A Brief History of the Chinese Facekini


On Wednesday in Qingdao, the inventor of what must be considered the strangest piece of swimwear ever conceived held a press conference to unveil the “seventh generation” of the facekini.

For those unaware, what we’re talking about is the “face bikini” — translated literally from the Chinese — a type of beachwear intended to protect one’s head against suns and jellyfish.

Although it wouldn’t become a “craze” until many years later, it was first conceived by a middle-aged woman named Zhang Shifan in 2004. As noted by China Global Television Network:

In 2004, Zhang was running a small Qingdao shop selling swimwear when a woman came in asking for something to protect her face and neck. She had been stung by a jellyfish, the customer said. Zhang then designed the face-kini to cover the whole head and protect wearers from the sun and other irritants.

The facekini is bizarre and outlandish, and would be praised as a paragon of irony if it weren’t so earnest.

But above all, it is an example of Chinese innovation, the unlikeliest of unlikely success stories, combining pragmatism with know-how and a do-it-yourself attitude that is entirely characteristic of entrepreneurs in this country.

By the time Western mainstream media caught on around 2012, the facekini was well on its way to becoming a phenomenon. Not only did it set its wearers apart as bad-asses, the three-dollar facekini had some very practical uses, as The Washington Post helpfully lists:

  • The National Post reported the mask was created to “protect against the nipping of sea crabs.”
  • In 2012 CNN travel reported online vendors are also marketing the masks as shark repellent. As one vendor explained, bright orange masks can help drive away sharks “because they fear this color the most.”

Slowly but surely, this absurd, farcical, nylon balaclava was being seen less as high kitsch nonpareil and more as an example of Chinese ingenuity, sui generis.

And then it became a fashion accessory. Here it is in 2014 in the biannual fashion magazine CR Fashion Book:

They wrote:

While our summer beauty routines are devoted to bronzing, self-tanning, and tan-extending, in Asia, beauty-seekers are more likely to center theirs around lightening and brightening. A tan does not signify a chic trip to Capri, but it could mean hours of hard labor spent out in the harsh sun. Our last swimwear story of the season blends all of the glamour of a Helmut Newton-esque pool party with the idea that a deep tan is the enemy. As it is said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. These beautiful eyes are peering from behind a mask—still enjoying summer, but avoiding a summer glow at all costs.

News of the facekini’s warm reception abroad eventually circled back to Chinese media, with China’s Internet users expressing a mixture of pride and surprise. How could such a silly thing, worn primarily by middle-aged Chinese women (known as “dama”), end up inside the covers of a respected New York fashion magazine? The All-China Women’s Federation commented:

The facekini-themed photos have aroused a lot of attention from netizens. Some said that they can wear the garment justifiably now. Netizens have said that following the gold purchase rush, which affected global gold prices, and square dancing, facekini is the third biggest contribution that Chinese Dama have made to the world.

And how!

Capitalizing on her success, Zhang Shifan began designing full-body swimsuits inspired by Chinese culture. She unveiled a line of Peking Opera-inspired beachwear as part of the 4th generation of the facekini in 2015:

And returned the year after with endangered animal facekinis as part of the 6th generation:

The 2017 line features the porcelain facekini with embroidered swim cap:

And that brings us to present-day.

But no discussion of the facekini would be complete without returning to this picture here, which might the single greatest use of models in facekinis posing with elderly villagers in the history of photography:

What’s happening here? Could that old woman have ever imagined her life — 60 years or so in, through famine and revolution, struggle and sacrifice, joy and hope — would take her to this very exact moment, surrounded by a coterie of white-skinned skinny women donning nylon face bikinis?

This was part of a photo shoot in Loudi, Hunan province on June 22, 2015, i.e. Earth Day. Via ChinaFotoPress (click over for more photos), eight models from China and other countries participated to “experience plowing, feel the great human achievement of paddy field engineering and the original ecological environment… show off the natural beauty of human curves and the curves of the terraced fields. That same day, they have also become part of the scenic landscape.”

I don’t know if it was ill-conceived or amazing, but it resulted in pictures such as:



All in a day’s work:

Becoming one with nature, experiencing old-fashioned agriculture, fusing human beauty with scenic beauty — all of this I get as part of an Earth Day activity. But facekinis?

The only possible explanation is: art.

And there you have it. Facekinis are high fashion, high art, and will save our earth. Go get yours now.

Anthony Tao
Anthony Tao is a writer and editor in Beijing. You can read his published poems and other stories on anthonytao.com. He was Radii’s first editor-in-chief.