Peng Liyuan’s ‘fashion with Chinese characteristics’ a symbol of China’s soft power
Eschewing conspicuous luxury labels and Western bling, the first lady has curated a style that’s confident, chic and yet conservative, with nods to her Chinese heritage
Whilst many people are analysing the political minutiae of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Mar-A-Lago meeting with US President Donald Trump, others are focused on the high-profile women by their sides. Despite airstrikes in Syria, like it or not, people still obsess over the two superpower’s first ladies and their fashion. Each time Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan makes a public appearance, Chinese netizens take to social media in droves to comment on her appearance – most writing elaborate praise and stating what a relief it is to finally have a globally “presentable” first lady.
During this US visit, American first lady Melania Trump accompanied Peng to surprise students and teachers with a visit at the Bak Middle School of the Arts in West Palm Beach on Friday. With her hair swept up in a chic style, Peng, a famous singer in the People’s Liberation Army at one time, chatted to students and watched their musical performances.
At these highly publicised diplomatic summits, the first ladies and their fashion choices can carry heavy cultural clout; wielding soft power at home and abroad. Much was made of Trump’s auspiciously red, simple Valentino dress and Peng’s deep purple floral embroidered qipao at the official Mar-A-Lago greeting, dinner and photo call. Both women amped up the glamour, nodding to the meeting of cultures. While Peng’s qipao was classically Chinese and embellished with embroidery, Trump went for a modern, simple look.
For the school visit, 54-year-old Peng opted for a more simple look, looking elegant and feminine in a pristine white lace sleeveless jacket over a long white qipao and paired with dark heels and a small dark clutch bag. She was again more conservative than Trump – who donned high-waisted dark navy trousers, a tight black sleeveless top in the same colour and a printed white scarf tied loosely around her neck – a balanced outfit but altogether quite unremarkable.
First lady style is a tricky path to navigate. Many of these high-profile women use the media obsession with their clothes as an unspoken way of supporting their country’s designers and the local fashion industry. Their style choices can be a powerful way to communicate certain values, which presumably link to their statesman husbands. Just turn your thoughts to Jackie Kennedy and the stylish legacy she left behind. More recently, Samantha Cameron’s support for British-based designers like Roksanda Illincic and Michelle Obama’s fondness for American brands such as J. Crew and Jason Wu, boosted the design houses’ global appeal.
For many Chinese, Peng’s sense of glamour and natural elegance is even more significant in a historical context – as she is the first Communist Party first lady to embrace a polished, modern style that doesn’t look amiss on the international stage. Her predecessors Liu Yongqing (Hu Jintao’s wife) and Wang Yeping (Jiang Zemin’s wife) both stayed low profile and relatively out of the limelight, but that wasn’t always the case in China. Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing was a highly visible part of the leadership and, in 1943, a chic Madame Chiang Kai-shek addressed US Congress in an appeal for aid to the Nationalists in their struggle against Japan and Chinese Communists.
As a former model, Trump is more used to the style scrutiny. Fashion critics pored over the pastel blue Ralph Lauren skirt suit that Melania Trump wore to her husband’s inauguration and there’s been a New York industry backlash against the Trumps in response to the President’s politics.
Peng’s style is likewise scrutinised by the Chinese public and now the world media. Remember when mainland fashion label Exception de Mixmind was plucked from obscurity and thrust into the global limelight when Peng wore the brand during her and husband Xi Jinping’s first official international trip?
Eschewing conspicuous luxury labels, logos and Western bling, Peng has curated a specific style that is feminine yet conservative, confident and chic and often nods to her Chinese heritage with qipao, mandarin collars and traditional details on otherwise quite modern outfits. Peng’s soft power influence is not to be ignored. Fashion might seem insignificant in the grand scheme of the US-China relationship or even home-grown politics, but don’t underestimate how powerful it can be in (even subconsciously) swaying public opinion.
Jing Zhang is the fashion editor of the South China Morning Post