From Dongbei ayis to Supreme: A visual history of China's most (in)famous floral pattern
Winter is coming, and so are padded coats and pajamas. If you have ever lived in China, you know what I am talking about: your around-the-block ayi fiercely getting a morning walk in her floral PJs is back!
Globalization and Taobao introduced a wide variety of patterns and styles for this specific kind of seasonal garment. Still, amongst all, one seems to better represent the Chinese ayi's spirit: 东北大花dongbei dahua or Dongbei Floral pattern. (For those who are still not sure about what this article is about, the pictures below should suffice to bring back winter memories).
But what are its origins, and how did it rise to global fame and become a Supreme jacket?!
Figure 1 Left: padded pajamas (source: Taobao). Right: fashionable ayis posing together (source: Baidu)
The origins: from imperial China to "Dongbei style."
As the name implies, the 东北大花 pattern comes from the northwestern regions of China (namely Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang). Its distinctive and contrasting colors, red and green, don't necessarily conform to contemporary Chinese aesthetics and taste. However, in Chinese history, it is not uncommon to see them combined with floral patterns.
Besides traditional clothing, shades of red and green are also recurrent in ancient Chinese architecture, perhaps the best example being the Forbidden City in Beijing.
In more contemporary times, the red and green floral pattern has been a staple of northwestern winter clothing, particularly winter padded jackets and vests. In a blog post on Sohu netizen tries to explain the taste for bright-colored floral patterns as a response to the whiteness of Northwestern winters.1 With temperatures often below zero and white snow as far as the eye can see, it is only natural for inhabitants of these regions to dream of spring through their clothing choice.
Aesthetics generational gap: 土 tu versus 潮 chao
Following the economic reforms in the 80s, Chinese society witnessed rapid changes, and so did its people's tastes. Changing consumption habits, growing global mentality, improved education, and increased exposure to a diverse range of visual media are often pointed out as the main reasons behind such a substantial generational gap when it comes to style and aesthetics. Younger netizens normally associate the traditional dongbei floral pattern with being 土 tu (literally meaning "soil," it can also be translated as "vulgar, rustic, unrefined, and out of fashion" as opposed to 潮 chao "fashionable, trendy").
Similar to the GenZs using the term "Cheugy" to describe Millennials and previous generations who refuse to adapt to the newest trends and keep wearing clothes that were in fashion 10 years before, 土 tu also carries a pejorative meaning and refusal of the aesthetics and taste of previous generations. However, in a rapidly urbanizing China, a class dimension needs to be added. The urban Chinese enjoy significantly better living conditions and education and tend to look down on their fellow countryside citizens, who are perceived as uneducated and lacking taste.
Supreme, Marni, and the subversion of taste
So how did the 东北大花pattern "come back in fashion"? As simple as it sounds, it was a mix of (borderline) cultural appropriation by Western brands and re-appropriation of the pattern by some Chinese celebrities in the past few years.
Italian high-fashion brand Marni premiered its 2018 Spring Ready-to-Wear collection. It quickly became a hot topic on the Chinese web due to its widespread use of a fabric that bears a striking resemblance to the dongbei floral pattern.2
Figure 6 Marni Spring Summer collection 2018. (Source: sohu.com)
Then again, when Supreme launched its 2021 Spring-Summer collection, the floral pattern went viral. Younger consumers labeled it as 东西混搭dongxi hunda, "a mix of West and East" but also 半土不洋ban tu bu yang "not authentically Chinese but also not Western," a common expression used for those young Chinese who often use English words when speaking Mandarin.
What is the future of the controversial floral pattern? Although, for now, it retains its status as an extremely-memeable content, it is hard to predict whether a Supreme release is enough for it to make a proper comeback and conquer younger generations of consumers. Nevertheless, one thing remains undoubted: winter is coming, and 大妈 dama from Dongbei won't stop wearing their padded coats to square dance!