By Sara Sterling
Across the Northern hemisphere flowers are blooming, days are warmer and birds are singing. In China, where I live, there is another highly visible indicator of the season: couples dressed in their wedding day finest are to be seen posing in the most picturesque spots around the country, with a photographer in tow.
Weddings in China have always been opulent – with elaborate, detailed embroidered dresses and a prolonged series of ritual events – but in recent decades, as the country positions itself as a global leader and incomes increase, they have become even more so. Increasing Chinese popular awareness of global wedding dress and cultural trends have added to this opulence, with ever-increasing mix between Western and local traditions.
Weddings are now so central to Chinese culture that the small district of Tiger Hill in Suzhou has become the centre of the wedding dress industry, reportedly producing up to 80% of the world’s wedding dresses. This surge in in the industry has been fed by a new generation of Chinese brides and grooms that have become not only brand-conscious but brand-reliant.
In a time in which sustainability has become a key goal for the global fashion industry, this trend is a worry. Here, issues in fast fashion seen all over the world, from wastefulness in production to cheaply produced goods made with poor quality synthetic fabrics, are magnified. And the wedding dress is an apt symbol for the excesses of the industry – usually a phenomenally expensive item, only ever worn once.
But despite the increasing rampant consumerism seen in Chinese wedding dresses, China does offer some kernels of hope for a world – and an industry – increasingly concerned by sustainability.
The city of Suzhou has for centuries been known throughout China as the city of silk and embroidery. But as the modern wedding culture of today’s China evolved, Tiger Hill Bridal Market area has developed: first as a centre for wedding photography studios, a place of studios and equipment, and then as a centre of wedding dress production and distribution. Situated just a few hundred metres from one of Suzhou’s famous tourist destinations, Tiger Hill, (Hu Qiu in Chinese) has morphed into a treasure trove of lace, taffeta and beads.
Shops in Tiger Hill offer every kind of imaginable incarnation of what a wedding dress could be, from a Han-Dynasty fantasy garment to a red or white princess-style gown to replicas of dresses worn by famous royal brides. While many shops cater to private customers, wholesalers who distribute the dresses via digital platforms also represent a large section of the area’s clientele.
The district, like many in China, has undergone rapid transformation since the turn of the new millennium, fuelled by an increasing number of consumers with a growing disposable income and associated wedding budget. Tiger Hill Wedding Market is now the place to buy your wedding dress in China as well as around the world online. Brides-to-be can source dresses at all price ranges, from ¥100 to ¥100,000 (approximately £9 to £9,000).
But a key difference between Suzhou and other wedding dress markets is the prevalence of a rental culture, similar to the Western practice of suit and tuxedo rental for grooms and groomsmen.
This is a hangover from the pre-Deng Xiaoping Open era before the late 1970s, in which extravagant consumption practices were simply not available. And with a minimum of three dresses involved in the Chinese wedding day, it is no small wonder that renting remains well-established.
In the UK and other Western countries, it is becoming increasingly popular for brides to wear two versions of a bridal dress on the wedding day, with one reserved for the formal ceremony itself and the other for the evening reception, designed with comfort and ability to dance in mind.
But in China, brides wear up to five dresses. While two or possibly three dresses may have been standard in previous decades, this number has increased in recent years. The ideal bride in China is multi-dimensional, with dresses that represent not only different sections of the wedding day schedule, but different levels of the self. From a tightly fitted and hand-embroidered qi pao, to a voluminous white or cream-coloured dress reminiscent of the days of Marie Antoinette, brides aim to show themselves in different aspects throughout the day.
There is one for the morning, when the bride is picked up by her groom after a series of verbal challenges and games. There is one for the walk into the banquet hall and arrival and one for the ceremony. Then another for the series of toasts as the bride and groom make their way around to the dozens of tables of well-wishers and red packet-givers, and perhaps even one more dress for the final hours of the evening.
This might sound over the top and rather wasteful. And indeed, increasing consumer demand for a larger number of dresses for each significant event of the wedding day has placed pressure on the wedding dress industry to produce a larger volume of dresses to meet these requests.
But it doesn’t have to be, especially if China doesn’t lose the tradition of renting these dresses. And with the price of rental dresses, or a rental dress package, costing up to tens of thousands of yuan, dress rental is still commonplace amongst Chinese brides, due to both economic necessity as well as the nature of the ceremony, with its multiple dress changes.
Despite this, the practice of owning one’s own wedding dresses – rather than renting – has grown in the last few decades. The new generation of Chinese brides and grooms increasingly look to demonstrate their cultural capital and social status via their wedding get-ups.
So now more than ever single use wedding dress presents a challenge to the wedding industry both in China and around the world: a prompt for us to consider an alternative future for wedding dresses. Re-vamping a rental culture would be one way of doing this. Another might be reconsidering the designs of wedding dresses. One of my colleagues has designed a dress made from fabric that dissolves when you wash it. Or we might emphasise dresses that can be re-purposed for other occasions. These are just two design ideas that may be the way forward for sustainably-minded brides.