Recently, Shanghai has finally achieved the goal set from the very beginning of its existence – a position on the list of top 10 most fashionable cities in the world. The day it received this fancy accolade, those who probably ganbei-ed the loudest, were the oldest generations of the city’s locals, the ones who struggled the most to make it earn the name ‘Paris of the East’ in times long before Prada and Gucci could be taken for granted within the city’s borders. Although it may sound inconceivable for today’s local youth, for whom wearing D&G’s flip flops are even more obvious than having mantou for breakfast, this is how their grandparents paved the way to give Shanghai’s fashionable image back in the day!
It is difficult to imagine today, but before 1842 Shanghai was merely a small fishing village by the Yangzi River delta. In those times style was probably the least concern for its residents. Little had they expected what the actual repercussions of the First Opium War* would be (*the one where the UK, Ireland and the Qing Empire waged because Europeans got frustrated that while they desperately needed Chinese goods like silk, porcelain and tea, China had all it needed and didn’t allow anyone to access its interiors. However, the last straw was UK’s attempt to control Chinese import of opium…). When in 1842 the British occupied the City on the Sea, they named it a treaty port and opened it to foreign involvement. That’s when the REAL Shanghai we love began!
Add paragraThe little village was transformed into a city and immediately divided into 3 autonomous settlements called ‘concessions’: British, American and French – each of them independent of the Chinese law. These colonies had an irresistible impact on the future international metropolis, as they all brought their specific architecture, culture and social impressions. Although native locals had their own walled Chinese city, the curiosity of the foreign lifestyle dominated and they chose to live in those enclaves. Hence, the melting pot was set on fire and the mixing began. The combination of Chinese and Western culture resulted in the birth of inclusive and an openness to diversity hǎi pài – 海派 ( exact meaning – Shanghai Style) – the root of Shanghai city. Hai Pai started developing rapidly between 1930s and 1950s and it embodied rebellion against traditional conventions and boldness in innovation. Shanghai locals were more than ready to embrace new values, behaviors, western academia and fashion. One of the first expressions of Hai Pai, ‘cultivated’ by old generations till these days and shocking foreign newcomers, was adopting the habit of wearing…pajamas! Before colonization, Chinese people paid little if any attention to their sleeping attire. However, the Hai Pai meant responsibility to be fashionable anytime and anywhere. So pajamas became the thing, and to add Hai Pai’s bold twist – proud Shanghailanders started wearing it outside to make sure everyone around noticed how stylish they were. As my Shanghainese friend explained it to me– ‘In those times people didn’t have wechat so if they wanted to demonstrate their wealth they just had to take it out for the audience to see, even if it required them getting on the bus in their PJs and going around the city, by all means would they do that.'
Another significant example of inclusive Hai Pai’s spirit was the transformation of traditional 旗袍 – qí páo/Cheongsam. Having observed that the Western women in Shanghai would not be too shy about showing the best assets of their bodies, local tailors gave qipao a makeover: it was shortened and more fitted. The new qipao, originated in Shanghai and quickly took over the rest of China in no time.
Even when the glamour and decadence had to surrender in the face of pervasive Communism, Shanghai people just could not let all the elegance go and that’s how the ‘fake collars’ – 假 领子 jiǎ lǐng zi were born. To maintain the dapper look in the Communist era, when buying clothes and fabric was quite an expenditure, you could purchase a few fake collars for the price of one shirt, because fashion conscious Shanghaiers would not want others to know they were wearing the same shirt every day.
Now the opulence and unlimited indulgence are back in mó dū – or in Chinese 魔都 (Shanghai’s nickname which means ‘fascinating city’ or ‘devil’s /magical city’) ) and seems like Hai Pai is at the peak of its Renaissance. The multinational crowd of foreigners gather at countless fashion events and fairs, bringing new designs and inspiration that locals embrace almost immediately. However, what makes these times now so special to me, is that we can still see the very precursors of Hai Pai in between all this. We observe the ultimately chic Shanghainese like my landlord in the former French Concession, who will not go out to run his errands without the tailor-made shirt and special white gloves he always wears to drive the car. Fortunately, the die – hard pajama trend even resisted the 2010, pre-Expo mission to ferret out wearing pajamas in public simply in order to save the city’s face. Even the wisest minds of Fudan University were asked to give some advice on this issue. After all, the city’s chic reputation, that took years of efforts to gain, could not be ruined in the eyes of foreign guests! The answer was ‘Why not? It’s Shanghai!’ Yes – whether you call it the Hai, Mo Du, Paris of the East or even paradox– the Hai Pai never ceases to make its own, bold, fashion statement and I consider myself lucky to be witnessing it!
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