exploring chinese gender roles with menswear brand danshan
DANSHAN are a newly launched menswear brand whose work blur the boundaries of masculinity and femininity in a country known for its hard coded gender rules.
We have all heard of the archaic gender preferences that exist in China, a country that introduced a hazy one-child policy in 1979, a country where troves of baby girls are up for adoption and now a country where there is a desperately lonely part of the population made up of single men. This phenomenal and unavoidable stress makes up such a prominent part of the lives of China's population that these concepts have intertwined themselves into countless problematic ways.
DANSHAN is an emerging menswear brand made up of a woman, Dan, from China and a man, Shan, from Hong Kong. After graduating from the womenswear design course at Central Saint Martins in 2012, the pair worked in fashion before deciding to start their own labels and focus on their own observations of the way gender dynamics are changing and how this relates to fashion. Dan's experiences of the gender dynamic were especially surreal as her father decided to bring her up as a boy, wearing boys clothes, playing boys sports and cutting her hair at a barbers shop until she started puberty. "Gender is everything in China," Dan explains, when we met. "It is the foundation of the society, forms the boundaries of social rules and expectation of an individual."
However, the pair's experiences of gender delve into deeper abnormalities over how the gender-obsessed system has morphed their own identities. When asking Dan what she thought 'normal' gender was in China she explained that she didn't know what normal was. "Being brought up as a boy, it meant I had to put a lot of effort in to win relatives' approval; I was embarrassed to show my legs because it was full of scars from the boyish sports that I was encouraged to play that I didn't even like. I was paranoid when one of the only two dresses I had before I turned 12 was cut open, leading to a bullying accusation against a teacher. I was confused and didn't know how to get on with girls as all my best friends were boys. The hardest thing was when I had to learn how to make friends with girls as a teen, I was bullied and avoided because of what they thought my sexuality was."
"It wasn't easy for me, because I had to be someone I wasn't. Though fortunately I now understand how hard it is to be a boy. The traditional values and boundaries of masculinity don't allow you to be openly emotional and vulnerable, which I believe is the most beautiful aspect of humanity."
So, for their debut collection the designers wanted to dedicate their clothes to creating and celebrating a form of masculinity that is often neglected and rarely celebrated; "A man who is vulnerable, sentimental and expressive," Shan explains, which shows through their clothing. "I believe the physicality of a garment, how it hangs on the body and feels against the skin, has a massive impact on the mentality of the wearer. Through keeping an open mind towards fashion without considering its traditional gender boundaries, we can create sensations and feelings we have never experienced before," he continues.
The collection sees models draped in linens, satins and cottons in oversized dressing gowns, billowing nightshirts and night slips evoking a sensitivity that is rarely applauded in modern masculinity. "Gender norms for women have moved on a lot, but men are still very much bound to fulfil their more traditional roles, and if they don't there is still a huge pressure, they're judged and labelled as losers if they fail."
It can be easy to only focus only on how we emancipate women, because gender roles have been so catastrophically unbalanced and things still need to develop so much, but it can also be easy to forget that when so much needs to be done to masculinity before femininity can fully flourish. Which is exactly what these designers are focussing their work towards, a new masculinity where men will be celebrated for being sensitive, uncompetitive and calm.
DANSHAN are staging a presentation of their collection on the 29th of June at Ditto London.
Text Reba Maybury