The Summit May Have Been Historic, But Kim Jong Un's Mao Suit Was Business as Usual

Kevin Lim/The Strait Times/Handout/Getty Images
Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump

He stuck with the uniform favorite of communist leaders and Bond villains — a look from the past, not the future.

The substance of today's summit in Singapore may have been a historic first step toward modernity and openness for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his people, but when it came to appearances, it was dictator style as usual.

Although Kim is neither Chinese nor Maoist, he chose to wear his customary Mao-style suit (and a fairly ill-fitting one at that) in the glare of the international spotlight.

What did it mean? Well, some had speculated that he might wear a Western-style suit, like he made headlines for doing in January, as a sort of sartorial olive branch. But instead, he stuck with the uniform favorite of communist leaders and Bond villains — a look from the past, not the future.

Sun Yat-sen introduced the tunic and loose pants suit shortly after founding the Republic of China in 1912. The style became known as a Mao suit during the communist revolution in the 1940s, when party leader Mao Zedong and others began wearing standardized uniforms that indicated no difference in class, rank or sex.

Soon, fashion was quashed in China, and clothing became standardized, with Western-style suits disappearing completely and the shapeless worker’s jacket with stand-up collar becoming the dominant dress for men and women from the 1950s to the ‘70s. 

Over the years, the Mao suit found favor with communist leaders Josef Stalin and Fidel Castro, and some political radicals in the West, too. Jane Fonda wore a Yves Saint Laurent take on the humble suit to the 1972 Oscars to protest the Vietnam War and support the women’s liberation movement. 

After Mao’s death in 1976, the suit’s popularity began to dwindle. But it has still influenced Western fashion. "China: Through the Looking Glass," a recent exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, included several high-fashion versions of the suit designed by Vivienne Tam, John Galliano and others. The jacket is the “last sartorial symbol of China,” curator Andrew Bolton told The Washington Post. “Subsequently, no other item of clothing screams China to the West.”

Today, the style screams a kind of “soft power,” as the BBC has called it. James Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld wears a khaki jacket with a Chinese collar that resembles a Mao suit, and Franz Oberhauser (played by Christoph Waltz) wears something similar in 2015's Spectre.

In North Korea, Kim, his father and grandfather have all donned the same worker's style suit as Mao. By choosing to wear it Tuesday in Singapore, instead of matching Trump's Western-style suit, Kim may have been communicating to the people at home in North Korea more than the people watching him step out onto the international stage.

The message? Even though I'm sitting down to talk about improving relations with the outside world, I'm still the socialist leader of your world.