Why you should care
Disdain for the suit and tie might be hipster today, but it used to be an anti-imperialist thing.
“Mao shirt” reads the label next to photos of a male model clad in a satin button-up and white sneakers. It’s being sold by an upscale Dutch fashion chain, an untucked blue shirt inspired by the iconic ensemble made famous by Chinese chairman and dictator Mao Zedong.
You might suspect a former Marxist symbol being sold commercially to be a sort of ideological fashion faux pas. But fundamentally it’s just the latest commercial reappropriation of something that happened right after decolonization. After years of Western domination, swaths of the developing world that had long been forced to follow the norms set by European and American powers wanted their own alternative to the Western suit and tie. So they came up with their own formalwear. China had the Mao suit, India the Nehru jacket, the Jamaicans wore the Kariba suit and the Congolese donned the abacost.
All of those are either untucked shirts or button-up coats, which would easily fit in the wardrobe of any present-day 20-something fashionista. Similar ensembles were featured in Phoebe English’s show at London Fashion Week in 2018, while Chinese brand Pronounce brought pink Mao jackets to the runways that same year. But right after World War II, these garments had a more radical message: They showed how recently decolonized countries were trying to go their own way. “Politics and fashion are very much related,” says Sean Metzger, an associate professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television who has written about the Mao suit. “It’s a way to show conformity, but also resistance, to certain political regimes.”
Of all these alternatives to the suit and tie, the Mao suit is probably the most famous. “‘Mao suit’ is a Western word,” says Metzger. It usually describes a loose-cut jacket, with a mandarin or choker collar, which has four pockets and five buttons, though the fashion saw a lot of variation.
That outfit, however, didn’t originate with Mao Zedong. According to the original story, it was his take on an earlier form of dress, created by Sun Yat-sen, a major figure in the early Republic of China. “He was interested in opening his country to the West, so he wanted to transform traditional fashion,” says Metzger. The Chinese term for the ensemble identifies it with Sun Yat-sen, not Mao.
At the time, under the Qing dynasty, men usually wore long gowns for formal clothing. But Sun Yat-sen wanted something more modern. The colonial oppression of China by Western powers meant he didn’t want to simply copy the suit and tie. “Sun Yat-sen was influenced both by the Western suit and Japanese military uniforms and came up with the idea for his own suit. That became a model for a sovereign China, and Mao picked that up,” says Metzger. “Under Mao, it became more or less mandated clothing.”
Although the Mao suit is probably the most iconic, it was just one of many similar styles that proliferated around the world during the postwar period. Inspired by the clothes of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian post-independence prime minister, the Nehru jacket arose. The long, formal jacket with a mandarin collar is related to the traditional Indian Jodhpuri suit. Or take the abacost, a long suit worn without a tie that was pioneered in the ’70s by Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The word abacost is an abbreviation of “à bas le costume,” or down with the suit in French.
Even in Jamaica the call for alternative dress was taken up. Anti-imperialist politician and socialist Michael Manley pioneered the Kariba suit, which included an untucked shirt worn with an open collar, inspired by the brush shirt. Manley interpreted the suit and tie as “the first act of psychological surrender” in the “colonial trauma.”
These types of newer alternatives hide a darker history, and they were often associated with authoritarianism. The Mao suit, for example, may have been an anti-imperialist symbol, but it was also forced upon the Chinese population by Mao, who mandated the suit be worn during bloody episodes like the Cultural Revolution, which killed hundreds of thousands. Mobutu Sese Seko, the force behind the abacost, was also a dictator who grossly mismanaged Congo (then Zaire). So outfits like the Mao suit and the abacost fell from use when their proponents fell from power, often becoming symbols of authoritarian oppression rather than postcolonial liberation.
That meaning changed politically — and economically. Despite their political origins, Mao suits and Nehru jackets were marketed in the West as fashion items. Pop icons the Beatles, for example, helped introduce the Nehru jacket to Western audiences when they wore it in concert. “Even though the Mao suit was originally seen as an example of how communism stamped out individualism. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, companies were mass-producing them to be hip,” says Metzger.
Which brings us back to the start. Just as clothes can be both an expression of anti-imperialism and authoritarianism, they can also be commercially appropriated. Which is how an originally communist, anti-imperialist suit ended up on a Dutch fashion e-commerce site, right next to sneakers and snapbacks.