Clothes shopping in provincial China promises a humiliation all of its own for the Western visitor. I am, as discreetly as is possible under the hawk-like observation of three waif-like sales assistants, sizing up a top and wondering whether it’s worth trying to squeeze into it. Will that go across my shoulders? Are the sleeves going to reach my wrists? I decide to go for it, take the top from the rail and turn decisively towards the changing rooms. One of the sales assistants is by my side in an instant. “Tai xiao le”, too small, she says frankly, pointing at the top and looking at me. She firmly takes it from my hand and replaces it on the shelf, then gestures towards a rail of baggy T-shirts as if to say “now those might fit you!”
She hadn’t meant to embarrass me, of course: it was a typical example of Sichuanese matterof-factness. And besides, she was right. Finding clothes for Western women over a size eight is no easy feat out of the big cities and provincial capitals. Sichuan, which reputedly boasts China’s most beautiful women, is particularly tough; clothes are cut for dainty figures about two thirds my height.
But even where the sizing problem can be resolved, there’s a further consideration: provincial fashion. The look of the young woman in her twenties is decidedly girly. Ornaments and embellishments are in: it is not uncommon to discover a promising-looking summer dress, only to find the front adorned with an assortment of frills, buttons and bows. These are teamed, inexplicably, with (visible) flesh-coloured ankle socks and high-heeled strappy shoes or sandals. The high-heel is ubiquitous, and worn even in the most impractical of situations. I have seen Chinese women climb mountains in heels, undertake punishing hikes, and one on particularly memorable occasion, wield a pneumatic drill. Complete the picture with a parasol – essential protection from the danger of tanning – and the final effect is all a bit Little Bo Peep. Not really me.
For the young and hip, there are trends influenced by Japanese and Korean youth culture. The coolest kids in my English classes proudly sported rip-off Bathing Ape T-shirts and caps, NBA basketball shirts or extremely low-crotched checked trousers with braces attached. The really bold might don the gothic-lolita “harajuku” look, but that tends to raise eyebrows in a – by Chinese standards – small conservative town, so is reserved for special occasions: the school singing competition, for example. Chinese grandmas have their equivalent of Marks & Spencer’s elasticated trousers and cardis – the short-sleeved printed blouse. These garish creations are sold in innumerable shops all over the country, and are to be spotted on what must be about three quarters of women ‘of a certain age’. Their husbands, too, have a uniform: the short-sleeved polo shirt, usually viscose, with the all-important breast pocket for cigarettes. This is worn invariably with suit trousers – a sartorial choice as immutable as the high heels of the twenty-something.
Though it may not all be to my taste, there’s no denying that there’s style at stake here. True, none of this would get far in the catwalks and boutiques of Paris, Milan and New York, but there’s an impressive attention to appearance nonetheless. Next to my Chinese peers, neatly dressed in their pop socks, sandals and floral prints, I didn’t feel I could get away with the slouchy hoodie and leggings student combo on a trip to the supermarket. And when your bus driver and the woman sweeping the street wear elbow-length white gloves to work, you’ve got to step up.
I may not have left Sichuan with a bigger wardrobe, or a penchant for pop socks as a fashion statement, but something of the style of provincial China has stuck with me. You could say I grew to appreciate it. And until I see a woman drilling a concrete road in heels, I refuse to believe her commitment to the cause. Move over, Anna Wintour, this century’s fashionistas rise in the East.