China: history of dress

Chinese clothing changed considerably over the course of some 5,000 years of history, from the Bronze Age into the twentieth century, but also maintained elements of long-term continuity during that span of time. The story of dress in China is a story of wrapped garments in silk, hemp, or cotton, and of superb technical skills in weaving, dyeing, embroidery, and other textile arts as applied to clothing. After the Chinese Revolution of 1911, new styles arose to replace traditions of clothing that seemed inappropriate to the modern era.

Throughout their history, the Chinese used textiles and clothing, along with other cultural markers (such as cuisine and the distinctive Chinese written language) to distinguish themselves from peoples on their frontiers whom they regarded as “uncivilized.” The Chinese regarded silk, hemp, and (later) cotton as “civilized” fabrics; they strongly disliked woolen cloth, because it was associated with the woven or felted woolen clothing of animal-herding nomads of the northern steppes.

Essential to the clothed look of all adults was a proper hairdo—the hair grown long and put up in a bun or topknot, or, for men during China’s last imperial dynasty, worn in a braided queue—and some kind of hat or other headgear. The rite of passage of a boy to manhood was the “capping ceremony,” described in early ritual texts. No respectable male adult would appear in public without some kind of head covering, whether a soft cloth cap for informal wear, or a stiff, black silk or horsehair hat with “wing” appendages for officials of the civil service. To appear “with hair unbound and with garments that wrap to the left,” as Confucius put it, was to behave as an uncivilized person. Agricultural workers of both sexes have traditionally worn broad conical hats woven of bamboo, palm leaves, or other plant materials, in shapes and patterns that reflect local custom and, in some cases, ethnicity of minority populations.

The clothing of members of the elite was distinguished from that of commoners by cut and style as well as by fabric, but the basic garment for all classes and both sexes was a loosely cut robe with sleeves that varied from wide to narrow, worn with the left front panel lapped over the right panel, the whole garment fastened closed with a sash. Details of this garment changed greatly over time, but the basic idea endured. Upper-class men and women wore this garment in a long (ankle-length) version, often with wide, dangling sleeves; men’s and women’s garments were distinguished by details of cut and decoration. Sometimes a coat or jacket was worn over the robe itself. A variant for upper-class women was a shorter robe with tighter-fitting sleeves, worn over a skirt. Working-class men and women wore a shorter version of the robe—thigh-length or knee-length—with trousers or leggings, or a skirt; members of both sexes wore both skirts and trousers. In cold weather, people of all classes wore padded and quilted clothing of fabrics appropriate to their class. Silk floss—broken and tangled silk fibers left over from processing silk cocoons—made a lightweight, warm padding material for such winter garments.

Men’s clothing was often made in solid, dark colors, except for clothing worn at court, which was often brightly ornamented with woven, dyed, or embroidered patterns. Women’s clothing was generally more colorful than men’s. The well-known “dragon robes” of Chinese emperors and high officials were a relatively late development, confined to the last few centuries of imperial history. With the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911, new styles of clothing were adopted, as people struggled to find ways of dressing that would be both “Chinese” and “modern.”

Cloth and Clothing in Ancient China

The area that is now called “China” coalesced as a civilization from several centers of Neolithic culture, including among others Liaodong in the northeast; the North China Plain westward to the Wei River Valley; the foothills of Shandong in the east; the lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze River Valley; the Sichuan Basin; and several areas on the southeastern coast. These centers of Neolithic cultures almost certainly represent several distinct ethnolinguistic groups and can readily be differentiated on the basis of material culture. On the other hand, they were in contact with each other through trade, warfare, and other means, and over the long run all of them were subsumed into the political and cultural entity of China. Thus the term “ancient China” is a phrase of convenience that masks significant regional cultural variation. Nevertheless, some generalizations apply.

The domestication of silkworms, the production of silk fiber, and the weaving of silk cloth go back to at least the third millennium B.C.E. in northern China, and possibly even earlier in the Yangtze River Valley. Archaeological evidence for this survives tombs from that era; pottery objects sometimes preserve the imprint of silk cloth in damp clay, and in some cases layers of corrosion on bronze vessels show clear traces of the silk cloth in which the vessels had been wrapped. Silk was always the preferred fabric of China’s elite from ancient times onward. As a proverbial phrase put it, the upper classes wore silk, the lower classes wore hempen cloth (though after about 1200 C.E. cotton became the principal cloth of the masses).

Depictions of clothed humans on bronze and pottery vessels contemporary with the Shang Dynasty (c. 1550 – 1046 B.C.E.) of the North China Plain show that men and women of the elite ranks of society wore long gowns of patterned cloth. Large bronze statues from the Sanxingdui Culture of Sichuan, dating to the late second millennium B.C.E., show what appears to be brocade or embroidery at the hemlines of the wearer’s long gowns. Later depictions of commoners portray them in short jackets and trousers or loincloths for men, and jackets and skirts for women. Soldiers are shown in armored vests worn over long-sleeved jackets, with trousers and boots.

Ceramic statuette of a woman in empire-line dress. During the Tang Dynasty an empire-waisted dress tied below the bust-line and a short jacket became a popular ensemble.

Ceramic statuette of a woman in empire-line dress. During the Tang Dynasty an empire-waisted dress tied below the bust-line and a short jacket became a popular ensemble.

Chinese silk textiles of the later first millennium B.C.E. (the Warring States Period, 481 –  221 B.C.E.) testify to the possibility of making very colorful and elaborately decorated clothing at the time. Surviving textiles also demonstrate the widespread appeal of Chinese silk in other parts of Asia. Examples of cloth woven in the Yangtze River Valley during the Warring States Period have been discovered in archaeological sites as far away as Turkestan and southern Siberia. Painted wooden figurines found in tombs from the state of Chu, in the Yangtze River Valley, depict men and women in long gowns of white silk patterned with swirling figural motifs in red, brown, blue, and other colors; the gowns are cut in such a way that the left panel wraps over the right one in a spiral that goes completely around the body. The gowns of the women are closed with broad sashes in contrasting colors, while the men wear narrower sashes. Bronze sash-hooks are common in tombs from the second half of the first millennium B.C.E., showing that the style of narrow waist sashes lasted for a long time. Elite burials also demonstrate a long-enduring custom of the wearing of jade necklaces and other jewelry.

Chinese fashion magazine cover during the post-Mao period. Fashionable clothing returned to China in 1978, and by the 1980s the fashion industry surged with a re-establishment of fashion magazines, shows, and classes.

Chinese fashion magazine cover during the post-Mao period. Fashionable clothing returned to China in 1978, and by the 1980s the fashion industry surged with a re-establishment of fashion magazines, shows, and classes.

The Han Dynasty

Under the Qin (221 – 206 B.C.E.) and the Han (206 B.C.E. – 7 C.E..; restored 25 – 220 C.E.), dynasties, China was unified under imperial rule for the first time, expanding to incorporate much of the territory within China’s boundaries today. The famous underground terra-cotta army of the First Emperor of Qin gives vivid evidence of the clothing of soldiers and officers, again showing the basic theme of long gowns for elites, shorter jackets for commoners. One sees also that all of the soldiers are shown with elaborately dressed hair, worn with headgear ranging from simple head cloths to formal official caps. Cavalry warfare was of increasing significance in China during the Qin and Han periods; in funerary statuettes and murals, riders are often shown wearing long-sleeved, hip-length jackets and padded trousers.

The well-preserved tomb of the Lady of Dai at Mawangdui, near Changsha (Hunan Province, in south-central China) has yielded hundreds of silk dress items and textiles, from spiral-wrapped or right-side-fastening gowns, to mittens, socks, slippers, wrapped skirts, and other garments, and bolts of uncut and unsewn silk. The textiles show a great range of dyed colors and weaving and decorating techniques, including tabby, twill, brocade, gauze, damask, and embroidery. Textual evidence from the Han period shows that government authorities attempted through sumptuary laws to restrict the use of such textiles to members of the elite landowning class, but that townsmen including merchants and artisans were finding ways to acquire and wear them also.

The period 220 – 589 C.E. (that is, from the fall of the Han to the rise of the Sui Dynasty), was one of disunity, when northern China was frequently ruled by dynasties of invaders from the northern frontier, while southern China remained under the control of a series of weak ethnically Chinese rulers. Depictions of dress from northern China thus show a predominance of styles suitable for horse-riding peoples. Elite men are sometimes shown wearing thigh-length wrapped jackets over skirts or voluminous skirtlike trousers. In southern China the traditions of colorful Yangtze River Valley silks predominated (though with a discernible trend toward plainer everyday clothing for elite men). Buddhism arrived in China via Central Asia during the late Han period, prompting the production of typical patchwork Buddhist monks’ robes, as well as more formal embroidered or appliqué ecclesiastical garments.

The Tang Dynasty

Under the Sui (589 – 618) and Tang (618 – 907) dynasties, China was reunified and entered upon a period of unprecedented wealth and cultural brilliance. The capital city of Chang’an (now Xi’an) was, during the eighth century, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world. It supported a true fashion system, comparable to that of the modern West, in which rapidly-changing prevailing modes were adopted by fashion leaders and widely disseminated by emulation. Hairstyles (including the use of elaborate hairpins and other hair ornaments) and makeup also changed rapidly in fashion-driven patterns. Ceramic statuettes, produced in huge numbers during the Tang for placement in tombs, often depict people in contemporary dress, and thus give direct evidence for the rapid change of fashions at the time.

Under the Tang, trade along the Silk Route between China via Central Asia to the Mediterranean world flourished, and influence from Persian and Turkic culture areas had a strong impact on elite fashions in China. Chinese silk textiles of the Tang period show strong foreign influence, particularly in the use of roundel patterns. Young, upper-class women outraged conservative commentators by wearing “Turkish” hip-length, tight-sleeved jackets with trousers and boots; some women even played polo in such outfits. (Women more commonly went riding in long gowns, wearing wide-brimmed hats with veils to guard against sun and dust.) Another women’s ensemble consisting of an empire-waisted dress tied just below the bustline with ribbons, and worn with a very short, tight-sleeved jacket. This style would reappear several times in later ages, notably during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644); it strongly influenced the development of the Korean national costume, the hanbok.

Chinese beauty pageant. The contestants wear qipaos, a colorful, tight-fitting garment, frequently slit up to the knee, which became the traditional dress of modern Chinese women by the mid-twentieth century.

Chinese beauty pageant. The contestants wear qipaos, a colorful, tight-fitting garment, frequently slit up to the knee, which became the traditional dress of modern Chinese women by the mid-twentieth century.

Dancers at court and in the entertainment districts of the capital and other cities were notable trendsetters. In the early eighth century, the fashionable ideal was for slender women wearing long gowns in soft fabrics that were cut with a pronounced décolletage and very wide sleeves, or a décolleté knee-length gown worn over a skirt; by mid century, the ideal had changed to favor distinctly plump women wearing empire-line gowns over which a shawl-like jacket in a contrasting color was worn. One remarkable later Tang fashion was for so-called “fairy dresses,” which had sleeves cut to trail far beyond the wearer’s hands, stiffened, wing-like appendages at the shoulders, long aprons trailing from the bustline almost to the floor, and triangular applied decorations on the sleeves and down the sides of the skirt that would flutter with a dancer’s every movement. “Sleeve dancing” has remained an important part of Chinese performative dance since Tang times. Near the end of the Tang period, dancers also inspired a fashion for small (or small-looking) feet that led to the later Chinese practice of footbinding.

The Tang Dynasty was an aristocratic society in which military prowess and good horsemanship were admired as male accomplishments. Depictions of foot soldiers and cavalrymen in scale armor and heavily padded jackets, and officers in elaborate breastplates and surcoats, are common in Tang sculptural and pictorial art.

The Song and Yuan Dynasties

In the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), influenced by an increasingly conservative Confucian ideology and social changes that saw the gradual replacement of a basically aristocratic society by one dominated by a class of scholar-gentry officeholders, clothing for both men and women at the elite level tended to become looser, more flowing, and more modest than the styles of the Tang. Women, who sometimes had bound feet, stayed home more, and sometimes wore broad hats and veils for excursions outside the home.

Portraits of emperors and high-court officials during the Song period show the first use of plain, round-necked robes worn either by themselves or as over-robes above more colorful clothing, and also the first appearance of the “dragon robes” embroidered with roundel figures of dragons as emblems of imperial authority.

The Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368) was the Chinese manifestation of the Mongol Empire conquered by Genghis Khan and ruled by his descendants. Mongol men in China, as well as men of Chinese ethnicity, wore loose robes similar to those of the Song period; horsemen wore shorter robes, trousers, and sturdy boots. Round, helmetlike hats were adopted for official use, replacing the earlier black horsehair or stiffened silk official cap. Women of the Yuan period sometimes wore two or more gowns at once, cut so as to show successive layers of cloth in harmonizing colors at the collars and sleeve-openings; Mongol women also wore high, elaborate headdresses like those of the Mongols’ traditional homeland.

The Ming and Qing Dynasties

In Ming (1368 – 1644) times, both men and women wore voluminous clothing, a long robe with wide sleeves for men, a shorter robe worn over a wide skirt for women. In the early and middle Ming, there was a revival of the Tang style of empire-line dresses worn with short jackets, especially for young women. For much of its nearly three centuries of existence, the Ming was a time of prosperity and expanding production of goods of all kinds; there was a concomitant expansion of the type and variety of clothing available to all but the poorest members of society. Cotton, which had been introduced into China during the Song Dynasty, began to be raised extensively in several parts of the country. A short indigo-dyed cotton jacket worn over similar calf-length trousers (for men) or a skirt (for women) became and remained the characteristic dress of Chinese peasants and workers. Cotton batting substituted, in cheaper clothing, for silk floss in padded winter garments.

The dragon robe was adopted for standard court wear for emperors, members of the imperial clan, and high officials. The dragon robe evolved a standard vocabulary of motifs and symbols; typically such a robe was embroidered with large dragons, coiling in space and with the head shown frontally, on the chest and back; smaller dragon roundels on the shoulders and on the skirt of the robe; the space around the dragons embroidered with other auspicious symbols, and the bottom hem showing ocean waves and the peak of Mt. Kunlun, the mountain at the center of the world. The background color of the robe indicated rank and lineage, with bright yellow limited to use by the emperor himself. Official court robes for women were similar but decorated with phoenixes (mythical birds depicted as similar to pheasants or peacocks), the feminine yin to the male yang of the dragon. (Hangings, banners, and other decorative items showing both a dragon and a phoenix are wedding emblems.)

Associated with the dragon robe and the codification of court attire was the use of so-called “Mandarin squares,” embroidered squares of cloth that were worn as badges of office for civil and military officials. These indicated rank in the official hierarchy by a set of sixteen animal or bird emblems—for example, a leopard for a military official of the third rank, a silver pheasant for a civil official of the fifth rank. These embroidered squares were made in pairs to be worn on the back and front of an official’s plain over-robe, the front square split vertically to accommodate the robe’s front-opening design.

The Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) brought new rulers to China—Manchus from the northeast, who overthrew the Ming Dynasty and preserved their hold on imperial power in part by being careful to preserve Manchu dress and other customs in order to keep the small population of conquerors from being submerged culturally by the much more numerous Chinese. The Manchus introduced new styles of clothing for official use; men were to wear short robes with trousers or wide skirts, cut more closely to the body than the flowing Ming styles, fastening at the right shoulder and with a high slit in front to accommodate horse-riding. A distinctive feature of the Manchu robe was its “horseshoe sleeves,” designed to cover and protect the back of a rider’s hands. Other Manchu styles were the “banner robe” (qipao), a straight-cut long robe worn by Manchu troops, and the “long gown” (chang-shan), a straight, ankle-length garment worn by Manchu women (who wore platform shoes on their unbound feet). Ethnic Chinese women wore loose-fitting jackets over wide skirts or trousers, often cut short enough to reveal the lavishly embroidered tiny shoes of their bound feet.

At court, the emperor, his kinsmen, and high officials wore dragon robes, the symbolic elements of which had been elaborately codified in the mid-eighteenth century; other officials wore plain robes with Mandarin squares. For all ranks, conical hats with narrow, upturned brims were worn for official occasions; buttons of precious or semiprecious stones at the hat’s peak also indicated the wearer’s rank.

Throughout China’s history, the country’s population has included many minority peoples whose language, dress, food, and other aspects of culture have been and remain quite different from those of the Han (Chinese) ethnic majority.

Chinese Dress in the Twentieth Century

After the Nationalist Revolution of 1911, it was widely felt in China that, after a century of foreign intrusion and national decline, the country needed to rid itself of old customs in order to compete with the other nations of the modern world. Thus began a search for new styles of clothing that were both “modern” and “Chinese.” The simple adoption of Western clothing was not a popular choice; foreign menswear was associated with Chinese employees of foreign companies, who were derided for being unpatriotic; fashionable Western women’s clothing struck many Chinese as both immodest and odd. Loose, baggy Western dresses introduced at some missionary schools in China were modest but unattractive.

Chinese public official and family. During the Ming Dynasty, embroidered "Mandarin Squares" began appearing on the robes of court officials (third man from right). These squares indicated the wearer's rank in the government hierarchy.

Chinese public official and family. During the Ming Dynasty, embroidered "Mandarin Squares" began appearing on the robes of court officials (third man from right). These squares indicated the wearer's rank in the government hierarchy.

Many men continued to wear a form of traditional clothing until the mid-twentieth century—a plain, blue, long gown for scholars and older, urban men, jacket and trousers of indigo-dyed cotton for workers. But among urban elites, there emerged in the 1910s a new outfit, based on Prussian military dress and seen first in China in school and military-cadet uniforms; this had a fitted jacket fastened with buttons in front, decorated with four pockets, and made “Chinese” by the use of a stiff, high “Mandarin” collar, worn over matching trousers. This suit was often made, Western-style, in woolen cloth, the first time that wool had ever been the basis of an important Chinese garment type. This outfit became known as the Sun Yat-sen suit, after the father of the Chinese revolution.

Several proposals for creating a modern women’s dress for China met with little enthusiasm, but in China’s cities, and especially in Shanghai, women and their dressmakers were trying out a modern variation of Manchu dress that was to have lasting consequences. The Manchu “banner robe” (qipao) and “long gown” (changshan, generally known in the West by its Cantonese pronunciation, cheongsam) were adapted by fashionable women to be somewhat more tightly fitting, with a closure folded left-over-right to the shoulder, then down the right seam, often fastened with decorative “frogs” (cloth buttons and loops), and sometimes with a slit to knee height. This new style, in colorful silk, rayon, or printed cotton, was widely publicized in “calendar girl” advertising prints of the1920s and 1930s, and soon became firmly entrenched as China’s appropriately modern women’s wear. The qipao (or cheongsam) continued to evolve to become more form fitting, and by the mid-twentieth century was widely accepted, both in China and the West, as China’s “traditional” women’s dress.

For a few years after the Communist revolution of 1949, older forms of dress, including the man’s long “scholar’s robe” and the women’s qipao, continued to be worn in China. But by the late 1950s, there was strong political and social pressure for people to dress in “modest, revolutionary” styles—the Sun Yat-sen suit (usually in blue cotton, now beginning to be known as a “Mao suit”), or as an alternative, a modest blouse and calf-length skirt. By the time of the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), the qipao had been denounced as “feudal,” and the wearing of the blue Mao suit was nearly obligatory.

Fashion made a cautious return to China in 1978, with the promulgation of the post-Mao “Four Modernizations” program of economic reform. By the early 1980s, fashion magazines had resumed publication, fashion shows were held in major cities, and fashion design and related subjects were beginning to be taught once again at the high school and college level. The qipao also has had a revival, both in China and in overseas Chinese communities, as formal wear that conveys a sense of ethnic pride, and as “traditional” dress worn by women in the hospitality industry. But in general, Chinese dress today is a reflection of global fashion. By the turn of the twenty-first century, prestigious international brands were a common sight in the shopping districts of Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, and other major cities, and Chinese consumers were participating fully in international fashion. Meanwhile China had become the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of garments.

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