Zheng Zhenze, a professor at the Chinese Folklore Society, points out that its modern evolution into something akin to a halter top would have been beyond the pale for those who had worn it in the Qing Dynasty, and been considered “loose women” because it was strictly an underwear item in a conservative era. It would certainly have turned heads at the time, but likely brought about unpleasant repercussions.
The dudou as a lingerie item still has its contemporary devotees. Although niche lingerie designer Irene Lu is not from China herself, when she encountered the dudou she developed an affection for it. “Personally, I think it’s a beautiful cut,” she told TWOC, indicating that it makes a nice antidote to the “euro-centric” market in China.
Her lingerie company, Pillowbook, frequently uses the dudou as a central design in a deliberate move to differentiate itself from the heavily- padded, less comfortable alternatives that are commonplace throughout China. Indeed, it is the homogeneity of the lingerie market—with Chinese characteristics of course—that drove Lu to start her own company.
The lingerie market in China is fairly evenly divided between Chinese and Western-owned brands and it is incredibly fragmented, with leading brands occupying four percent of the market at most, according to some frequently-cited estimates from market analysts. But these small pieces can still represent a massive amount of revenue—enough for one of the leading players, Aimer, to invest in a gargantuan factory with fancy architecture near the capital and set up research arrangements with a tertiary education facility.
In Guangdong Province, long China’s manufacturing hub, the town of Gurao relies upon bra manufacturing. A recent The Economist pro le indicated that underwear made up 80 percent of its industrial output, with 350 million bras produced annually as one part of that. As the economy slows down, times are looking grim for these underwear producers clustered around Guangdong, with many factories closing shop.
Workers create padded lingerie at a factory in Guangdong Province
Citing market research company Frost and Sullivan, The Economist report stated that China makes 60 percent of the world’s bras, producing 2.9 billion in 2014. That number would be roughly enough to provide every single adult woman in the world a bra.
But it’s important to differentiate between various sections of the market—the purchases of standard bras and underwear for comfort represent very different market trends to racy lingerie items. It is interesting to note that China’s ongoing corruption crackdown hit many luxury products hard—expensive baijiu liquor saw massive declines, premium cigarette brands suffered and so too did ashy car sales. But racy lingerie sales skyrocketed, likely in large part due to their very nature; while expensive liquor and cigarettes were bought to be passed around at banquets and potentially seen by graft investigators, lingerie was only seen in the bedroom.
Thus, racy undergarments have been seeing solid sales. Aimer, for example, has been known to target well-heeled consumers in malls, using displays complete with customer support via app, and activities like “guess your partner’s bra size.” These sizes are believed to have increased in recent decades, with most commentators attributing this to coming-of-age of women raised in a healthier economy.
Chinese supermodel He Sui on the catwalk at the 2011 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show
“Kingdom Of Lingerie” is a story from our newest issue, “Romance”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.