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Traditional Chinese Clothing - History


Traditional Chinese Clothing is an important part in the thousands-year-old Chinese civilization. It changed along with the political, economic and social changes in different eras and dynasties. The elegant Pao costume (a closed full-body gown) of Qin and Han dynasties, the Shan costume (open cross-collar shirt) in Wei and Jin dynasties, the open style clothing of Tang dynasty, and the Manchu style clothes in Qing dynasty, each had its own unique characteristics and formed an important part in Chinese Costume.


Chinese Clothing in Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties (2070 B.C - 771 B.C)


In Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties, the top Yi (a narrow-cuffed, knee-length tunic tied with a sash) and bottom Shang (a narrow, ankle-length skirt) style of clothing with a right lapel was prevalent. Some people also wore Shenyi, one-piece robes that wrap around the body once or several times. The slave owner statue unearthed in Anyang, Henan wore a flat hat, a tunic with cross collar, a skirt with a sash, puttees on both legs, and protruding pointed shoes, which could show how Shang dynasty people dressed.

By Zhou Dynasty, the most powerful slavery dynasty in Chinese history, a series of detailed etiquette was set to regulate the society and consolidate the governing. In terms of clothing, different clothes were designated for different occasions. There were costumes for sacrificial rituals, court visits, military fighting, funerals & mourning, and weddings. These rules distinguished the hierarchical differences between kings, ministers, aristocrats and civilians. It had impacted the clothing culture of later 3000-year-old feudal society of China. Since then, a person's clothes could tell his social status.


Hufu in Spring and Autumn and Warring State Period (771 B.C - 221 B.C)


The biggest clothes change in this period is the popularity of Shenyi and the emergence of Hufu. The constant battles and wars drove people to reform the traditional loose and long Hanfu robes. To strengthen the combat effectiveness of the army, King Wuling of Zhao State ordered the whole state to learn how to ride horses and how to shoot archery, and wear the nomadic clothes. Such clothes usually had narrow sleeves, short garment, and long pants, which made it easy to ride horses. For civilians, the traditional Shenyi was still popular. With the rising of seven great states in Warring State Period, the costumes also flourished. People in different state wore different robes, but mostly the Shenyi.


Hanfu in Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C - 220 A.D)


In Qin dynasty, women had two kinds of clothes, one was Shenyi as formal dress and Ruqun (a top garment with a separate lower garment or skirt) for daily wear. The Shenyi was not as loose-bodied as in Warring State Period, but narrow and thin. The skirt was long enough to reach the ground and its hemline was usually trumpet-shaped so that women's ankles wouldn't be exposed when walking. There are two types of sleeves, wide and narrow, and the cuffs were mostly trimmed. The collars were usually crossed either from left to right or otherwise, and the neckline was quite low, making the inside garment revealing. The working women often wore short garment on top and long skirt at the bottom with a belt on the waist. The men's clothes were still similar to previous clothes. The most popular clothes for them were robes, which could be divided into curving-front robes and straight front robes. Like the women's clothes, men's robes also had belt, the difference lies in that men's clothes had leather belt with belt hook, while women's clothes only had a silk sash. Black color was the distinguished color back then. Thus, many imperial clothes were fashioned with black color.

In Han dynasty, the clothes styles were similar to that of Qin dynasty. However, the advancement of dyeing and weaving techniques greatly improved the quality of clothes.


Hufu in Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties (220 A.D - 589 A.D)


The traditional Chinese clothing underwent a big transformation in this period. The large amount of minority groups entered central plains areas and brought in the Hufu. The clothing of commons was greatly influenced by the new clothing styles. The characteristics of narrow sleeves, tight-fitting garments, circular collar, and side vents in Hufu were absorbed and applied to the original Han clothes. The clothes of aristocrats were also changed based on the Hufu. The garments were lengthened, cuffs and leg openings were widened, and the right lapels were changed to left lapels. However, in the big occasions, the traditional Han costumes were still used.


Hanfu in Sui and Tang Dynasties (581 A.D - 907 A.D)


In Sui and Tang dynasties, the political and economic stability and prosperity had created an open environment for the clothing development. Based on the traditional Hanfu and Hufu from minorities, the clothes at this time underwent a lot of innovations and formed its unique style in Chinese clothing history. The daily clothes for men were Futou (a kind of head cover), long gown, and boot. However, the long gown at this time was slightly different from the previous gown. It featured round collar, right lapel, narrow sleeves, and no sleeve fringing. In addition, there were other styles of gowns like Lan Gowns (closed, round-collared robes) and Gowns without Crotch. These new styles of clothes were mostly influenced by Hufu and transformed by combining the habits and etiquette of Han people. While the women's clothing in Tang dynasties was one of the kind among the Chinese clothes. It had bright colors, graceful styles, and gorgeous decorations and accessories. For example, besides the garment and skirt, there was long Pei (embroidered cape), and the special short-sleeved garment that could be worn outside the long garment. Such kind of dressing helped to form the extremely open clothing styles of low-cut collar, bare-armed large sleeves, mantilla, and long skirt.


Traditional Clothing in Song Dynasty (960 A.D - 1279 A.D)


In Song dynasty, the neo-Confucianism and Zhu Xi's idea of "preserving the natural justice and destroying the human desires" were greatly advocated. These philosophical concept imposed impact on people's dressing. Unlike the open and luxurious clothing style in Tang dynasty, Song era clothing became very conservative, serious, and single-colored. Meanwhile, the constant threatening from the north borders and the incompetence of Song emperors had made the the country weak and poor. Therefore, the rulers demanded common people to refrain from extravagance and wear simple clothes. Thereby, the simple and plain style of clothing was popular at that time.


Chinese Clothing in Liao, Jin and Yuan Dynasties (916 A.D - 1368 A.D)


The clothing at this time followed the Han people's clothing system and possessed its own characteristics. The men's clothes in Liao and Jin dynasties were mostly the Robes Without Crotch, which had round collar and sleeves, and pants with girding. The Yuan era clothes had three styles: the round collar robes, cross-collar robes, and the national costume of Zhisun, which was similar to Shenyi with narrow sleeves, short skirt, long garment to knee, and many rivels with a band on the waist. Different styles of collars appeared like the right lapel cross collar, square collar, and round collar. The major colors were white, blue and reddish brown and the cotton fabrics became the major clothing material with the widely cultivation of cottons in Yuan Dynasty.


Hanfu in Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D - 1644 A.D)


From the founding of Ming Dynasty, the policy of abolishing the Yuan era clothing and re-adopting the Hanfu of Zhou, Han, Tang and Song dynasties was made. The regulation had stipulated the Mianfu (religious court dress of emperor) and everyday court dress for emperors, the formal dress and everyday dress of empresses and concubines, the Chaofu (ceremonial court dress) and everyday dress for ministers and officials, and the Jinfu for ordinary people. The opera costumes today are mostly modeled after the Ming clothes. There were many kinds of clothing materials in Ming dynasty and the embroidery technology was quite developed. Therefore, patterns of animals and plants were very common on clothes, especially the official's formal clothes. Different patterns represented different ranks in governmental positions. The everyday clothes for men were Zhiduo (similar to a Zhiju shenyi but with vents at the side and 'stitched sleeves'), Daopao (priest robe), and Pleat Garment. While the everyday clothes for women were garment, coat, embroidered vest, cloud shoulder, paddy field garment and skirts.


Clothing in Qing Dynasty and Modern Times (1644 A.D - 1949 A.D)


The clothing of the Qing Dynasty had a great impact on modern and contemporary clothing styles. In Qing dynasty, the enforcement of "Queue Order" had made the Manchu clothing almost completely replace the Hanfu costumes, except in some remote villages and Buddhism temples, a small amount of people struggled to preserve the Hanfu. Due to the wide resistance to the Queue Order, Qing rulers allowed women to retain their hairstyles and just change their clothes to Manchu styles, which later became Qipao. For men, there were Manchu national clothes and the western clothes two kinds. The Qing era robe styles were developed based on the Manchu traditional robes and absorbed the essence of Hanfu. Generally speaking, the robes at this time had narrow sleeves, small buttons on the middle of front garment or the right lapel to fasten the robe, and round collar. The imperial robes were composed of four pieces of fabrics while the ordinary robes only have two pieces of fabrics. Round collars were very popular, but piwa collars also existed. In late Qing dynasty, the western clothes were brought into China. The traditional Chinese costumes thereby entered the modern times. In the Republic of China, the traditional Hanfu was revived in small scale. Most people wore Zhongshan suit, Qipao and long robe with coat.


Chinese Clothes After the Founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949 - today)


With the prosperity of state operated economy and the special international environment, the Chinese costumes were very simple and mainly in dark colors of green, blue, black and grey. Later, with the reform and opening policy being carried out, Chinese people were exposed to wider world. They began to learn from other nations about their fashions. Until now, the clothes wore by Chinese are nothing different than that of other countries. In the 21st century, some Chinese people began to rethink the traditional costumes and revitalize the Hanfu.


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