New Year But Clothes Not New

This Lunar New Year, it’s not wearing what we’ve worn before; it’s not bothering at all

By Emma Ng

“新年不穿新衣,” I heard a young, Hayley Woo (胡佳嬑)-looking woman telling her friend that she won’t be wearing anything new this Chinese New Year. Not really a surprising affirmation since, for many of us, it’s a new year unlike any we’ve known thus far. According to what I’ve heard from retail professionals, people aren’t purchasing as much clothes as before. Many aren’t buying at all. This year, with the number of visitors to each household limited, some have opted out of bainian (拜年 or pay a new year call) altogether. Not in the mood, I repeatedly hear people say, as if disinclined to meeting a suitor. If visiting one’s relatives is given a miss, why bother with new clothes at all? The wearing of everything new is really for the purpose of showing to those who are particular about such things. Are new clothes even relevant when so many have opted out of the social obligations expected of the new year festivities, a term that now sounds disproportionately convivial?

Still, I am curious to see what those who happily or reluctantly chose to go bainian would wear, or if a CNY trend could be discerned, as in past, old-normal years. I looked out of the window of my flat into the car park below to see what visitors, emerging from neutral-coloured vehicles, wore, and was (initially) surprised that many were really casually dressed, as if going to the nearby food court for a meal. Or, to walk the Pomeranian. This didn’t appear like a New Year’s Day, just any day. I looked at the visitors (and I knew they were because at least one person in the groups was carrying the small, gaily-designed paper bag in which mandarin oranges were held)—it was disconcerting to know that they were going to be offering and receiving hongbaos in such a sloppy manner of dress. I saw T-shirts after T-shirts, many un-ironed, on both the young and the old. Hongbao giving or accepting is a time-honoured tradition, and with all such festive habits, one does not discharge one’s duties or obligations looking sartorially slack. I was brought up to believe that when you dress smartly, you not only accord yourself respect, but also those you are extending new year wishes to.

For the rest of chuyi (初一, the first day of the new year), whenever I looked down at the car park, which was expectedly teeming, I saw visitors dressed similarly. At first I did not make out the common factor, until one of my nephews came with my cousins to visit. At the door, the usual auspicious new year greetings somehow escaped me. What caught me was the striking outfit on my niece: ratty shorts, above which was an oversized T-shirt that had spent too much time in the washing machine. On her feet was a pair of slippers—slides, to be more specific—that had clearly benefited from the more recent footwear-maintenance advice, “the more beaten-up, the better”. Was this some CNY cool I knew not of? I thought initially that this was my niece’s way of protesting against following her parents to our flat. When it was my time to visit relatives, I saw for myself that the shorts and T-shirt combo was truly the choice of this new year.

The look was deliberately assembled to make her look pant-less

They’re everywhere, and on everyone. The second I encountered was just minutes after leaving my flat. It was in the lift. When the door opened, I detected the smell of some shampoo. Inside, the unnaturally sweet scent could clearly be traced to a twentysomething woman, who pulled up her mask-as-neck-brace over her nose only when she saw me. She was in a black over-sized T-shirt that was chosen to end just above her knee. The look was deliberately assembled to make her look pant-less. On her shoulders was a black Chanel 19 bag; on her feet, slides with pong-pongs. As I walked towards the MRT station, it quickly became clear to me that what I saw just moments earlier was truly the CNY style of this year. There were more oversized tees that I could count. And since what was worn from the waist down couldn’t be seen, I could only conclude that many wanted whoever they visited to think they deserved a larger hongpao this year because they couldn’t afford bottoms, possibly not even underpants.

The platform of the train station was abuzz with an energy that felt like that emanating from the throng waiting to enter a tourist attraction. There were families with young-adult children, who were attired as described above, which did not seem to bother the parents. I had, at first, thought that it was mostly women who dressed this casually. Inside the train, seated opposite me was a young chap. He was in a white Stussy T-shirt, a pair of striped red/maroon shorts that looked like boxers, and black Nike slides. It could be said he was only out for an errant. But no, the tell-tale sign of that fancy paper bag for mandarin oranges told me with some certainty that he had gone or was going to bainian. It appears clearer this year, when WFH persists, that there’s no longer a difference between what one dons in one’s own living room and what is worn in a very public space of an MRT car, even during CNY celebrations. For the rest of my journey, I continue to see the same pairing of tees and shorts and slides. There were no variations. Colours were almost always black or anything dark. They were as auspicious as packs of beans in a kitchen cupboard.

To set themselves apart, many women—therefore, not quite individually—carried a luxury bag. The one I kept seeing was the Louis Vuitton Monogram Multi Pochette Accessoires, a triumvirate of a bag that would almost always be teamed with an oversized tee, as if its relative smallness could be counterpoint to the massiveness of the typically long, baggy top. The LV comprises three parts: the main pouchette, a mini, and a coin purse that dangles from a catch, affixed to the wide strap. This was often carried with a swagger that, in another era, would be considered actsy, but presently was hipster-attractive, fashionista-affirmative, or boyfriend bait. But that monogrammed bag alone, did not save the overall look from blandness and the near-generic. Everyday is not New Year’s day. What name do I give to this festive letdown? CNY fashion 2021’s lull year?

Illustration: Just So