Fighting Over Fashion in Xinjiang

For now the trends in western China are all for fun, but that could be changing

By / September 2013

Guzal is a goth. At least if she lived in London she would be. The studded-dog-collar-necklaced, lace-up-platform-wedged, black patent-leather-booted teenager totters through downtown Urumqi in her skin-tight mini-skirt and leather leggings, hand in hand with mum. She is oblivious to the angry subculture and troubled identities to which her clothing would normally lend its allegiance in the West. But here in Xinjiang, in the western-most part of China, a region more aligned with Islamic Central Asia than Beijing, she is just another Muslim teenager experimenting with a new look. Here in a part of the world where youth subculture has yet to make its mark, fashion is largely up for grabs. Most young people wear what they like, not for anything their clothes might stand for.

The 14-year-old Guzal is just one of tens of thousands of teenagers experimenting with a dazzling array of styles and outfits that have hit the markets of this remote desert province since Mao suits and drab, poor quality cottons went out of vogue 20 years ago. Whilst a significant majority of girls are throwing off their own Uyghur cultural heritage of rainbow-colored silk one-size-fits-all shifts in favor of the fashions of Saudi and Dubai, others are embracing the trends they see broadcasted on the net and western soap operas. With no collective subculture to worry about “Hoodies,” “Punks,” and “Neo-classical” rub shoulders in the crowded downtown markets with “Glam-rock,” “New Romantic,” “Emo,” and “Disco.”

Tight leather micro-minis and stilettos vie with balloon pants, subversive “Chinglish” T-shirts, and flouncy blouses. The nouveau-Muslim twenty-somethings are experimenting with beehives of silk and lace that are piled high in ever-increasing layers on top of eyes-only veils. Their contemporaries wear silver-sequined tops that cringingly proclaim slogans, such as “F-YOU” and “ONE-STOP LOVE,” on alarmingly décolleté cleavages.

A new hairdresser opened a year ago in our neighborhood, not far from the mosque. Until then, the predominantly male subculture had worn, for the most part, half-mast trousers and long beards that signify piety and strict adherence to Islamic values. Suddenly our housing estate was dotted with Mohican-styled, razor-shaved, and multi-colored hair-dyed youths. The intention wasn’t to make a counter-cultural statement, and the mosque wasn’t taking any offense either.

My Western-attuned eyes could only see an aggressive challenge to the status quo and a wave of disenchanted punks emerging to confront the mullahs. But I’d got it all wrong. These were simply young guys having fun—no challenge was intended. A year later, they are still experimenting. There’s now a new department store for girls too, a specialty being wedding fashions. Late into the evening punks and princesses sit demurely together listening to their respective stylists, planning their nights out and forthcoming big days neither conscious that they represent anything other than youthful exuberance.

But just as in the West, where fashion is concerned, protest and dissent seem never far away. Here too, as if in a parallel universe, a fiery fashion battle is silently being waged. Rows of t-shirts appeared suddenly this year along the backstreets emblazoned with symbols of the Uyghur national identity. Disenchanted youths started sporting t-shirts emblazoned with crescent moon and single star in teal blue (the color of the banned East Turkistan flag) and the word “Turky.”

The spelling mistake is intended, signifying allegiance to an endangered homeland, which they see as being engulfed by an influx of Chinese. This latest bold—and some would say reckless—fashion statement has lead to increased surveillance in already tense and violent times. Young guys are now being pulled over and questioned about their intentions. More muted expressions of the Uyghur identity have since flooded the markets with nationalist patterns and the letters “UYGHUR” blazoned in Arabic script, worn with pride by young Uyghur guys.

Guzal, the goth girl, has a 19-year-old sister. She takes forever to wind several lengths of textured silk as high as she can around her head. Her face is white-powdered. Her eyes are heavily lined with kohl. She has five ear studs in each lobe. There are no rules yet as to how tight her skirt could be or how short, but her thick black tights ensure that modesty is preserved. Her head, the most important part of her body after all, is covered and that is all that matters anyway. After squeezing her layers into the latest pencil heels, she is ready.

She’s waiting for Guzal to return to chaperone her first date. She’s not allowed out after dark or alone, but she and her boyfriend are planning a trip to the local ice-cream parlor and Guzal’s presence makes it possible. This is about as daring as she can get, that is until the families agree on a date for their marriage. Her boyfriend turns up in a nylon shirt and a mock Italian suit with white socks and shiny shoes. Guzal, in her leather mini, completes the trio.

Fashion might indicate to the casual observer a world that appears to be changing, but it will take more than a few leather minis, pencil heels, and beehive hairstyles for the change to be anything more than skin deep. At least for the time being.


Ruth Ingram is a writer living in China. She has also written for The Guardian.