Fashioning Change: The Cultural Economy of Clothing in Contemporary China

Jianhua (Andrew) Zhao

PhD Thesis 2008

This dissertation is based on fifteen months of field research in Shanghai and Beijing conducted in 2002 and 2004. The central question with which this dissertation is concerned is how clothing and the clothing industry is constituted by and constitutive of the phenomenal changes that have taken place in contemporary China, especially in the post-1978 reform period. Specifically, this dissertation addresses two major questions: 1) Are the changes in Chinese clothing and the clothing industry merely a part of China’s economic development or modernization? And 2) does China’s integration with the global economy translate into a Westernization of China?”

The development of China’s textile and apparel industries is a process of liberalization in which the socialist state cultivates and encourages market competition in China’s economy. The development of China’s textile and clothing industries is thus a part of the state’s agenda to modernize China’s economy. The economic modernization in China, however, is not intended to be an imitation of the West, but a means to an end. Similarly, the Chinese notion of modernity, which is reflected in the official narratives of the evolution of clothing styles, is not modeled after the West; instead, it is a story the Chinese tell themselves about themselves in relation to their own past. Therefore, modernization and modernity as reflected by the changes in Chinese clothing and clothing industry are vested with Chinese meanings.

Intertwined with the issues of modernization and modernity, this dissertation also examines the ways in which Western styles of clothing, design techniques, business models, fashion shows and fashion weeks become localized in China. Thus, this dissertation challenges the Westernization thesis in the study of globalization. In addition, the dissertation also explores the integration of China’s clothing industry with the global clothing industry through the examination of the exportation of Chinese made garments to the United States that is predicated on the global political economy. All in all, this dissertation argues that clothing is not just a business, but one that involves cultural logics, and that it is not just economics, but also is endowed with meanings.