What is a Mao Suit?

Trent Burkholder

A Mao suit is a tunic from China that is named after the former revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. Also known as a Zhongshan suit, the origins can be traced to the first leader of the Republic of China. Originally established as a national outfit for men, the suit eventually developed governmental and political associations. Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s often wore the suit at public speeches, which is likely why it's linked to him, and to Chinese communism, in the world historical perception.

The People's Republic of China.
The People's Republic of China.

The origins of the Mao suit trace back to the early twentieth century, to the original leader of the Nationalist government in China. Sun Zhongshan, also known as Sun Yat-sen, is generally credited with developing the attire as part of a Chinese tradition to change the national style of dress with each new dynasty. It is believed that he instructed a tailor named Huang Longsheng to design a suit that incorporated aspects of military uniforms, student uniforms, and western-style business suits.

A portrait of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong.
A portrait of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong.

The Mao suit was an attempt to blend fashions from the East and West. The outside of the suit had four symmetrical pockets, rather than the three inside pockets often found in Western business suits. It originally had seven buttons down the front of the garment, but later the button number was dropped to five. There was a turned-up straight collar that was eventually replaced with a turned-down collar to mimic German military uniforms. The suit was traditionally navy blue or gray, and the sleeves often had three cuff-buttons.

The Mao suit was promoted in China as a garment of the common man, and later took on connotations with the government and political climate of the time. In the 1920s and 1930s, Chinese civil servants were required to wear the suit. After Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925, the suit acquired patriotic and revolutionary mythology: the four pockets representing the Four Cardinal Principals in the Book of Changes; the five front buttons representing the five Yuans, or branches of the government; and the three cuff-buttons representing Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People.

Mao Zedong used the Zhongshan suit to project his view of nationalism and ideology during public engagements. He wore the suit during his first address as leader of the People’s Republic of China, in October of 1949. His consistent use of the suit as public attire eventually led the majority of the Chinese population to consider it the national attire. His continued public appearances in the garment eventually led Western societies to come up with the name, the Mao suit.

Chairman Mao has a cult-like status in China.
Chairman Mao has a cult-like status in China.

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