When Xi Jinping assumed the role of President of China in March of 2013, it was amidst a cloud of uncertainty. The Chinese Communist Party was only just recovering from a public scandal involving a high-ranking member of the party, and there were a great deal of questions regarding how Xi planned to implement his goal of curbing corruption within the Party. On Xi’s first trip abroad however, accompanied by his wife, Peng Liyuan, foreign journalists were suddenly struck with another question: What is China’s First Lady wearing?
Dressed in a long, dark, double-breasted trench coat, light blue scarf, black heels, and black leather handbag, her hair perfectly coiffed and in a bun, Peng stepped off the plane and into the limelight. The American press called her the next Michelle Obama, and her sartorial choices whipped fashionistas into a frenzy as they tried to guess the clothing label. The discovery that she’d chosen a domestic Chinese brand, Exception de Mixmind, as opposed to one of the major European fashion houses was hailed as a turning point for Chinese fashion. Vanity Fair included her in their Best-Dressed List of 2013, and domestic sales for Mixmind soared.
From a Western perspective, the concept of a fashionable First Lady is nothing new, with notable examples being Jackie O., Carla Bruni, and, of course, Michelle Obama. But in China, where the First Lady has tended to stay out of the limelight, Peng’s position as a media darling has enormous potential for a government that was somewhat lacking in terms of charismatic international public figures. While no stranger to the role of the public figure – Peng previously garnered popularity within China as a folk singer – her position as the President’s wife has subjected her to a completely different level of exposure.
Peng’s coming out as China’s first publicly glamorous first lady comes at an interesting juncture in Chinese politics, especially given her husband’s position. Xi has been vocal in denouncing perceived excesses within the Party, and has vowed to crack down on these as a way of reducing corruption and streamlining the bureaucracy by launching a frugality campaign.
In this context, her choice of a homegrown label serves very much to bolster her husband’s position, and sets her apart from the wives of other politicians. In a time fraught with tension brought about by the rapidly increasing gap between rich and poor, as well as a flurry of political scandals involving bribery and corruption, brands like Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior are as much symbols of luxury and status as they are of corruption and excess.
By imbuing the image that has become popularized in the West of what constitutes a “First Lady”, Peng makes herself more amenable to a global audience, which is especially crucial given her current status as a media darling, and her role as the President’s wife and as a face in contemporary Chinese politics. In redefining the roles of fashion within the Communist Party, and particularly in Peng’s choice to wear local Chinese brands, the question of style goes beyond the realm of individualized taste, and takes on a political dimension.
In adapting Western styles to Chinese brands within the current context, it may be possible for figures like Peng to redefine China’s image much like its fashion: as an accepted and legitimate part of the international community that still exists as its own distinctive entity.