Beijing Fashion: Wear What You Want with Pride

Betsy Leimbigler

Betsy Leimbigler in Beijing

I am amazed by a lot of things in Beijing – the sheer size of the city, the packed subways, the sensory overload of interesting marketplaces, and Beijing fashion. There’s also a sense of adventure that accompanies everyday activities: such as riding a bike in crowded traffic sans helmet or trying out new foods from street vendors. It’s crowded, noisy, bustling, exciting, and at times can be overwhelming.

On a recent trip to China, I was struck by Beijing fashion – especially among young women. Before landing, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of fashion in Beijing, but I had heard that I should expect to be “out-fashioned” (if you will) by young professionals who would outshine me with their styles. Staying on an expansive university campus and venturing around Beijing let me compare their fashion to that of my homebase in Ottawa, Canada. And yes, I was definitely out-fashioned. Yet from one national capital to another, I have to say… I really admired the fashion in Beijing. Why?

Beijing Fashion Vogue China

Beijing Fashion on the Vogue China Cover

Beijing Fashion – High Heels, Bikes, and Liberty?

There are obvious differences between the two cities. 22 million inhabitants of Beijing versus 1.1 million in Ottawa. The plethora of different styles, cultures, subcultures that flourish in a massive Beijing metropolis. One trend I noticed was that many women in Beijing dress in an unabashedly feminine way, which does not seem to impede them from doing daily tasks and chores. It’s common to see women dressed very nicely on the subway or when they are out with friends during the day. I thought I was hallucinating on the first day when I saw a young student biking in spike high heels. I looked around, mouth agape, at people around me to see their reaction. No one seemed to give her a second glance. By the end of my stay, I too was biking around in heels.

Betsy Leimbigler Biking in Beijing

Not pictured: heels. Obviously this picture was taken near the beginning of my stay.

I really enjoyed the liberty of things I never really thought of doing back home, like biking in a dress and heels.  I began to think about my own fashion statement, if you can even call it that, back in Ottawa. After all, there was a local hullaballoo when Ottawa was ranked the 8th worst-dressed city in the world by MSN in 2011.

Ottawa Fashion – Low Temperatures, Practicality, and Restraints?

To be fair, Ottawa is also one of the coldest capitals in the world, and in the wintertime a heavy-duty coat with three pairs of pants is more practical than freezing in a little number. I still thought my super-practical $40 faux-fur trimmed winter boots were pretty trendy. I loved my pompom tuque and I have a bright orange jacket (bought in Japan), but perhaps I’m missing the bigger picture.

In Ottawa, I am simply reluctant to wear high-end fashion or wear high heels downtown. If I go to a casting or anything related to modelling, I always have two pairs of shoes with me – flats and heels. Even in downtown Ottawa, it seems to be an anomaly to see a woman wearing very high heels going about her day.

Street Harassment

I tip my hat to those women who are fashionable and dress up in Ottawa; you are remarkable. But unfortunately, cat-calling is a problem in many cities, including Ottawa. Getting cat-called (or a better word: harassed on the street) is one of the most unnecessarily ego-shattering things to experience; a form of harassment that virtually every woman has experienced at some point (and of course, regardless of what she is wearing).

Cat Calling

No, not this type of Cat Calling.

When dressed in regular clothes and getting shouted at by randoms, it’s obviously degrading, but you can remind oneself that they are simply misogynistic. You definitely are not trying to attract attention in baggy street clothes, and they’re going out of their way to harass you. When dressed nicely and getting shouted at by people in passing cars, one develops this rage – why can’t I wear whatever I choose and be left alone? It does not make me feel free to make my own choices about dressing. It personally makes me feel trapped.

In Beijing I loved that everywhere I went, I would see well-dressed women in high heels who were going about their day with very few overt displays of judgement or harassment from other people. Was everyone just too busy to notice other people’s dress in this big city? Was I simply not around when and if they were being harassed? Perhaps the actual structure of the city with its multi-lane massive roads and distinct neighbourhoods plays a part. Also, the fact that biking in heels and dressing nicely had been so normalized, I tended to think that perhaps it wasn’t such a big deal.

I asked several students on campus about this and made a running joke about how I simply wasn’t as fashionable as the people I was surrounded with. The students’ responses were that it was part of a culture that wants to look professional. This isn’t to say that street harassment doesn’t happen in Beijing – it happens everywhere.

On many occasions I realized that I  – in my flip flops, t-shirt and shorts – was unquestionably the least fashionable person in the restaurant or store in question. Cute accessories abound in Beijing, as well – from nail art to little keychains affixed onto cellphones. But even then, it tied in with this sort of liberty… the liberty of looking casual, the liberty of looking chic, or of standing out in a particularly awesome pair of shoes and not being shouted at or receiving unwanted attention based on what shoe selection one has made. In terms of fashion, I felt distinctly free.

Faux pas or faut faire?

As I began to get more comfortable with the street style in Beijing fashion, I began to accept the interesting differences I would notice. One thing that initially surprised my coworkers and myself was the infamous Beijing Shirt Roll, or Chinese Shirt Tuck – a phenomenon where men roll the bottom part of their shirts up to their armpits to cool down, instead of just removing their entire shirt. I asked my relatives about this; apparently shirtlessness is not technically illegal, but their response was always the same: to keep cool. Oh, we laughed at this apparent fashion faux-pas… but now that I’m back in Canada, I have appropriated the Chinese Shirt Tuck and I constantly roll my shirt up when I run. If you just don’t feel like taking your shirt off, roll it up. Suddenly it makes sense. Try it.

Beijing fashion encourages you to dress however you want and to do whatever you want with it. It’s got that definite mark of a major metropolis where you can march into a subway with antennae and a bright purple wig on, and feel comfortable. (Not that I did this, honestly.) The city is a fascinating amalgamation of old history and new developments, and the political implications of choice and men and women’s freedom to dress however they want does, in fact, play a part in the complexities of fashion.

Beijing Fashion Vogue China