Understanding China’s Hot, New Frigid Fashion
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2016-03-31 12:03:21

I was initially confused when I received a text message from a Chinese friend suggesting that I try on a “frigid style” work outfit. The phrase glared at me from my screen, making assumptions about me and my dress habits. I blushed. But it turned out there was no need for me to feel self-conscious. Frigid style is the name that China's hippest fashion ambassadors have given to a new trend popularized by designers such as Céline, Jil Sander, and Muji. It features simple, clean-cut designs and solid colors.

Frigid style is a new twist on “normcore,” a fashion trend originating in New York City that features unassuming unisex clothing. Normcore is a look that makes its wearers appear less distinctive. This trend didn’t carry any negative connotations in New York, but when it first came to China, people who dressed in normcore were viewed as being aloof and frigid. The Mandarin phrase for “frigidity” is xing leng dan, which literally translates to “sexual aloofness,” which in turn contributed to an exaggerated and humorous public perception. Nonetheless, the evolution and increasing popularity of frigid style in China are indications of how a global trend toward unisex fashion has adapted to the Chinese market to reflect the tastes of its consumers.

The birth of the name “frigid style,” contrary to what many might think, is not the result of marketing. Rather, it was coined to attract traffic to an article published online. Chinese journalist Xu Shiyu first used this phrase in August 2015 in her heavily trafficked China Business Weekly article. She wrote of the then-new fashion trend, “It looks like frigidity, but it is not really physical frigidity, and many products are designed with this concept in mind.” People who dress in this style “mostly wear basic colors, neutral and unisex designs, and loose, solid-color shirts, pants, and coats,” she explained in the article. “They have a low tolerance for prints, and the furthest they go is stripes.”

Chinese consumers embrace frigid style because they identify with the intellectual and independent qualities that the phrase engenders. Xu explained that people who dress this way wear toughness on their faces. They are aloof, as though they are telling you to leave them alone. They would rather be unpopular than try to please people.” It is clear that Chinese consumers — especially female consumers — are dressing in the frigid style to differentiate themselves from others, letting their clothes convey the attitude of “I’m not here to impress anyone by the way I dress.” Interestingly, while normcore in the U.S. means blending in, frigid style in China stems from the same minimalist concept, but instead entails standing out and projecting an attitude of nonchalance or indifference.

The name of the style came about because of fierce competition in the media, where editors pull their hair out trying to think of clickbait headlines. In China, most websites are not subscription-based and therefore have to depend on advertising revenue and funds from state-owned enterprises, both of which use page views as a metric for determining a website’s worth. While another word used to describe the style, “neutrality,” tended to put readers to sleep, and while the direct borrowing of the term “normcore” failed to attract Chinese consumers, “frigid style” took off almost immediately.

For the first time, Chinese women are embracing the idea of not dressing as an object to be desired. They no longer expose their midriffs or dress like baby dolls or endure high heels just to turn men’s heads.

Soon other online outlets began taking frigid style to a new level, using the term in contexts that reached beyond the realm of fashion-specific normcore: a tranquil village on the banks of a lake might have “a solitary sense of frigidity”; a small IKEA table lamp that is simple and fragile is surely frigid; the Japanese brand Muji, well-known for its natural designs, wins big in this category; even vegetarianism may be said to have a sense of frigidity. If this last example is confusing, perhaps it should be noted that vegetarianism is commonly practiced in China by — and thus attributed to — chaste Buddhist monks.

Looking back, the current popularity of frigid style seems to be the one of the first times China has embraced a unisex fashion trend from the West — of particular note is that it has come from the U.S., where unisex fashion is regarded as a pillar of second-wave feminism. Ever since people removed their generic, Mao-approved accoutrement in the late 1970s, clothes in China have accentuated the beauty, not the power, of women. Compared to their Western counterparts, Chinese women haven’t been as active in the global conversation on feminism. For the first time, they are embracing the idea of not dressing as an object to be desired. They no longer expose their midriffs or dress like baby dolls or endure high heels just to turn men’s heads. Now they are spending their money on clothes that mark them as confident, empowered women.

However, just as the miniskirt can either be interpreted as the 1960s American feminist’s call to liberation or be lambasted as the urban harlot’s chief weapon of seduction, frigid style is also open to interpretation by casual consumers and industry experts alike. Marketers understand this, too, so their message to consumers is that gender neutrality doesn’t have to make women less feminine. Their logic is that a baggy shirt or loose coat brings contrast to the fragile image of females and calls attention to the feminine body. In fact, fashion designer Taoray Wang, whose garments have been described as minimalist, commented that this free-flowing style “is another kind of sexy.” Though the term itself is occasionally saddled with opposite meanings, frigid style has undeniably managed to impact a large base of consumers.

Although I was initially uncomfortable with frigid style, I have gradually come to feel more at ease with the trend. After all, anything can become an acquired taste with continuous exposure. First as a clickbait buzzword to attract online readers and later as a tool to appeal to consumer intellect and femininity, frigid style has been a commercial success by all standards. But the question remains: Will high-end designers be sufficiently intrigued by the prospect of tapping into the vast potential of the Chinese market, or will they turn up their noses at the idea of embracing such an awkwardly named trend?

(Header image: An interior view of a 'frigid style' store in Shanghai, Dec. 11, 2015.  CBN/IC)