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China takes new interest in fashion, but practicality still prevails

Occasional references to the Chinese as being uninterested in style or fashion are not completely true. Until recently they were hampered by low incomes and limited supplies of material. Both situations have changed.

Since June 1980, the Chinese Ministry of Trade has published a fashion magazine. Its readership jumped to 1.5 million in a very short time.

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The first Chinese experimentation in the People's Republic with printed fabrics came in the mid-'50s, only to be wiped out by the Cultural Revolution within a decade. Today the prints are back, and fabric production has increased. Stores are filled with colorful materials and wall-to-wall people shopping for them.

The average expenditure for clothing in 1980 was 111 yen ($68 - about one-fourth of a city person's living expenses) and 25 yen ($15 - about one-seventh of rural expenditures). With the rather extensive increase in farm income widely reported for 1981, this latter figure is expected to rise. Most Chinese today have disposable income, their basic needs being met. Even allowing for inflation, purchasing power is reported to have risen nearly 40 percent since 1977.

As for taste, the first fashion show in the People's Republic was held in the '50s at the time cotton prints made their first appearance. Thousands of visitors attended the exhibit. A few years ago, after the windup of the Cultural Revolution, public outrage at fabric designs foisted on the people by one government official led to his public self-criticism and apology. His designs - large, splashy flowers - were not selling; China had, in effect, a consumer boycott. Today the Ministry of Textiles is headed by a woman, Hao Jianxiu, who began her career as a mill worker. Her goals, enthusiasm, moderate style, and determination to improve production may be instrumental in furthering development.

Practicality is a key element in style here. When both women and men squat over wash tubs or chop vegetables between their legs on the ground, this is bound to affect design. A puritan ethic prevails, along with an honest effort to keep self-centered considerations to a minimum. Still, comfort, color, variety, and proper fit offer areas for improvement.

Comfort can come in the form of short pants for both sexes, summerweight cloth, spot resistance, and easily washed and dried light summer colors to reflect heat. It can also come in easily cared for, inexpensive draperies, upholstery, and floor coverings to reduce winter chill.

Colors are more limited than on Western markets, but that is no big tragedy.

Variety, like color, can go too far, and there is some merit in the observation made at the fashion exhibits held in Peking recently that the industry, not being profit-centered, had no need to change styles merely to sell more clothing. Designer Ren Liucheng was quoted in China Daily as saying that attractive Western designs were acceptable models only if they were healthy fashions suitable for working people.

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Chinese designers are trained at the Beijing (Peking) Central Institute of Arts and Crafts. Many cities have set up clothing institutes to study ''aesthetics, material, and manufacturing.'' That indicates an attempt to meet public concerns for style and quality.

Proper fit may be coming. New slacks have better shape and are less baggy in the seat than older styles. Form-fitting ones are probably not in the offing; they would be both unaesthetic and impractical in a nation of active people where 100 percent of the population wears pants. Ready-made jackets are easy to spot - the sleeves are either too short or too long and turned up, not hemmed. Clothing stores provide no automatic alternation.

Factories make piece goods, but clothing stores are often supplied by tailoring co-ops. Above one shop in Hankou, three floors of close-packed sewing machines keep a steady whir in the air as employees make suits for sale in the shop on the street below. They also offer dressmaking and tailoring for $5 to $ 25.

The first break in styling came with the introduction of private enterprise within the last three years. Individuals could set themselves up as tailors. You encounter 6 to 8 to 10 of them stitching or cutting busily away along the roadside or under a porch roof.

These tailors make suits more cheaply than the state tailoring establishments , so reliance on ill-fitting ready-to-wear has been lessened. This past fall, the state announced new standardized sizes. News reports indicated that visitors to the exhibit were enthusiastic as they tried on various garments. Apparently clothing will soon be sold by sizes based on height and either chest (for coat) or waist (for pants) measurements, in centimeters. Under the old system, shoe and clothing sizes were given in length measurements, heel to toe or shoulder to hem.

No great attention has yet been given to such refinements as wardrobe planning. This is hardly surprising, yet it would benefit the individual greatly , cut the waste of personal funds, and leave more money for other expenditures.

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