Ancient Chinese clothing: dresses and outfits

Ancient Chinese clothing: dresses and outfits

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The Chinese style of clothing emanated certain messages in society in the ancient feudal period. Garments were considered as more than just mere fabrics to cover one’s body. Everyone could easily figure people’s social status and rank out from what they wore on a daily basis. This applied for the upper-class. For instance, the color yellow was strictly assigned to the Emperor. The dragon emblem on traditional Chinese imperial dress that served as an exclusive affirmation of their power. Meanwhile, the ministers, councilors, generals and the wives were regulated for a certain number of embroidered cranes or lions, etc.

China is famous for its reputation for producing exquisite silk. It was the first nation in the world to cultivate silkworm and pioneered silk weaving. This was dating back to Neolithic ages six thousand years ago. They reserved silk for the rich. The poor could receive punishment for wearing something made of silk. Peasants wore clothing made of hemp, which is a rough material made from plant fibers. Traditional clothing played a vital part of Chinese civilization. It has a significant role in the country’s culture and history. Today, however, the Chinese wear modern clothes. They are not much different from their western counterparts. The culture of wearing traditional attires is still very much alive. People wear them during ceremonies, festivals or religious occasions.

Below is the list of popular ancient Chinese clothing that made up the society in the ancient period and inevitably contributed to the development of Ancient China history.

Tunics (Xia Dynasty)

Tunics (Xia Dynasty)
Tunics (Xia Dynasty)

In Ancient Chinese time, fashion mostly consisted of loose-fitted robes. The surviving artworks suggest that during the first dynasty, Xia dynasty (2000 B.C.E – 1700 B.C.E), men donned tunics that reached their knees while women usually wore tunics that reached the ground. Under the long skirt, women also put on a pair of high-heeled clogs with some embroidery on them. Sleeves were long and loose-fitting. The robe was often coupled with a sash that served as a belt to the waist. It was usually worn as ornamentation and to hold the clothing together. The belts were probably conditional as it depended on the weather. Buttons, however, were absent at the time as they weren’t developed for a long time to come. In terms of color, people in the past preferred darker shades of clothing instead of light ones. Common people preferred light colors.

Basically, the higher the rank one had in the society, the better the clothes they donned were, including the length of a skirt, the amount of ornamentation and the wideness of a sleeve. In the past, fashion was mostly unisex and cut uncomplicatedly. However, as the dynasties kept changing, gender began to play a significant role. This is evident when people preferred padded jackets over tunics during the winter months. Even women’s clothes became more open in Sui and Tang dynasty. The sleeves became smaller while still maintaining their long skirts. They could bare the skin above their chests and this sort of clothing could show their beauty. The style gradually underwent change until it came the distinct style of clothing for both men and women called the Mao Suit and cheongsam, respectively. Cheongsam was baggy and wide in the past but today it’s more form-fitting and has a high slit on one or both sides. It was modernized in the 1920s Shanghai and became the popular ancient Chinese clothing among the upper class and celebrities alike. It became one of the nation’s national dresses in 1929. The Mao Suit, on the other hand, is more of the Chinese version of the western business suit.

Han Fu: Traditional Clothing of Han People

Han Fu: Traditional Clothing of Han People
Han Fu: Traditional Clothing of Han People

The literal meaning of Han Fu is Han clothes. Han Fu was used to serving as the typical clothing for the ethnic group of Han which lasted for more than three millennia before it was outlawed when the Qing Dynasty began (1644-1912). The term Han Fu actually came into being in recent years thanks to internet users who felt the need to name the people’s clothing during the Han Dynasty. This ancient Chinese clothing has quite a legendary origin whose roots can be traced back more than 4,000 years, when Leizu, the great sage Yellow Emperor’s (2598 – 2698 BC) consort made clothes with silk. When western Zhou Dynasty began, Han Fu became to be the method of distinction among social classes. The level of decoration of a dress, the wideness of a sleeve and length of a skirt influenced by the height of one’s rank. This outfit was made up of a knee-length tunic tied with a sash, a "yi” (narrow cuffs) and a Shang (narrow knee-length skirt). The clothing has a long piece of fabric which reached the knees which were called a “bixi.”

This ancient Chinese clothing is referred to a long flowing robe. They have a belt at the waist and loose sleeves. However, it is actually more of a diverse term that encompasses different styles of clothing from various dynasties. However, the Shang dynasty created the fundamentals of the Han Fu clothing. Han Fu is considered a symbol of authentic Chinese culture that reflects Confucian scholars’ aspirations towards music, rituals and moralistic ideals. This type of clothing is more for comfort rather than impression. Here’s how one wears a complete set of a Han Fu clothing:

• Yi: an open cross collar unisex garment

• Pao: a close body garment (donned by men)

• Re: an open cross collar shirt

• Shan: an open cross collar shirt (can be a jacket too) which is worn over you

• Qun /Chang: a unisex skirt

• Bixi: a knee-length piece of garment attached to the front of the sash

• Ku: pants or trousers

Jewelry and Adornment

Jewelry and Adornment
Jewelry and Adornment

Not only for the body, but Chinese in the past also took their head adornment seriously. Just like the fabric that they donned, jewelry and adornment were part of the social status during the ancient time in China. The rich fancied headgear. Jewelry also served as the social rank signifier. The best hook or buckle was the most important jewelry for men while women wore a lot of combs or hairpins. Ancient Chinese liked jade more than other stones and they tended to give preference to silver over gold. This particular penchant for jade was due to its qualities that were human-like such as durability, hardness, and beauty. Jade is still marveled by many even today and it’s not cheap. Therefore, it has always been worn by rich individuals. The poor also wore jewelry, though they were standard jewelry. They mainly wore it for protection against evil spirits rather than for adornment.

The hat or cap also had a long history in ancient China for it was part of custom code. The hat was worn by the men when they reached their 20s (maturity sign) while women favored hairpieces. Unlike today, ancient Chinese hat covered only the part of the calvaria with its narrow ridge. Modern caps cover the whole head. Social hierarchical rule and social status were also defined by the cap. The poor weren’t allowed to adorn their heads with the hat. Ancient Chinese people also placed importance on the hair. Men tied their hair into a knot on top of their head while women braided as well as coiled up their hair in many styles before decorating it with hairpins. Girls were forbidden from curling up their hair with hairpins until they were married.

Pien Fu

Pien Fu
Pien Fu

This is, by far, the most popular ancient Chinese clothing that is still favored by many in the modern time. It is a historical outfit of the Han people that consists of a knee-length tunic over a pair of pants or a skirt. The rest of the outfit is more of a secondary piece like pants for men or a skirt for women. This portion reaches to the ankles. A pien is a cylindrical ceremonial cap. It is wide and has voluminous sleeves. The design that primarily utilizes straight lines is typical of this dress along with the loose fit that forms natural folds, regardless whether the fabric is bound with a sash at the waist or is allowed to hang straight. In the past, it was considered to be a ceremonial outfit and people still wear it today for the same purpose as well.

Pien Fu was available in many different colors. They were even associated with specific seasons. People opted a certain color for certain purposes as well. For example, they donned this two-piece clothing in black during winter or they preferred the green one for it represented growth, harmony, and prosperity. Red, on the other hand, symbolized the summer. It is said that the Chinese have long had a fully developed system of coordinating, matching and contrasting colors as well as shades of dark and light in apparel. Since people opted for darker color more, the primary color for much ceremonial clothing also tended to be dark while elaborate, bright tapestry designs accented.

Sheni

Sheni
Sheni
Sheni
Sheni

A cross between Pien Fu and Chang Pao is called Sheni. This style of clothing was reserved for all genders and was invented by the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771 – 256 B.C.E). People of all classes and of the different profession was allowed to don their Shenis. That is probably what made it very popular at the time. The Sheni is considered as a combination of the Pien Fu. The dress is a combination of a tunic and a skirt that are stitched together so that it becomes a single long suit. This style of clothing was extremely famous in Ancient China for it was a common dress among the scholars and government officials.

One could see the Pien Fu influence on this outfit from the cuts and folds. Plus, the draping of the dress which utilized excessive clothing was heavily inspired by Pien Fu as well.

Chang Pao

Chang Pao
Chang Pao

When the Manchu came into power in China in the 17th century, their style of clothing was also strongly encouraged. Chang Pao consisted of a robe that reached to the ankle with long, horseshoe shaped sleeves that could be rolled up. In other words, this is more of a one-piece cloth that broadens from the shoulders all the way to the heels. Chang Pao was meant to cover the entire body for it even covered the heels. This piece of a garment was made of one piece of material. There were also four cuts in the fabric which allowed for easy movement: front, back, left and right. The overall design of the clothing was mainly due to the fact that the Manchus were usually horseback riders. Over time, these cuts would lessen to two before vanishing. The disappearance of Chang Pao was ultimately replaced by qipao which was the style of clothing that is still widely worn by female today.

Since Manchu came from the Northern area. Winter was much colder than Central China. The sleeves were designed to cover their hands during winter times. The sleeves were curled up, however, during hunting or conducting other daily businesses. Due to the integration of Manchu and Han cultures as well as the changing lifestyles, Chang Pao ultimately altered to two slits.

The Shenyi

The Shenyi
The Shenyi

The men used to wear a traditional attire called Shenyi. The name was derived from the Shenyi Centre of Chinese Medicine. Its existence began during the Shang dynasty and it has been an informal male dress ever since. Scholar-official in Ming and Song Dynasty wore Shenyi. This type of clothing was made up of Ramie fabric which must be bleached and then produced 60 cm wide textile. The chang (skirt) and Yi (blouse) were sewn together. There were four panels on the upper part of the cloth which represented the four seasons in a year. Meanwhile, the 12 panels of fabric sewn made up the lower part. This represented the 12 months in a year. The sleeves of the Shenyi were wide with a black cuff. There was also a wide sash that was tied in front.

The Shenyi was donned for official functions and ceremonial events. It was popular during the Shang dynasty. The influence of Shenyi went as far as Japan and Korea. You could see the influence of the Shenyi on Kimono and Hanbok. However, its fame ceased when the Tang dynasty began to rise.

Head Clothing: Tang Official headwear, Song Official headwear, Ming and Phoenix Crown

Head Clothing: Tang Official headwear, Song Official headwear, Ming and Phoenix Crown
Head Clothing: Tang Official headwear, Song Official headwear, Ming and Phoenix Crown

Kao or Phoenix crown is a traditional headgear for women in Ancient Chinese. It was popular in the Ming dynasty and worn by noble women on official occasions or ceremonies. Brides also wore them at the time and were adorned with gold dragons. This headgear was made of kingfisher feathers, pearls, beaded pheasants and gemstones. The number of pearls used is atrocious, ranging from 3426 to 5449 pieces, while they used up to 128 pieces of gemstones. All these kingfisher feathers, gemstones, and pearls were then decorated into ornamental flowers, clouds, leaves, and bobbin (the ‘wings’ at the back or side of the crown).

Hats were the official headgear of the Song dynasty officials in which they had two wing-like flaps adorned on both sides. Both flaps were straight and very stiff. They could extend up to almost a meter each. Emperor Taizu of Song came up with this design so that his officials would be kept apart during assemblies by the flaps and would not whisper to each other.

As for the Ming dynasty, the Han Chinese official headwear also consisted of a hat, a black one, where it also came with two wing-like flaps called the whammo. Only these flaps were oval shaped and thin boards situated on each side. Ordinary citizens were forbidden from wearing it unless they were attending events that involved officials or noble families. Bottom line, caps or hats signified social status and rank.

Paneling Lanshan

Paneling Lanshan was the official male attire popular during the Ming dynasty. Students and scholars alike wore this outfit. It was not donned on with a crossed collar undergarments. This garment had wide sleeves and had distinctive black edges. A round collar secured with a button was also what distinguished it from the other baggy, loose-fitting attires in the past. This outfit must be paired with a crossed-collar undergarment underneath. The Lanshan may or may not have side slits, with side panels, so as to hide the undergarment. This type of clothing came into existence since the Tang dynasty rose to power.

Dragon robe: the passed on a garment

Dragon robe: the passed on a garment
Dragon robe: the passed on a garment

The dragon is one of the most powerful symbols in Chinese ancient culture. The composition of many animals, including an eagle, a snake, a devil, and a tiger, the dragon symbolized the natural world and transformation. Chinese emperors from at least the 1st-century B.C.E were already associated with it in which they wore luxurious robes adorned with figures of dragons. When the Qing Dynasty began in 1644, the dragon robe had already become so important. This popular ancient Chinese clothing was donned by the emperor and his ruling circle. The basic form of the dragon robe was actually simple. It was a long robe that reached to the ankles and had long sleeves with a circular opening for the neck. In the traditional Chinese style, there was a huge front panel on the wearer’s left side of the garment that was wrapped and fastened at the right side. Its simplicity was more than made up for in the richness and intricacy of the decoration and fabric.

The dragon was, without a doubt, the key element on the robe. Most dragon robes had one large dragon located in the center of the garment while the smaller dragons were on the lower down of the hem and the sleeves. The dragons swam on a sea of intricately patterned material, with natural scenes, geometric designs, waves or other brightly colored figures adorned. The dragon robes worn during the Qing dynasty sent signals about the distinction and rank of the wearer. Robes with five-clawed dragon were typically worn by the emperor and his sons along with other chosen court members of high distinction. Certain princes, as well as lower nobles, usually wore a robe with the four-clawed dragon. The end of Qing dynasty ultimately led to the end of the dragon robe as well. This was due to the fact the representative government of the revolution forever terminated the customs of the imperial court.

All these popular ancient Chinese clothing styles truly reflected the lifestyle of Chinese people. Some of them though failed to survive and ceasing to exist. It is because of the symbolism embraced in the clothes as well that help people today to unearth the traditional Chinese culture in the past.

Tags: ancient Chinese clothing, Chinese ancient dresses, Chinese ancient clothes, clothing in ancient China, ancient Chinese commoner clothing, ancient Chinese outfits

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