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Antonia Finnane, Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, Nation, History

March 21, 2011

Since I mentioned it in my previous post, I thought I would write a little more on what Antonia Finnane has to say about breast-binding and undergarments in the Republican period in her book Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, Nation, History. Finnane rightly points out that the clamor around breast-binding in the late 1920s seems mis-placed since  the Northern Expedition, which saw the Guomindang unify China and remove warlords and the Communist party, brought violence and instability but, she argues, this only proves the link between politics and the breast-binding issue.

In the first decade of the 20th century, the little vest (or a breast-binding garment,) was necessary to help women look slim and modest and this only became more important with the qipao came into fashion. Finnane interestingly adds that there were no darts sewn on early qipao so breast-binding probably made it easier to tailor the upper part of a qipao (163). I find this interesting in light of my last post, in which I talked about Jiang Xue’s (绛雪) “Measuring Breast Height” (量胸高 liang xiong gao) piece. In Jiang’s piece, he mentions that he saw a tailor measuring “breast height” but what does that mean in light of Finnane’s statement that darts and upper body tailoring didn’t exist until the 1950s?

The images below are also from Finnane’s book:

Page 162: I found this image of the Yongjia (Wenzhou) Short Hair, Natural Breast, and Natural Feet Society very interesting. As Finnane points out, these three issues were linked together during the 1920s but as you can see above, even though these women are proponents of natural breasts, their clothing still emphasizes the flat chest fashion. Short hair and natural feet were easy to spot on women and thus became clear markers of “modernity” for women but natural breasts were much trickier. Even if I woman did not bind her breasts, she often (it seems) subscribed to fashions that created a flat chest look.


Page 165: This is an advertisement from 1937, in which the older sister (left) asks the younger sister why she isn’t wearing a vest. The younger sister says that vests aren’t healthy, so she choose to wear a “cotton sweatshirt” (汗衫 han shan) instead. The older sister says she will try that garment the next day (164). This is interesting to me because it gives some  indication of how women chose undergarments – suggestions and discussions from female family members?

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