When a Chinese official gets dressed in the morning, he must choose his outfit with care. Don't be too flashy: the wrong watch or tie, and he could find himself criticized -- or worse. But nor should his fashion choices be too reminiscent of the peasant-style garb of leaders from the high-Communist era: wearing Mao suits today would make foreigners --vital to China's recent rise -- uncomfortable (not to mention those who suffered under Mao's rule). Constrained on both sides, Chinese political dress has trended toward a sort of lowest fashion denominator: black suits, white shirts, worn with dull, Windsor-knotted ties. It's what Beijing-based style blogger Nels Frye, writing in Foreign Policy, calls an "utterly unnoticeable look."
Now, with China facing its first leadership transition in a decade, clothing options are perhaps more rigid than ever. Calm and unity must be projected; stability, even of the sartorial kind, is paramount.
Above, President-to-be Xi Jinping waits behind current President Hu Jintao at a banquet in September 2012.
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The goal is homogeneity: identical jet-black dye-jobs conceal age, while boxy suits hide any differences in physique. Above, members of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision making body, greet the media in 2007. The rebel in the purple tie, fourth from right, is Wu Bangguo (see next slide).
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Previous generations of Chinese leadership did not always so thoroughly eschew accessorizing. Some, such as Wu Bangguo, the second-ranking official on the Standing Committee (and due to step down this week), favored the huge square glasses that have had somewhat of a rebirth among young Chinese hipsters today.
Above, Wu in 2011.
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But perhaps most memorable are the enormous tortoise-shell glasses of former President Jiang Zemin (right). When he retired in 2002, Chinese presidential eyewear was scaled-back: though outgoing President Hu Jintao wears large specs himself, they're a less visible wire frame. Above, Hu and Jiang at the opening session of the 18th Congress.
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It was under Hu Yaobang (right) -- top man in the Party from 1981 until 1987 -- that Chinese leaders first began choosing Western business suits over home-grown Mao suits. One of China's most reformist leaders, Hu's liberalism brought his ouster, but his preference for Western dress stuck. Above, Hu, stands in Western clothing next to the more traditionally garbed Deng Xiaoping in 1981.
Leaders' casual wear, too, tends toward the dull: informal occasions call for a short sleeve white dress shirt, usually tucked in. Autumn and spring bring a black, zippered, waist-length jacket in a generic synthetic material. Above, Premier Wen Jiabao rocks the Party look in 2003.
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Now-disgraced Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai favored well-cut suits and stylish ties that made him stand out against the boring backdrop of his colleagues. Bo would eventually fall out of favor in spectacular fashion -- no pun intended. Above, Bo Xilai at a press conference in 2005.
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Li Xiaolin, daughter of former Premier Li Peng, is a delegate to the National People's Conference and one of China's most successful business women, but has been critized for her collection of Chanel, Hermes and other expensive foreign brands. Above, Li in 2009.
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Even with Xi Jinping due to take office, the fashion outlook for leaders of the P.R.C. appears to be further sartorial stagnation. The Hu era has ended; the era of the boxy suit goes on.
Above, Hu Jintao speaks during the opening ceremony of the 18th Party Congress on Thursday.
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