by dark colors (or black and white), boyish clothes, no frills, attention to fashion trends, designer brands, and straight silhouettes. In juxtaposition with the previous style, this style emphasizes a more serious attitude, and seems to be more concerned with fashion than femininity, although it can outline femininity in a less obvious way. This style often incorporates low necklines, midriff, slits in a skirt or dress, clearly displayed brand names, and seemingly expensive clothing. In the article An Investigation of Decision-Making Styles of Consumers in China, the authors identify three types of consumers, one of which they call the “trendy, perfectionist consumer.” This consumer directly relates to the one I have decided to call the fashion-conscious consumer. The article delves into the importance of designer labels to this consumer and states that this consumer “tended to associate foreign brands with high quality and fashionable styling.” I have most often viewed this type of clothing choice at night around popular social scenes, in situations where someone is trying to impress a group of people, and in more expensive neighborhoods.

Girl in Heels

Girl in Heels

T-Shirt with English Phrase

T-Shirt with English Phrase

Comfortable Clothing

Comfortable Clothing

 

I have decided to call the third trend the comfortable style. T-shirts, shorts, jeans, and practical shoes characterize this look. The purpose of this look is less about being trendy, and more about feeling comfortable and choosing quality clothing. T-shirts define this look, and very often have English words and phrases on them, even though the brand might not be based in an English-speaking nation. I have seen a lot of these shirts with incorrect spelling or grammar; examples include “Bunnys” and “Sweety Duck Scorn.” This is possibly the most prevalent style I have seen. It appears in every location I have been too, particularly tourist destinations and on the mountain at Tai Shan.

With the ‘what’ established for Chinese women’s apparel, I moved onto determining the ‘why’ for these clothing choices. In one interview I conducted with my research partner, Carol, on July 11th in Paradiso Café she explained that, to her, the quality of what she was wearing was the most important factor in her purchasing decisions. When asked about a shirt that she was wearing at the time, she responded with, “I like the brand very much. It is a good quality.” Through observing her clothing choices from several language partner meetings, I would put her in the comfortable and functional style grouping. It seems that to this group, a large amount of value is put into the quality of their clothing. They want items that are durable and that you can move around in. They will usually choose shorts and t-shirts over dresses, and sneakers over heals. While these looks were more prevalent in tourist locations where the Chinese women were doing a lot of walking, they are still extremely common for everyday wear in any location. Additionally, since trendy fashion is not of great importance to them, they are not willing to spend a great deal of money on their apparel. This is another driving factor for why t-shirts are so popular in this group. T-shirts are relatively inexpensive when compared to dresses or brand-name items and can be an easy choice for those who want practicality in their clothing. However, women choosing the t-shirts with English phrases and words can be motivated instead by a desire to dress more Western, and not just comfortably. This is an affordable way to try and appear as if you have a grasp of what worldly apparel is. Sometimes, this objective is completely missed though when the phrase or word makes no sense in English, such as shirts that I have seen with “Hoop Court” or “Funny Humor” written on them.

The fashion-conscious consumer, however, is willing to spend more on their clothing. How they are perceived based on appearance is important to them. In Lin’s article titled Female Fashion Addicts Change China’s $19 Billion Market, she discusses how it becomes a kind of competition amongst the fashion-conscious consumers and their like-minded friends to see who can dress the most fashionably, wear the most up to date styles, and show off their apparel from expensive foreign labels. When personally observing the women who would fit into this category of consumer, I noticed that if they were wearing an item from a high-end brand they were very clearly displaying that logo. Even from a quick glance by a stranger it would be blatantly apparent that that woman had purchased something foreign and expensive. On July 27th, the woman that I talked with in the U-center who was buying glasses is an example of how foreign brands are strongly preferred. She chose a pair of Gucci sunglasses, a well-known Italian brand, over all other domestic and Asian options, and furthermore she chose a pair where the brand’s label was clearly and obviously displayed. She mentioned that she “trusted the Gucci brand very much.” This behavior relates to the idea of a strongly enforced hierarchal system in China, the “deng ji guan nian”. In the past, this hierarchy was deeply rooted in what profession a man had, and a women could be judged from her husband’s or father’s status. Now in China, career can still determine where you stand in relation to others, but a larger emphasis is put on your wealth from that career. Wearing expensive brands is a way to publicly demonstrate your wealth level and show that you are high in the hierarchal system.

The feminine-style classification, like the fashion-conscious group, is also motivated by appearance. Their “mian zi” is very important to them. At all times they want to give off the impression that they are put-together, girly, and have a smiling face or a “xiao lian.” This is what drives them to wear high heels and wedges so often, even when it is impractical to do so. They put thought and effort into maintaining their public image. This is especially important when meeting new people for the first time. At the William and Mary dinner and reception for the newly admitted Chinese students, the good majority of the girls present clearly put time into what they were going to wear to make sure that other’s first impression of them was favorable and that their “mian zi” with others started at the best possible level. For these women, less emphasis is put on whether or not their clothes are trendy in the world right now, and more emphasis is put on displaying their personality through clothing. Traditional gender roles and descriptions for how women should dress also play into this type of woman’s decision-making process. In accordance with the historical idea that a woman should dress modestly, these women choose high necklines and avoid provocatively cut clothing.

Through the observations and interviews I have conducted during my time in Beijing, I have been able to identify the common trends of feminine, fashionable, and practical clothing. The women who purchase these styles are motivated by a range of factors including the clothing’s quality, function, brand, price, trendiness, and general ability to allow a woman to express herself. While these motivations are modern, many also have deep and historic cultural links to China’s value systems and beliefs. In the years to come I would love to return to China and see how fashion has changed, especially to see if their views towards Western dress versus traditional Chinese dress has altered in any way.

 

An excerpt from my field notes about Carol.

An excerpt from my field notes about Carol.

 

An excerpt from my field notes at the U-Center

An excerpt from my field notes at the U-Center

 

Works Cited

Lin, Liza. “Female Fashion Addicts Change China’s $19 Billion Market.” Business Of Fashion, n,p. 30 January, 2015. Web. 16 July, 2015. <www.businessoffashion.com/articles/global-currents/female-fashion-addicts-change-chinas-19-billion-market-retail>

 

S. Y. Hiu, Alice, Noel Y. M. Siu, Charlie C. L. Wang, and Ludwig M. K. Chang. “An Investigation of Decision-Making Styles of Consumers in China.” The Journal of Consumer Affairs 35.2 (2001): 326-45. EBSCOhost. The Journal of Consumer Affairs, 1 Dec. 2001. Web. 5 Aug. 2015. <http://web.b.ebscohost.com.proxy.wm.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=b41a147e-7fa5-4e12-9ec2-5672fe796c96%40sessionmgr113&vid=3&hid=105>.