BEIJING — Much has changed in China over the past decade, from the tens of millions of former peasants who are now members of the middle class, to the Prada, Hermès, and Gucci boutiques that now crowd the malls of Beijing and Shanghai -- but not the fashion stylings of China's top leaders. The single-breasted navy two-button suits, semi-spread-collar white shirts, and unmemorable ties in a Windsor knot remain obligatory. Almost without exception, top leaders still sport iconic jet-black dye jobs, intended to conceal age just as the boxy suits conceal differences in physique. At a time of transition, the Chinese Communist Party is all the more determined to show unity, continuity, and commitment to stability, making sartorial adventurism inappropriate.
If anything, top leaders are even less stylish now. Gone is the only item with personality, the one that might have endeared China's heavyweights to hipsters in Brooklyn's Williamsburg, London's Shoreditch, or Beijing's 798: the huge, square nerd glasses reminiscent of Henry Kissinger that are now de rigueur all over the hipster world. These define Wu Bangguo, since 2002 the second-ranking man in the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body. He will step down this week and take with him the brow-line frames. Before him, former Premier Li Peng, the leader most associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre, wore nearly identical glasses, which meshed strikingly with his bushy eyebrows. Most memorable are the enormous tortoise-shell glasses of the jovial former president, Jiang Zemin. Chinese today view the huge glasses as more old-mannish or, at best, professorial and serious -- certainly not retro chic. Still, it's a shame; the over-the-top frames were all that prevented China's leaders from achieving an utterly unnoticeable look.
Outgoing President Hu Jintao's specs are large, though in a more subtle wire frame. A few of the men likely to reach the Standing Committee when Hu and most of his colleagues step down on Nov. 14 wear smallish, contemporary, very unremarkable frames, but most must have gotten laser surgery, have perfect eyesight, or are wearing contacts. But the absence of nerd glasses, or indeed of any stylish flourish, marks the current leaders as contemporary men rather than holdovers from a previous generation. It also puts the new emperors in the dullest camouflage possible: nine (or seven) nearly identical men in suits.
China's top leaders have been choosing Western business suits over the native-grown Mao suit, or Sun Yat-sen suit as it is known in China (after the founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen), ever since Hu Yaobang, top man in the Communist Party from 1981 until 1987, wore them. China's most reformist leader, Hu tried to bring accountability and transparency to the government, requiring Han Chinese in Tibet to learn Tibetan and even supporting the use of forks instead of chopsticks. So it's no surprise that he was the first major Chinese leader to choose a suit and tie. His liberalism brought his ouster, but the preference for Western dress stuck. As the 1980s and 1990s wore on, fewer and fewer photos depicted leaders wearing the Mao suit. Hu Jintao only deployed it for military parades, and it's unlikely that incoming President Xi Jinping will favor the look, which he might associate with the suffering he and his peers experienced during the Cultural Revolution.
The preference for Western attire is in line with the economic openness that has brought tremendous growth to China. It represents a hand extended to the West, an interest in modernization, an "open for business" sign, an indication that China is eager to rise to the top by accepting much of the prevailing world order. The message is different from that of leaders from countries like India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, who occasionally choose distinctly non-Western dress. "Wearing a Mao suit reminds foreigners too explicitly that they are facing officials of the Communist Party," says a fashion designer in Beijing, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of speaking about top leaders. "Besides," she jokes, "at the end of a meal, you can open the buttons on a Western suit. Mao suits are always worn buttoned up to the collar." (And current leaders, she notes, are somewhat portlier than their predecessors.)
Some Chinese citizens see their leaders' Western dress as representing China's lack of a distinct style and voice on the world stage. An IT salesman whose girlfriend works in fashion PR and who asked to remain anonymous wishes the leaders would wear Chinese clothing, but "unfortunately, they have to appear modern and there is no modern Chinese form of dressing or sense of etiquette." A Beijing resident who runs a business renovating high-end villas, often for government officials, observes that modern China lacks its own personality: "It can only absorb from others, but this also makes us better able to survive and prosper."