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Kingdom Of Lingerie

What the Chinese bra market reveals about cultural trends


When Britpop band Suede—arguably the rst major Western rock band to perform in China—played their legendary 2003 gig in the capital, a piece of lingerie was thrown onstage, according to Tian Yuan, who was the lead singer for Hopscotch (the now defunct band that supported Suede at the gig).

An unremarkable occurrence at many concerts, perhaps, but unheard of in China at the time and still incredibly rare today. Other witnesses report that the precise lingerie thrown may not have been your ordinary cup bra, but a dudou (肚兜), China’s own unique answer to sexy undergarments—though it is difficult to prove the exact nature of the piece of 13 years later.

Copyright 2006 Phoebe Cheong, all rights reserved

A modern dudou from Pillowbook’s L’Amant Collection

Chinese feminists may not have burned bras in defiance of the patriarchy as their 1960s American counterparts did, but China was a very different place at that time. It would, however, be a lazy generalization to imply that the role of Chinese lingerie has remained out of sight entirely in Chinese society, buried beneath layers of clothing and conservatism. The many sex shops that line the streets of Beijing tell a different story and so too do the Chinese companies making massive pro ts from lingerie being sold not just in China, but also in the developed West and as far away as stallholders in dusty Egyptian towns. While the market in China is set in certain ways, it is the exceptions that make it that much more interesting.


Despite its status as a homegrown item of lingerie, the dudou, or literally “belly cover” is a relatively rare garment in modern Chinese society, having long been jettisoned in favor of certain imported aspects of Western lingerie culture—it has, however, lived on as a form of backless top that sometimes contradicts the original designs by exposing the belly.

But evolution is in the very fabric of the garment, having changed multiple times over its very long history. A China Daily report put the origins of the dudou at the Qin Dynasty (221 BCE – 206 BCE), though arguably the report was using the interpretation that gave it the longest possible history, as multiple designs proliferated in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), and it didn’t really become what is generally considered the modern belly cover dudou until the Qing Dynasty (1616 – 1911), when it took the form of the diamond with straps for the neck and back.

Chen Lihua, a Beijing-based clothing designer, told the China Daily that “Young women often wore brightly-colored brocades of red, pink or blue, as well as embroidered flowers, butterflies or mandarin ducks, which symbolize love, on the front of dudou.” He also said that “Many ancient folk designs could be found on a dudou, including peonies, lotuses, cyprinoids, magpies and mythical creatures. The themes were mainly about keeping good fortune and warding off disaster.”

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.

Model Sui He walks the runway during the 2011 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show at the Lexington Avenue Armory on November 9, 2011 in New York City. 2011 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show - Runway Lexington Avenue Armory New York, NY United States November 9, 2011 Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage.com To license this image (132010932), contact WireImage.com

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.

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