Lenin Coat was especially popular in China during the 1950’s. It is a variant of open-collared and double-breasted suit. Similar kind of suit was common in Europe and had become a conservative choice during the first half of the 20th century. But it was a new fashion when it firstly entered China during Second Sino-Japanese War and Chinese Civil War. Russians don’t call this kind of coat “Lenin Coat”. The word was termed by Chinese. Because Lenin wore this kind of coat during the October Revolution. If we merely take the image of Lenin Coat as a signifier, Chinese and Russians share a similar first-order system (Allen, 42). But the second-order semiological system (Allen, 43) is significantly different. In Russia, people did not especially relate this coat to Bolshevik spirit. But Chinese raised the image to show respect to certain ideology. I guess in some historical period, some people wanted to emphasize this layer of meaning and use the word “Lenin” to name the coat, which in turn changed the word’s first-order system. The word “Lenin” is usually related to “revolution” and “communism”. This sign is borrowed to indicate the myth of the coat. Ironically, although what these people did can be viewed as “demystification” because they pointed out the implication of this clothing pattern, this “demystification” actually strengthened the relationship. A new sign got this ground to be more popular.
What interesting is Lenin Coat also means feminism to certain degree. It gradually became more popular among women than men. Women felt honored when they dressed in this unisex way, which might means that they can share half of men’s work. Comparatively, Cheong-sam, which enjoyed popularity during the period of the Republic of China (1912-1949), was regarded as feminine. Also, Cheong-sam made itself a hit when Nationalists governed China. So it is also linked to “bourgeois” and ”capitalism”. Some further equivalence can be found. Clothes knot different ideologies together: “capitalist ≈ bourgeois ≈ nationalist ≈ feminine ≈ weak ≈ conservative”, similarly, “socialist ≈ proletariat ≈ communist ≈ feminist ≈ strong ≈ revolutionized”. Clothes are instilled with universal and natural values. The grave of Cheong-sam was prepared long before the coming of Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when they were widely burnt and disappeared on the street. Through the process of meaning making, people mediate present to the past and to the future (6, Irvine). This grave of Cheong-sam was dug in the soil of sign system.
I think Barthes’ idea that fashion is tyrannical makes sense. However, I disagree that the fashion system is based on the decisions of a very small number of editors and consultants (Allen, 51). Larger social and cultural factors have strong impact on fashion. The way people relate concepts and clothes keeps reproducing fashions. Also, the myth of the fashion system is not only to speed up consumption, but also create broader social phenomenon.
Allen, G. (2003). Roland Barthes. Psychology Press.
Irvine, Martin (2012). “The Grammar of Meaning Making: The Human Symbolic Faculty, Semiosis, and Cognitive Semiotics” Web.