So square it’s hip: Gen Z tries on the communist cadre look
By Joy Dong
A dull blue jacket, oversize trousers, a Communist Party member pin adding a splash of red on the chest, a small briefcase in hand. It’s the typical dress of the typical Chinese official, and has long been the very opposite of the look that many young Chinese strive for.
But now the cadre look is cool.
On Chinese social media platforms where trendsetters trade fashion tips, young people — mostly men — have been sharing pictures of themselves dressed like their strait-laced, middle-aged dads working in Communist Party offices. They call the trend “ting ju feng,” or “office and bureau style” — meaning the working wear of a typical mid-rank bureaucrat.
The paragon of this determinedly dull look is China’s top leader, Xi Jinping. He is highly likely to win another five years in power in October, when about 2,300 delegates gather for a Communist Party congress in Beijing. Many of those officials will be wearing Western-style suits and ties for that special occasion. Back at the office, though, countless officials now sport the dark blue wind jacket favored by Xi.
Despite his immense power, Xi has not been seen as a fashion influencer — until now. Some followers of the trend may be tongue in cheek, poking fun at China’s era of conformity. Others say that they are in earnest and that for many young Chinese, the look suggests a stable career path and a respectable lifestyle — a Communist Party version of the preppy look.
“Compared with the clothes with fashion-brand logos, this style is more dignified and poised,” Yang Zhan, 21, an electrical engineering student in Anhui province, in central China, wrote in a message replying to questions from The New York Times. He had posted a picture of himself wearing his father’s navy blue jacket and mother’s Communist Party member pin on Xiaohongshu, one of the fastest-growing social platforms targeting young Chinese.
On Xiaohongshu, hashtags for the trend have amassed more than 5 million views. Young government employees have posted their daily looks, and students have also posted selfies in the cadrewear. Some young women also show off the styles of their civil servant boyfriends. Canny garment sellers have even started including the “office bureau style” label in their online ads for clothes usually bought by middle-aged men.
There are limits to the appeal of the cadre look. Yang’s pictures attracted admiring comments online, but he said he would never wear the outfit to class. “Otherwise my classmates would say I’m stinking with smugness,” he said. “Maybe it’s a little too mature.”
Though the cadre look is far from dominating fashion sales, the emergence of the unabashedly conventional look reflects China’s conservative political turn.
“That jacket has long been popular among cadres,” said John Fitzgerald, an expert on China’s cadre culture and an emeritus professor at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. “The style is understated, that says, ‘Don’t look at me’. What’s new is the popularity among young people.”
Cadres often used to dress much more expensively, sporting flashy accessories such as luxury watches and expensive belts. But that was before Xi’s anti-corruption campaign began in 2012. Xi’s signature blue jacket has echoes of the Mao suit, which was worn by many Chinese people, especially officials, before commercial fashion and Western-style suits took off in China in the 1980s.
The cadre style’s popularity may also reflect the high interest in holding a government post, especially while the economy has slowed sharply. Last year a record 2 million people registered to take the national government agencies’ hiring exam.
“When big internet companies are having rounds of layoffs, the ‘office bureau style’ is sending out an unspoken message of being reliable, stable and rid of intensive competition,” Hu Zhen, a Chinese fashion blogger, said in a recent video.
For junior workers, Hu recommended a short-sleeved white shirt with a chest pocket big enough to hold a small notebook, a handy tool for field visits by public servants.
So far no state outlets have openly encouraged the trend among young people, but if they did, it would not be surprising. The government strictly monitors every aspect of youth culture online, blurring images of tattoos and revising lyrics with negative connotations. Pop idols attending government functions and interviewed by the state news media have also sometimes dressed in ting ju feng.
In fact, Xi once compared the value orientation of young people to buttoning up a shirt. “If the first button is done wrong, the rest will all go wrong.”
Still, many young people think ting ju feng is just a social media fad. Wei Zhangnan, a Beijing business consultant, posted his cadre look but added that it might not last. “Probably it will soon be gone,” he said. “Not everybody is fond of the old cadre vibe.”
Others are rolling their eyes at the look and the fascination it reflects with civil servant culture.
“The profession is being looked up to as if it has a halo on it now,” said Tina Zhou, a law student from northeastern Liaoning province. “If anybody who is not a civil servant deliberately dresses like this in daily life, I would think he is a bit too uptight and stern.”