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Hidden Hong Kong: Fashion trends through the decades

By Beverly Ngai 30 December 2020

Header image courtesy of 舊日街景,舊日足跡-舊日香港街景研究室 (via Facebook)

Like a mirror reflecting society’s cultural and socio-economic changes, fashion trends offer raw glimpses into history at a specific time and place. In the past century, Hong Kong has drastically transformed itself from a refugee haven to a textile manufacturing hub to the global financial centre it is today; and sure enough, its ever-evolving apparel has been crucial visual markers of it all. Let’s take a trip to the past and rediscover some of the most defining fashion trends in Hong Kong over the decades. Who knows—they might just make a triumphant comeback in the next fashion cycle!

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Photo: @missuya.clothing (Instagram)

1950s: The olden days of traditional cheongsam

When Hong Kong was experiencing one of its darkest periods in contemporary history during the Second World War, dressing stylishly wasn’t really at the top of the average person’s priority list. It was only after the era of Japanese occupation and Hong Kong emerged from its post-war doldrums in the 1950s that fashion began to flourish.

Amidst the population boom and burgeoning manufacturing industry in the 1950s, one garment that was all the rage for women’s everyday wear was traditional Chinese “cheongsam.” First popularised in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, this neck-high, form-hugging long dress became a local hit after the influx of Shanghainese tailors who fled to Hong Kong from mainland China in the 1950s. Characterised by streamlined silhouettes, vibrant colours, and floral embroidery prints, “cheongsam” was beloved for its sense of elegance and refinement that aptly embodies traditional Chinese notions of feminine beauty.

Photo: 舊日街景,舊日足跡-舊日香港街景研究室 (via Facebook)

1960s: Western influences take over

Cheongsams met their decline when Western influences swept over the city in the 1960s, alongside rapid industrialisation and a steady rise in living standard. Drawing inspiration from classic Hollywood stars and Western music artists, traditional Chinese attire were eschewed in favour of mini-skirts and A-line dresses—though generally, necklines were kept modest (think mandarin collars and vintage high-necks). Rock the look with kitten heels and a voluminous beehive hairdo and you would have been the trendiest gal in town. Men adopted Western styles too, replacing long, loose-fitting shirts with their more form-fitting counterparts and donning colourful Hawaiian shirts for casual occasions.

Photo: sina.com.cn

1970s: The rise of local fashion

Many know the 1970s as a period when Hong Kong’s homegrown film and music pop culture started to take off, but did you know this decade also marked the onset of local fashion? From the Hong Kong Trade and Development Council’s holding its first-ever fashion festival in 1970 to Joyce Ma—one of Asia’s pioneering fashionistas—founding the well-acclaimed local fashion retailer Joyce Boutique in 1971, there’s no doubt that Hongkongers were growing increasingly fashion-focused and trend-oriented. Women at the time were all about high-platform shoes and cinched-waist dresses, while stylish men could not complete their wardrobe without a pair of bell-bottom pants. And of course, the 1970s practically go hand-in-hand with denim—a universally flattering fabric that would stay in style for the decades to come.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

1980s: Local garment industry at its height

Just as pop icons Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui, and Priscilla Chan made their indelible mark on history during this golden epoch of local showbiz, so did their bold and boisterous styles. Who could forget Mui’s exaggerated shoulder pads and fierce power suits, or King of Canto pop’s edgy biker jackets? Loud, vivid colours presented in an eclectic mix of silhouettes and fabrics dominated the fashion scene in the 1980s, reflecting the climate of high confidence and optimism driven by unprecedented economic prosperity. The early part of the decade was also when Hong Kong was at the peak at its manufacturing prowess, naturally prompting people to be more daring and experimental with their attire.

In terms of causal get-ups, bomber jackets, balloon Capri trousers, and baggy jeans became fashion staples among men and women alike. And it goes without saying that oversized is a must—to the point of nearly dropping off your shoulders or requiring a chunky belt.

1990s: Mashup of diverse styles

The 1990s saw Hong Kong evolve into an increasingly global city. Keeping apace with such transformation, the landscape of fashion splintered into diverse manners of styles and fits, integrating influences from all corners of the world. In addition to a number of trends borrowed from previous decades that remained coveted pieces, —including acid-washed denim and button-up shirts—there was also an emergence of close-fitted tops, strappy overalls, athleisure wear, and more. Young men, in particular, had an affinity towards baseball jackets and windbreakers, which exuded a playful and sporty charm, while women were often seen wearing plain collared blouses tucked into high-waisted pants or sleeveless dresses with gingham patterns.

Photo: 威哥會館 (via Facebook)
Photo: discuss.com.hk

2000s: Age of fun and bold leisurewear

You can’t really speak of 2000s fashion without mentioning low-rise jeans, cargo pants, and brightly-coloured tank tops. Sported by local trendsetting celebrities of the generation like Sammi Cheng, Joey Yung, and Cantopop duo Twins, sexier cuts and saturated colour palettes became in vogue as Hong Kong entered the new millennium. Tops were more body-hugging and hemmed to a shorter length; while loose-fitting trousers (especially ones that came with military touches) were highly sought-after, though they were gradually abandoned when skinny jeans were introduced into mainstream fashion in the latter part of the decade.

Coinciding with this era was the time when the term “MK culture” (Mong Kok culture) was brought to the forefront of local consciousness, frequently tossed around in reference to teenagers and youths who idled away their time wandering the streets of Mong Kok. Despite the negative connotations attached to this subculture, one cannot deny that the the ”MK” look was iconic—typified by sleeveless shirts, black garments, chunky necklaces and accessories, converse sneakers, as well as dyed hair and long bangs.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Photo: @maou_zaza (via Instagram)

2010s: Moving towards minimalist fashion

The 2010s is merely a year removed from us, but local fashion has gone through countless seasons in the course of the past decade (largely thanks to the dawn of Instagram). High-waisted skinny jeans and jeggings reigned supreme in the early years, as did flannels and layered shirts and tees. Oh, and no one could forget about the ubiquitous denim shorts and skirts that were in every girl’s closet and worn all throughout the year. Yes, even during winter—they were simply supplemented with tights or leggings for warmth!

By the mid-2010s, local fashion became more toned-down, with earthy and muted colours flooding our social media feeds. Working in tandem with this minimalist style of dressing is another major influence that cannot be ignored—the Korean wave. It's no secret that Korean culture has swept over Hong Kong like a tidal wave in recent years, and its fashion is no exception. From oversized sweaters with minimalist designs to baseball hats and white sneakers, it’s evident that Hong Kong’s streetwear scene in the 2010s took its fair share of inspiration from its South Korean counterpart, and some of has even carried over to the present day.

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Beverly Ngai

Junior editor

A wanderer, chronic overthinker, and baking enthusiast, Beverly spent much of her childhood in the United States before moving to Hong Kong at age 11 and making the sparkling city her home. In her natural habitat, she can be found baking up a storm in her kitchen, journalling at a café, or scrolling through OpenRice deciding on her next meal.

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