A red Mandarin dress is instantly a Chinese image. They evoke to me slender Chinese women drawing the attention of all around them in the brilliant brocaded dress. Form fitting they have traditionally been individually made for the woman wearing the dress.
In the book Xiaolong outlines how Mandarin dresses of the early 1960’s usually had long sleeves and modest slits up the legs. They have a sensual attraction.
Current Mandarin dresses are more overtly sexual. They tend to have short sleeves or be sleeveless with no backs and side slits as high as the thigh. Online, almost all of the images I could find were of the current style.
Mandarin dresses were worn after the Communist takeover in 1949. It was not until the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was launched in 1966 that they disappeared for over a generation.
Comrade Yu’s wife, Peiqin, says of that time:
“In our middle school days, such a garment was out of the question, decadent and bourgeois and whatnot.”
It is harder to think of a greater fashion contrast from beautiful richly coloured Mandarin dresses than the thick drab unisex Mao suits that were worn by the Chinese people of the Cultural Revolution.
When China started liberalizing its economy and money began flowing through the nation the Mandarin dress made its return.
The placement of the women in red mandarin dresses provokes speculation among reporters in the book:
“One deemed it a political case, a protest against the reversal of values in socialist China for the mandarin dress, once condemned as a sign of capitalistic decadence, had become popular again.”
What puzzles the investigators is that the red mandarin dresses in which the young women were found were 1960’s conservative dresses. Why was the killer using traditional dresses? What could be so important to the killer that he places his victims, without underclothes, in ripped red Mandarin dresses with bosom buttons undone? The red Mandarin dresses have a symbolism to the killer that, if Chief Inspector Chen, can but decipher will allow him to find the serial killer.
The red Mandarin dresses draw an intense public interest to the murders that would never have been the same had the victims been dumped by the killer wearing Mao suits.
The book uses the red Mandarin dress as a powerful effective image – politically, culturally, sexually – that is at the heart of the mystery. When I see a red mandarin dress in the future I will think of Xiaolong’s book.
****For readers interested in the role of clothes in books I recommend the Clothes in Books Blog (http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.ca/) where Moira has fascinating posts.