Meet The Fashion Students Defying China’s Rejection of #MeToo
Two fashion students are challenging the Chinese authorities, which have sought to stifle the #MeToo movement by shaming the women who have spoken up to report abuse.
Near the end of 2017, as #MeToo began to morph from a Twitter moment to a cultural reckoning in the United States, a Chinese student named Puzhen Zhou sat in her gender studies class at Parsons School of Design and thought of home.
“We were having class at Parsons, which is a liberal school, and people were asking my opinion on [feminism],” Zhou told The Daily Beast. “In my country, we can’t even talk about feminism or victimization. People who are actual victims get overlooked.”
Stateside, stories of sexual harassment and assault were going viral. “Shitty men” from varying industries were exposed. Women’s Marches were held. Celebrities wore black dresses on red carpets in solidarity with survivors. Tarana Burke, the activist who started #MeToo, sat front row at Fashion Week.
Whether or not the movement accomplished its goals is up for debate. Nevertheless, one year later, #MeToo still dominates the country's cultural discourse. But in China, process has been complicated, as political forces have worked to stifle women's stories.
In the beginning of 2018, as #MeToo flooded both Twitter feeds and TV chyrons in the United States, The New York Times reported that the Chinese government had censored online posts and petitions supporting the fledgling cause.
The internet was one of the only places where #MeToo could play out, as protests of any kind are quickly thwarted by the Communist party, and all media is controlled by the state.
When the government began deleting mentions of #MeToo on social networking sites such as Weibo, feminists adopted the homonym #RiceBunny, which is pronounced “mi tu” in Chinese.
Women such as Zhou Xiaoxuan, a 25-year-old screenwriter, became activists after posting impassioned open letters detailing their experiences with harassment in the workplace. Xioaxuan accused Zhu Jun, a famous news anchor, of groping her when she was an intern at China Central Television in 2014. (Jun denied the accusations, and filed a $95,000 lawsuit against his former intern.)
Like many immigrants, Zhou found herself saddled with two opposing cultures. “I felt a dissociation between here and my home country,” she said.
Along with fellow Parsons student Yuner Shao, Zhou began reading coverage of assaults in the Chinese press. In an enduring, but terrible, tradition, editorials would note that victims were dressed provocatively at the time of their assaults.
“People were focusing on what they wore,” Zhou said. “But in many cases, they were wearing things that would be considered conservative, like a running shirt or shorts. Once something bad happens, people start making associations.”
The duo felt fractured from the burgeoning, but delicate, movement. As fashion students, they decided the best way to show their solidarity with Chinese women would be through starting Refuse Club, a line inspired by the Salon des Refusés, an 1863 exhibition of works deemed too scandalous for the Paris Salon.
Refuse Club's first presentation was held this week in New York’s garment district. Production-wise, the scene felt somewhat homespun. The runway was little more than a rented office space. Guests sat in folding chairs that creaked with every leg-crossing. Paris Couture Week it was not, but the #MeToo concept hit just right.
Suits were prominent in the collection, which contained pieces for both women and men. Some of the tailoring featured a silk brocade of Eastern-inspired florals and dragons. Phrases such as “404 Not Found,” a nod to government censorship, peeked out from pocket flaps and the lining of suits.
“We wanted to be discreet with the ‘404,’” Zhou said. “It’s a metaphor of how discreet [Chinese women] have to be, how we don’t want to offend anyone.”
Many of the pieces, like an ivory ruched gown and gray sheath dress, had extra detailing that covered the chest and crotch. The conservatism felt performative, and the overdone pieces looked like armor, as if the models found safety underneath multiple layers.
But it was not all bleak. Some styles with more overt references to Chinese designs, such as a cheongsam top paired with daffodil yellow brocade shorts and matching rain boots, brought a much-deserved optimism out of the weighty inspiration.
Like the Chinese feminists who carry on with their cause in the face of suppression, these bright moments give hope for an eventual—if slow—change.