Let us travel through the history of Chinese fashion


2018-05-09 12:51 GMT+8

Imagine we’re in a time machine –the TARDIS from Doctor Who perhaps– about to go on our field trip for Chinese history class. Like in every story and in every adventure we need a place to start; and our journey begins back in the Xia (2100-1600 BC) and Shang (1600-1050 BC) Dynasties. During these periods, especially in the Shang era, it is believed that the foundation of Chinese fashion was set. Depending on class, rank and occupation the narrow, cuffed, knee-length shirt jacket, ankle-length skirt, long fabric that hung down to the knee and the tied sash would have differed. No matter how the style had changed the vibrant color pattern was uniform.

The swiftly moving current of the cosmos guide us to our next destination—the Zhou Dynasty (1046-221 BC). Clothes became more than just stitched fabric, it became the symbol of power. The importance of hierarchy was further emphasized by the color, length, width, and type of accessories. Color had so much influence that if a commoner wore the specific shade worn by the emperor they would face persecution or sometimes even the death penalty. Although, certain colors were forbidden for citizens, it was during the Zhou Dynasty that the famous dress jacket consisting of a waist jacket, lower floor-length skirt and a long silk belt with jade at the end became highly popular. The reputation of the Zhou Dynasty’s dress jacket still prevails till this day.

As we finish up our notes while travelling through the distorted time lapses a faint sound greets us to our next location. Under emperor Qin Shi Haung’s rule and unification, China witnessed the birth of a new era—the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). Emperor Qin sought out to unify all the social and practical aspects of the former dynasties as well as the segregated nation, hence came the consolidation ideology. Through his attempts he unified the color of choice, black. Due to his fascination with ying and yang and the five-elements theory (a Chinese ideology of tying certain colors with specific natural forces), by using the color black he wanted to harness the power of water to extinguish the fire resembling red of Zhou Dynasty. Albeit the radical change in color the styling of the clothes did not change; they still consisted of long one-piece garments with loose large sleeves.

Welcomes us now is the “Golden Age”, Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). The Han dynasty had such an immense influence that till this day the era’s reputation is well known. It was such a vital part of China that Chinese majority ethnic citizens are called “Han Chinese,” the traditional dress is called “Hanfu,” the caricatures as “Hanzi” and the language is “Hanyu.” The black coloration continued into the Han Dynasty where it mostly resigned in the Western regions of Han Dynasty. They wore cicada-like hats, one layer coat s with twin diamond-shaped collars, sloping necklines, square sleeves with jade hanging decorations and to top it off wore it with red shoes. However, in the Eastern region the color red returned in fashion. The government officials changed their uniforms with the seasons, unlike their hats. Which hat they wore signified which rank they were.

Pack up your things, because our next location is the peak of China’s peace and prosperity, the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). The Tang period diversified the clothing option for women, forming a large selection from short skirt jackets and long skirts, or loose-sleeved shirts, long skirts with long shawls or low-cut gowns, high waistbands and full flowing skirts. Shoes were made from silk or woven from grass. The role of hair got promoted to frame the elegant female face. During the Tang Dynasty on special occasions the dà xiù shān was worn by the Tang ladies. Being directly translated as “Big Sleeved Shirt”, it quickly started a fan base due to its sophisticated and relaxed manner, for many millennia the love for dà xiù shān kept the culture alive in many parts of modern China.

Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), simplicity trumped the flamboyant aspect of the Hang Dynasty. Men went back to wearing plain robes and shirts with straight or diagonal collars topped off with a silk head wrap. For common women they adapted the Beizi style which consisted of a knee-length outer jacket with straight collar that had two feet long slits under their armpits and wide or narrow sleeves. However, royal women wore majestic sleeves, long skirts, colorful silk shawl and a hanging piece of jade. The skirts of the high-class women were passed down from the Han Dynasty, thus coming in various of styles and shades.

Our next location is special, with the invasion of the Mongols came a new wave of fashion. In the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD) the combination of Mongolian and Chinese fashion gave a rise to Zhi Sun. A dress which was suited for all classes and genders. Although with dress was acceptable for riding horses, the length of the dress caused difficulties thus the Bi Jian or Panzi Da Wu, a double sided leather coat with either no collars or no sleeves, became advantageous. For the high-class females, long loose gowns with moon-shaped shoulders, wide sleeves, narrow cuffs, red and gold embroidered brocades accessorized with fur and silk became the norm.

Oh dear, it seems that we don’t have that much time left in our schedule. Our next stop is the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). The fusion of Zhou, Han, Tang and Song dynasties styles were implemented in Ming era. The development of the attires for each social class, rank and gender took over 20 years to develop. The Ming Dynasty’s officials dressed with robes and gowns, circle collars, wide sleeves, black edges and black hanging belt. With each symbol on the gown signifying the class and social status it made it easy for the citizens to recognize them. However, the commoners wore much simple clothes, the men wore plain, straight long gowns and Taoist gowns. Although their clothes were ordinary they did have the choice to select their head accessories from several thousand pieces. The common women wore plain gowns, coats, shawls, short tops, skirts and paddy robes (a rectangular piece of fabric made from multiple textiles). In the beginning the skirts of the Ming Dynasty were meek, with monotone tints and simple designs on the bottom two inches; however, nearing the end of the dynasty skirts had evolved into mesmerizing form of apparel longed by all.

The last destination in our tour is the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD). China was taken over by the Manchurians, the ethnic minority located in the northern regions of China. This caused a domino effect, shifting the fashion sense of Chinese culture. The most recognizable feature of the Qing Dynasty is the half-shaved head with a long braid. Females wore rectangular waist-less silhouette, short narrow sleeves, saddle-shaped collars, plate buttons and embroidered designs. The body-hugging one-piece outfit Cheongsam or Qipao was made during the Qing Dynasty, due to Manchurian influence. In addition to crafting the lovely dress, the Manchu forged the “flower pot shoes” or “horse hoof shoes” which was worn under the qipao. The complementary footwear had four-inch high souls erecting from the center of the shoe; these made the ladies look slender and taller. During the Qing Dynasty feet binding became popular. Taking root in the upper classes as the symbol of wealth, it later spread to commoners. Young girls would bind their feet to fit them in 4 inch (10 cm) long shoes. Ouch! Talk about claustrophobia. Looks like we have run out time and you have the next period to attend to.

Hope you took lots of notes and made lots of memories during this trip. Please be safe on your way out of the TARDIS, until our next adventure.

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