Uniform-weary Chinese throng to fashion show to see 'bourgeois' satins, styled hair
At the gate of the exhibition center, Chinese in their green, gray, and blue jackets badger foreigners, offering five times the official price for their tickets.
Inside, the lights dim as four of their comrades emerge in satin dresses, slit to the thigh in the manner of prerevolutionary styles. They strut across the stage to music by the Swedish rock group Abba.
After decades of baggy suits and pudding-basin haircuts, China has rediscovered fashion in a big way. This month, China's first professional models , or ''fashionable dress performance team,'' paraded before a wide-eyed audience in Peking's first fashion show in many years.
The nine women and four men, all factory workers from Shanghai, spent three months watching videotapes of French fashion shows and learning deportment, in preparation for the show.
''Everyone likes to look nice,'' says the director of the models, Wu Zhenqing. ''Our job is to introduce the latest fashions to people and show them how to dress attractively.''
Her job is also to carry out the unannounced relaxation in the official attitudes toward colorful clothes and fancy hair styles. The changes have been evident in the streets of China's major cities in recent months.
Hairdressers' shops are full again as permanents, sets, and ''sea gull'' hair styles enjoy soaring popularity. Lipstick is being put on again, and brightly colored picture hats are for sale in most department stores.
Such indulgences were wiped out during the decade of the Cultural Revolution. In those days, the Chinese were ''encouraged'' to eradicate ''bourgeois and decadent'' dress and adopt baggy blue, gray, or green suits as a symbol of a classless socialist society.
But since the ascendency of moderates such as Chairman Deng Xiaoping and Premier Zhao Ziyang, and under the new responsibility system, people are being encouraged to display individuality. Fashion appears to be one of the latest areas where the official attitude has been relaxed.
According to the organizers of the show, the initiative came from China's leaders. ''The leaders show great concern for the people. They love them to wear very colorful and very beautiful clothes. They want this for them,'' an organizer said.
Conventional Western business suits, including such variations as the safari suit and the traditional pin-striped double breaster, were prominent at the Peking parade. But a male model was sent blushing from the stage when his appearance in an opulently embroidered satin smoking jacket brought sniggers and giggles from the crowd.
China's leaders appear to be advocating a change to the Western business suit as an offshoot of their open-door foreign policy and quest for foreign capital which has brought joint ventures with Avon, Max Factor, and Wella to China.
On recent tours of Africa and Australia, Premier Zhao has alternated between the traditional Sun Yat-sen suit (erroneously called a ''Mao'' suit in recent years) and a conventional business suit.
Another senior member of the Politburo, Vice-Premier Wan Li, has publicly advocated a switch to Western attire for men. ''Men's clothes should be diversified,'' he said recently. ''The Chinese collar is high and uncomfortable to the neck. Wearing such Western clothing makes one look good.''
The fostering of a greater variety of clothes is also in line with China's current economic policy of placing a higher priority on the production of consumer goods than on heavy industrial production.
It has been made clear that China wants to import high-quality wool so as to improve the standard of clothing available in China, and factories are being given a free hand to determine what designs they produce.
Most designs in Peking had been dictated by the Clothing Research Institute. But Liu Xing Yao, the deputy director of the Huadu garment factory in Peking, said, ''Around May Day last year, the leaders told us to go ahead and develop our own designs.''
''For years people just bought whatever they could find in order to have something to wear, but customers have become more selective,'' another Peking manufacturer says. ''This is the dawn of the golden age of fashion in China.''
But not everyone has welcomed the new freedoms with such enthusiasm. A distressed reader wrote to her local paper after attending a provincial fashion sale recently: ''What remains in my mind were some very modern dresses that were low cut and translucent. They were made of the sort of material which I consider can be used only as window screens. It is said that these kinds are the best sellers, and the factories which manufacture them are earning high profits. I can't help asking what is more important, money or good taste and the general mood of our society?''
But the greatest anomaly of the parade, with its flashy, sequined outfits and smartly tailored suits is the contrast it still presents to the scene in most Chinese streets. Colorful tops and even jeans are creeping into sight, but green , gray, and blue still dominate. Even manufacturers admit that changes will be slow.
''Our dresses for spring and summer are cool, simple, and comfortable,'' a Peking manufacturer says. ''Of course, we mustn't go too far. Our customers won't accept too much exposure. This is about as far as we can go at the moment.''