top of page

Freedom to Dress

Updated: May 28, 2023

Dear Asian Youth,

I sped into the elevator, almost late to running an errand.

Let me tell you something, the elevator in my building is so aged that it takes an excruciating 40 seconds to go down only 17 floors. So you can probably visualize my exasperated sigh when the elevator came to a halt at the 11th floor. A delicate old granny entered through the doors, trembling a little as she walked in. I immediately felt ashamed about my previous reaction and hastily moved aside to give her some space. The granny looked up at my face, her gaze travelled down my torso, past my legs, and landed on my tattered white sneakers. When her eyes met mine once again, I politely smiled and nodded. She did not. Instead, she let out that stereotypical Asian granny mouth ‘tsk’ (you all know what I’m talking about don’t even). She shook her head and her eyebrows contracted. I felt a little uneasy and looked away awkwardly. I wish things would’ve ended there, but it didn’t. She opened her mouth to speak to me.

“你看起来像个学生。” (You look like a student.)

I thought she was probably just confused as to why I’m not in school right now (for the record, international school breaks differ from the ones in Chinese public schools).

“嗯我是个学生,但是我的学校现在放暑假了。”(Oh, yeah I am. But my school is on summer break right now.)

“但是你为什么不把*没听清楚*遮住啊?”(Yes but why aren’t your *inaudible* covered)?

My first instinct was to reach for my face. My fingertips traced the rim of my surgical mask.

“您能不能再说一遍?我没听清楚。” (Pardon me? I couldn’t quite hear you.)

“我是说你为什么光着腿?”(I mean, why are you showing your bare legs?)

“呃……我的腿……” (Oh… My legs…)

“哎呦喂,现在的年轻人啊……”(Aiyo, teenagers these days…)

I was completely taken aback. I looked down at my outfit. A black t-shirt with some jean shorts. Nothing out of the ordinary. Plus, it was the middle of summer, and 37 degrees celsius in Shenzhen is no joke. The granny shook her head slowly and pursed her lips, dissatisfaction written all over her face. I wanted to retaliate or say something in response. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know what to say. We stood in silence. After a bit more awkward standing around, the doors finally opened on the first floor. I walked out briskly, feeling angry, bewildered, and annoyed all at the same time. My outfit looked fine. I don’t get it.

In China, women are traditionally taught to be conservative about showing their bodies and to practice modesty. In some ancient dynasties, if a man so much as saw a part of a woman other than her face, neck, hands, or feet, he had to marry her (yes, very extreme I agree). Thankfully, society has progressed dramatically and these ancient traditions are no longer practiced, but these norms and ideologies still play a rather significant role in modern Chinese culture. For that granny in particular, I can guess that she lived most of her life under a completely different social setting. Back in the 1900s, women's clothing still emphasized modesty above all. It is rare that you will find any photo from that time period of a woman showing large parts of her bare skin. To this day, numerous Chinese individuals still hold the belief that women are only decent and respectable if their clothes are not too revealing. Nonetheless, as international fashion and culture began entering China, many began advocating for women’s freedom to dress without external judgement or bias.

Back in August of 2019, an article titled 祝中国女孩早日拥有穿衣自由 (“A Wish For Chinese Girls To Have The Freedom to Dress As Soon As Possible”) was published on a public WeChat account (WeChat is a popular social media app in China). In the article, the author discusses her experiences of being humiliated for wearing clothes such as bikinis, tight tank tops, and off-the-shoulder shirts. She said that people often scrutinized her outfits, and speculated negative aspects of her personality based on her style - slutty, unclean, asking for it. Furthermore, she includes various examples of trending search terms of female Chinese celebrities being criticized for wearing too-revealing outfits at airports. The author’s anger and frustration is evident. She calls on society to allow women the freedom to wear any clothes they enjoy without being humiliated or condemned by the public. She emphasizes that a girl’s choice of clothing is not a valid way to assess who she is internally. The author’s opinions were powerful and inspiring, resonating with many young girls who were exploring their fashion identities.

However this article, meant to raise awareness and empower women, faced more backlash and controversy than support. Many internet users were quick to bash her opinions, and some even took the time to write long paragraphs of rebuttals in the comment section.

Most people who disagreed with this idea of “freedom to dress” held similar beliefs as follows:

  1. Chinese girls already have the freedom to dress because no one is physically restricting them from wearing what they want (there is no official law or regulation)!

  2. Wearing revealing clothes is synonymous with public indecency!

  3. Double standards! What about men’s freedom to dress? This is sexist and exclusive!

Though these opposing voices do not seem entirely false at first glance, they do not address the core of the issue at all. Furthermore, it is unsurprising to me that most of the people writing these counter-arguments are individuals not directly affected by the problem. First of all, it is true that there are no regulations stopping women from wearing whatever they want. However, this freedom is stripped away from us by the public, who deems clothing to be a representation of a woman’s decency. Secondly, wearing revealing clothes does not equal public indecency. Of course no one is openly promoting for girls to run naked down public sidewalks. Showing one’s shoulders or simply a midriff does not come close to public indecency. Third, I will admit that some men are also restricted by masculine stereotypes that prohibit them from wearing certain clothing pieces. This is also a problem that warrants much attention. However, advocating for women should not and never will take away from the struggles of men. Diverting the attention and labelling any sort of advocacy as “exclusive” does not help the situation in the slightest. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that many Asian countries have patriarchal societal ideas, which places men’s value and status above that of women. As a result, women face higher probabilities of discrimination and scrutiny from when it comes to their freedom of expression.

Many people seem to overlook the core of the issue: judging others simply based on how they dress. The main message here is that girls and women should be able to express themselves through their clothes and not have to be criticized by society for their choices. Furthermore, clothing should be detached from a person’s morality or honor. It is essential to remember that clothing can represent a person’s creative identity or aesthetic standards, but it definitely does not define a person’s worth or respectability. We need to leave behind these outdated mindsets and empower women to dress the way they want.

In China, though the controversy of “the freedom to dress” is ongoing, I can see the country slowly progressing and transitioning. It is important that everyone feels empowered to dress the way they love. What you choose to wear should never be an excuse for shameful criticism. Remember that the type, length, or design of the fabric on your body has nothing to do with anybody but you.

- Eva Zhong


Cover photo source: Nancy Duong


bottom of page