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, posing in the most picturesque spots around the country, a photographer in tow.
Weddings in China have always been opulent – with elaborate, detailed embroidered dresses and a prolonged series of rituals. But in recent decades, as the country positions itself as a global leader and incomes increase, they have become even more so. Increasing awareness of global wedding cultural trends has added to this opulence, with an ever-increasing mix between Western and local traditions.
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 the industry has been fed by a new generation of Chinese brides and grooms that have become not only brand-conscious but brand-reliant.
As sustainability becomes a key goal for the global fashion industry across the world, this trend, here, is a worry. Issues due to fast fashion seen all over the world – from wastefulness in production to cheaply produced goods made with poor quality synthetic fabrics – are magnified, in China. The wedding dress, itself, 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 both the world and the industry.
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 evolves, Tiger Hill Bridal Market area has developed: first as a centre for wedding photography studios, and then as a centre for 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 Han-Dynasty fantasy garments to red or white princess-style gowns or 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 business.
The district, like many in China, has undergone rapid transformation since the turn of the millennium, fuelled by an increasing number of consumers with growing incomes and wedding budgets. 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 renminbi to 100,000 renminbi (approximately Rs 1,000 to Rs 10 lakh).
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 when extravagant consumption practices were simply unavailable. And with a minimum of three dresses involved in the Chinese wedding day, it is no 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 the bridal dress on their wedding day. One dress is 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 one for the ceremony. Another dress is procured for toasts as the bride and groom make their way around the tables of well-wishers and red packet-givers, and yet another one for the final hours of the evening.
This might sound over the top and rather wasteful, and indeed, has placed pressure on the wedding dress industry to produce a larger volume of dresses to meet demand.
But it doesn’t have to be, especially if China doesn’t lose the tradition of renting dresses. Further, with the price of dresses, or dress packages, 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.
A sustainability challenge
Despite this, the practice of owning one’s own wedding dresses – rather than renting – has grown in the last few decades. A 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 dresses present 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, creating designs that can be re-purposed for other occasions. One of my colleagues, for example, has designed a dress made from fabric that dissolves when you wash it. These are just two design ideas that may be the way forward for sustainability-minded brides.
Sara Sterling is a lecturer in Industrial Design, at the Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.