Born to Be Wild: Heavy Metal, Fashion and Individualism in China
Updated: Jun 16
In this first contribution to China Temper, we explore the connection between heavy metal music, fashion and individualism in China.
See the China Temper posting here.
All included pictures below were slightly altered by Rochelle Beiersdorfer.
Original photos were provided by Ramblin' Roze, Dressed to Kill and Guo Wei.
From the Metal God Rob Halford being “Hell Bent for Leather” to Twisted Sisters’ in-your-face hairstyles and full-on visual assault of color, spandex, and spikes, fashion has been an essential element in the world of heavy metal since it first shook the western musical norms in the late 70s and China a decade later. Even though fashion and heavy metal music seem like cultural phenomena on conflicting, polar ends, they are inseparable with both cultural movements possessing a strong ideology of individualism and unapologetically being yourself. What could be more metal than that?
Drawing heavily on classical music, heavy metal is a genre of music where the guitars are distorted, solos soar, vocals bellow and drum beats are arsenal. Usually bundled with hard rock, heavy metal music is musicality to the extreme. “It's a kind of music that gives you goose bumps and makes you feel ‘alive,” says Chen Waike, guitarist for the Beijing hard rock band Ramblin’ Roze, “I've thought that if there's anything on Earth that could shock aliens, I think metal and rock 'n' roll are definitely it.”
Heavy metal’s raging guitars and melodic assault was not lost in translation when it first rocked the boat in China. According to Metal Archives, the ultimate metal music encyclopedia, the first band to play fast and furious in the middle kingdom was Tang Dynasty in the late 80s. During this time, historically and politically speaking, China was in the midst of a move towards modernization commonly referred to as Reforms and Opening up (改革开放). As a result of welcoming international enterprises into China, music from western countries came flooding in either by visiting foreigners or through dakou (打口). dakou was the importing of media such as cassette tapes and CDs from western countries, but mostly the USA. These tapes and CDs would be punctured with a hole, hence the name, and were shipped with the intention of being trashed. However, these good-as-new products instead found homes with China’s youth, planting the seeds of many western music genres to eventually grow and blossom in China.
Music wasn’t the only thing to get a pinch of foreign flavors. After the opening of the local economy to foreign players, western fashion styles also started to take hold with Chinese adolescents. Embracing a more eclectic color palette and diverse clothing trends, the youth generation of the 1980s ditched the plain, neutral colored two-pieces of their elders and started to experiment with their sense of chic. The boxy top and bottom uniforms of yesteryear were replaced with athletic wear and “colorful dresses,” according to the anthropologist Robert L. Moore in “Generation Ku: Individualism and China’s Millennial Youth.”
The opening of China’s geographical borders also prompted a shift in public perspective from collectivism to individualism. Through a surge of foreign pop and youth cultures, China’s youth started to adopt, what was considered then, more radical attitudes towards selfhood and independence. The mentality of prioritizing the group before the individual, which was loudly propagated during the Cultural Revolution and earlier social philosophies in China, was losing its dominion as the youth were finding themselves and their unique voices. “Self-expression is important,” agrees Yang Ce the vocalist of Beijing’s speed/heavy metal band Dressed to Kill, “as a human being, I need to talk.”
Besides advocating for pushing the pedal to the metal and rebellion against the status quo, heavy metal ideology also promotes unapologetically being yourself in all your glory. In other words, being loud, proud and declaring your attitudes and opinions is a philosophical pillar in heavy metal. “.. it [heavy metal] allows you to express yourself more freely,” concurs Chen Waike, “Although the music I like isn’t all heavy metal, but, I think, as long as music can help you express yourself, that music is simply good music.”
Although many metalheads wouldn't admit that they care about their looks and usually smugly pronounce fashion as shit, there is a universally understood heavy metal style that heavy metal maniacs seem to follow. This heavy metal uniform is usually black and sometimes flashy with an overall aggressive and rebellious feel. A heavy metal uniform usually is comprised of a band T-shirt, preferably of a band that the wearer has seen in concert, jeans, boots, leather, spikes, spandex and a vest, nowadays known as a battle jacket. “Fashion is really important for me..,” says Yang Fuwen guitarist and founding member of Dressed to Kill, “because your style, your outfit are crucial ways to show who you are. Your style [gives] other people the very first impression…”
Fashion is, like heavy metal, a way to boldly be yourself and tell the world authentically who you are through the fabrics, colors, textures and patterns you choose to strut around in. But heavy metal isn’t the only music genre that shares this quality of personal, creative expression with fashion. All forms of music possess it. Just look as punk rockers, hip-hop crews and hippie/psychedelic flower children. They all use what they wear to express their subculture alliances, personal identities and inner most attitudes. As research done by Dick Hebdige and other sociologists show, wearing a particular style of clothing can be a sign of membership to a specific musical clan. By wearing the armor of a particular musical genre, shared experiences between fans are amplified and help to form a sense of community. “I think heavy metal fans are more loyal and enthusiastic about it [fashion],” says Chen Waike, “for example, when you see a stranger wearing a T-shirt of a band you like, you may smile at him, and you can easily judge his musical taste by the patches he’s sewn on his vest. This is something that other musical styles and fashions don’t share.”
One way that fashion is showcased in the heavy metal world is with how bands and fans follow the fashion sense of forefathers. “My outfit on stage includes a shirt (striped or in bright color, mostly a silk shirt) and leather pants,” states Fuwen when asked about what he wears when performing with Dressed to Kill, “it’s consistent with my understanding of vintage heavy metal style and also echoes the expectations of the fans.” But not everyone adheres to what is expected from fans or history and instead prefer to march to the beat of their own drum. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Chen, “if it allows you to be your best self, that’s simply fashion.” He continues that what he wears on stage is whatever makes him feel most comfortable and allows him to be more himself.
Within heavy metal chic, battle jackets are indisputably the most essential accessory for self-expression. With a history reaching back to post-WW2 vets and biker gangs, battle jackets have been a quintessential piece to any headbanger’s uniform since the 1970s. Called cut offs until the 80s, battle jackets are sleeveless vests, usually denim or leather, and covered in various band patches and pins. Because of the amount of time, effort and commitment someone spends when diligently creating a battle jacket, they carry a lot of sentiment and show diehard passion and authentic dedication to heavy metal, as research done by Lauren Alex O’Hagan in the journal Rock Music Studies states. “I put a lot of effort into making it [my battle jacket]. The arrangement of the patches is crucial,” explains Fuwen when talking about his own battle jacket and what it means to him. “It is covered in patches of NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) and traditional heavy metal bands; the genres and bands that are my favorite. I…have some limited produced patches, which were sent by friends as presents. Also, some patches were bought at festivals or shows. Actually, most of them have a story behind them.”
In recent years, metal has been co-opted into Western pop stars’ attire and designers’ collections. As Fashion Magazine explains, Georgian fashion designer Demna Gvasalia’s 2016 fashion week collection for his label Vetements highlighted signature metal insignia such as blood spatter, demonic skulls and illegible script that is usually accredited to death metal and black metal, two sub-genres of heavy metal. Popular metal acts have even worked with famous fashion designers and brands by either gracing their ad campaigns, such as Metallica selling luxury Italian menswear for Brioni, or collaborating to create collections, such as the fathers of heavy metal Black Sabbath working with Supreme, the skater streetwear brand. At this time, there have been no collaborations between Chinese fashion designers and bands. However, with the recent rise in popularity of heavy metal music in China, only time will tell when a collaboration will occur between the likes of Yang Li and a prominent heavy metal band like Tang Dynasty.
Although heavy metal is depicted in mainstream society as a chunk of coal to fashion’s 4 carat diamond, their ideological roots are identical: For an individual’s inner colors and personal identity to shine through.From leather, spikes and spandex to battle jackets, denim jeans and band tees, heavy metal fanatics use their clothes to proclaim their wild child nature and pledge alliance to all that is fast, uninhibited and cranked up to 11. Because after all, everyone has an inner “leather rebel with a burning heart” that is just ready to ride “…wild and free.”