The Evolution of Fashion in China

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People tend to blindly accept history to be all factual, however, history is way more complex than that. The difficulty with history is that since it is obviously in the past, one needs to rely on sources from people who are no longer alive and therefore can not be asked questions. Different cultures concealed certain aspects of their history, as well as made up certain aspects, so how can historians possibly come up with an accurate representation of different cultures when there is conspiracy that the sources they are deriving information from could be bias or even completely false? The answer is complicated, but to simplify it: historians do their best to look at all different resources to draw conclusions from each in order to construct the best possible understanding of the past. One needs to look at all different resources from the past because they build on one another and support each other. When studying history, people tend to find information through sources such as material evidence and sacred texts. There is even debate over which is more accurate and whether one needs to look at both to fully deduce a culture’s history. In debating over which can create a better portrayal of history, people are completely disregarding all of the other, less obvious, sources. People do not realize that sacred texts and material evidence are only two of the many different resources that can be used by historians.

An additional and very important indicator of a culture’s history is the fashion throughout different eras. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, fashion is defined as the prevailing style, as in dress, during a particular time. Unfortunately, people tend to overlook fashion and undermine its importance as a role in helping formulate an accurate depiction of history. Clothing and trends can help deduce production methods, class structures, customs, and more. Fashion is therefore an extremely helpful resource for historians to gain insight into the social world of different eras. Looking at China, specifically, the fashion changed immensely over the course of their history, from when the Qin and Han dynasties were ruling to modern times; however, some elements managed to survive throughout time. Fashion is influenced by cultural changes, therefore, the evolution of fashion in China reveals a great deal about Chinese society. Throughout the course of ancient Chinese history, clothing has been a symbol of social status. Since the class system was always extremely strict, the ruling class manipulated clothing in order to enhance their social position and distinguish themselves from those they considered lesser than them. There were many rules set in place on what people of different statuses were allowed to wear. The clothing that the elite class wore was distinguished from the clothing of commoners through the way in which the cloth was cut and the fabric that it was made from. The basic garment for all classes and both genders was more or less the same, with each class wearing a different variation of it. It was a loosely cut robe that consisted of a sash, sleeves that were anywhere from narrow to wide, and a left panel that was worn over the right panel. The specific detailing of the robe changed over time but the basic idea endured. Those that were part of the upper class wore this robe in a variation that was ankle length and had wide sleeves that dangled. Sometimes, they would also wear a coat or jacket over the outfit. Those that were a part of the working class wore a shorter variation of the robe that went down to either their thighs or knees. They would wear trousers, leggings, or a skirt underneath. It was socially acceptable for both men and women to wear either skirts and trousers. Additionally, the working class outfits were more dull and plain and the upper class outfits were more decorated, bright, and elaborate.

Another dictator of dress was the weather; in cold weather, people of all different classes wore padded and quilted clothing. The difference was in the type of fabric that their clothing was made out of. A very popular fabric for upper class individuals was silk floss because it was elegant, lightweight, and also a very warm padding material. The Chinese were firm believers in different symbolism, which was clearly portrayed in the way they dressed. There was a system set in place that associated each social ranking to a particular color and pattern. For example, the emperor’s clothes were always made in different shades of the color yellow because yellow symbolizes the center and the Earth. The emperor’s clothes had twelve patterns that symbolized imperial authority. As for officials, they also had a strict system regarding the colors of their clothing. During the Tang Dynasties, civil and military officials were divided into nine ranks. Officials with a grade of three and higher wore purple robes, grade four and five wore scarlet, grades six and seven wore green, and grade eight and nine were blue. The wife of an official would wear the same color clothing as her husband. Additionally, there were robes for every occasion. There was a ceremonial robe that was formal attire for the emperor and high ranking officials to attend the ceremony of offering sacrifices to gods and ancestors. Not only did the Chinese use fashion to distinguish social class within their culture, but also used clothing as a cultural marker to distinguish themselves from people on their borders whom they regarded as barbarian. The chinese regarded silk, hemp and latter 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.

Not only was there different dress to distinguish social classes, but not surprisingly, the dress varied for men and women. 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. Each dynasty that came to power brought is own culture of dress to China’s history. Therefore, when new styles of clothing appeared, it often indicated that a new dynasty had arisen. Under the Qin and Han dynasties, which ruled from 221 B.C.E to 220 C.E, many social systems were created, including one for uniforms to distinguish people's ranks and social positions. The Qin dynasty unified China in 221 BCE, therefore, even though the dynasty itself was short lived, it had a lasting effect on China by setting a precedent for imperial rule for the next four hundred or so years. The Han dynasty built themselves on the Qin foundations and modified those foundations to reshape Chinese civilization. The Qin dynasty is most famous for two monuments: the underground army of terracotta soldiers found in Zi’an and the Great Wall. The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, who was the first Emperor of China. The terracotta soldiers are a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE with the purpose of protecting the emperor in his afterlife. The terracotta army provides excellent evidence of the clothing that the soldiers and officers wore during that time period. Almost all of the terracotta officers were made with a flat bun covered by distinctive headgear. The soldiers all wore a hat or a hood. As for clothing, a majority of terracotta warriors wore knee-length gowns. However, some superior officers were made with dual-layer gowns, highlighting the system of social hierarchy. The soldiers wear knee-length gowns and short pants. As for armor, almost all of the officers were covered by armor with a smooth edge, which was used to protect them in battle. Since there were many different rankings of soldiers, the armor differed. The soldiers wore relatively simple armor coats compared to the officers and many do not even have armor. As for shoes, all of the terracotta officers wore shoes which had basically the same boat shaped appearance with a thin sole, low sides and a curled toe cap. The shoe soles had dense stitches on the front and heel parts to resist skidding, and sparse stitches on the arch to ensure comfort. The soldiers wore shoes similar to the officers but the toe caps were less curved. All of these aspects show how even in its early stages, China was advanced in their way of life, especially fashion.

After the fall of the Han dynasty, there was a period of disunity, in which northern China was frequently ruled by dynasties of invaders, while southern China remained under the control of a series of weak Chinese rulers. Therefore, depictions of dress from northern China show a lot of styles suitable for people riding horses. Also, Buddhism arrived in Central Asia during the Han period, prompting the production of typical Buddhist monks’ robes, as well as more formal ombre dyed garments. The yarn-dyeing, embroidering and metal-processing technologies developed rapidly in the period, spurring changes in costume and adornments. Chinese clothing experienced a rapid development during the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern dynasties, which ruled from 220 to 589 C.E. Many philosophical schools of thought influenced both people's lives and the devising of ideas of clothing design. Next, came the Tang Dynasty, which ruled from 618-907 C.E. Under the Tang dynasties, China was reunified and entered upon a period of wealth and cultural brilliance. Since Chinese society was thriving, it enabled people to place more focus on the arts. The capital city of Chang’an was the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world at the time. It supported a true fashion system, comparable to that of the modern West. Hairstyles and makeup changed rapidly in fashion driven patterns. One way that historians know about the rapid change of fashions at the time is through ceramic statuettes which were produced in huge numbers for the placement in tombs. These statuettes often depict people in contemporary dress.

Additionally, under the Tang, trade along the Silk Route between China to the Mediterranean world, flourished. The Tang government was tolerant, and even appreciated religions, art, anda culture from the outside world. The Silk Route allowed for Chinese fashion to be influenced a great deal by foreign ideas, such as Persian and Turkish culture. The emergence of fashion was directly related to developments in the silk industry, which reached record production levels during this period. A remarkable later Tang fashion was called “fairy dresses,” which had sleeves cut to trail far beyond the wearer’s hands, wing-like appendages at the shoulders, long aprons trailing from the bust line almost to the floor, and triangular applied directions on the sleeves and down the sides of the skirt. Additionally, the Tang had a strong military that we know about from the depictions of soldiers and cavalry in armor and heavily padded jackets that are seen in Tang sculptural and pictorial art. Important to note is that near the end of the Tang dynasties, dancers inspired a fashion for small feet that led to the later Chinese practice of footbinding. Bound feet were considered a status symbol as well as a mark of beauty, women, therefore had trouble finding husbands if their feet were not bound. Foot Binding is an aspect of fashion representing the oppression of women; they were forced to put themselves in pain for the sake of what men found attractive. Next, came the Song and Yuan dynasties, which ruled from 960 to 1279 C.E. Though the Song did not amount to the Tang in military glory or geographic extent, they experienced changes in state, society, economy and technology that profoundly affected China’s future. There were also many advances in philosophy and art that created a heritage of classic dimensions that for centuries to come inspired and challenged thoughtful people throughout East Asia. These dynasties were 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. Additionally, during this time, “dragon robes” appeared for the first time.

In China, the dragon is the highest ranked animal in terms of animal hierarchy. The dragon is held in high regard for its representation of dignity and power. Chinese people have a long held belief that they are the descendants of the dragon, a tradition that is firmly embedded in their culture. Therefore, the Chinese began producing embroidered robes with dragon patterns to represent power. These robes were made exclusively for the emperor. The robes were made vibrant with symbolism: they were embroidered with nine yellow dragons, five cloud patterns, which are interlaced with twelve other patterns- the sun, the moon and the stars (representing the light of the throne), mountains (representing stability to changes), bird (elegance and beauty), water reeds (purity and cleanliness), and fire (light). The Yuan Dynasty 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, helmet-like 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 dynasty, which ruled from 1368 to 1644, and was the last native Chinese dynasty, reincorporated northern territories ruled by non-Han regimes for almost two and a half centuries and for a short time even established rule over northern Vietnam. The Ming maintained a stable culture and experienced notable achievements in literature, philosophy and the arts. Historians are made aware of the prosperity of the Ming in part due to the fashion trends. Because of the expansion of production of goods of all kinds, there were many variations of clothing available to all (with the exclusion of the lowest class of society). The dragon robe was adopted for standard court wear for emperors, members of the imperial clan, and high officials. Official court robes for women were similar but decorated with phoenixes (the feminine yin to the male yang of the dragon).

A codification of court attire was developed through the use of “Mandarin squares,” which are 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. These embroidered squares were made in pairs to be worn on the back and front of an official’s plain over-robe. Manchus from the northeast overthrew the Ming Dynasty. They introduced new styles of clothing for official use. Men wore short robes with trousers or wide skirts, cut more closely to the body than the flowing Ming styles. A distinctive feature of the Manchu robe was its “horseshoe sleeves,” which were designed to cover and protect the back of a rider’s hands. During the Qing Dynasty, from 1644 to 1911, China reached its greatest geographical extent; the economy grew, as did the population; the elite and popular culture flourished. Politically, economically, and culturally China was easily comparable to the most advanced societies on earth, including those of Europe. However by 1800, the Qing had seen its best days. It was the last of China’s dynasties.

In October of 1911, a group of revolutionaries in southern China led a successful revolt against the Qing Dynasty, establishing in its pace the Republic of China and ending the imperial system. After this revolution, new styles arose to replace traditions of clothing that seemed inappropriate to the modern era. China struggled to adopt new fashion trends that embraced a modern era but also maintain traditional Chinese styles. Western clothing was not popular. Many men continued to wear a form of traditional clothing until the mid-twentieth century (a plain, blye, long gown for scholars and older, urban men, jacket and trousers of indigo-dyed cotton for workers). In the 1910s, a new outfit emerged for urban elite. It had a fitted jacket fastened with buttons in front, decorated with four pockets, and made “Chinese” by the useem of a stuff, high “Mandarin” collar, worn over matching trousers. This outfit became known as the Sun Yat Sen suit, after the father of the Chinese revolution. As for women, the Quiapo became accepted as the traditional women’s dress. By the late 1950s, there was a strong political and social pressure for people to dress in more revolutionary styles. By the time of the Cultural Revolution, the quiapo had been denounced as “feudal” and the wearing of the blue Mao suit was nearly obligatory. Fashion made a return in the 1980s: fashion magazines 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. Chinese dress today is a reflection of global fashion.

Fashion is clearly directly related to what was going on in Chinese society throughout different time periods. Historians are able to learn so much about China based on its fashion. Since fashion trends changed significantly throughout the dynasties, fashion represents the growth of Chinese culture. In most history classes, fashion is overlooked and underappreciated, people do not realize how much information they can be exposed to through studying fashion. The trends of a time tend to be reflective of the prosperity or lack thereof. Fashion is a form of expression and a way to portray different social classes, as well as gender roles. It can therefore discriminate against certain minorities. Regardless, fashion can open one’s eyes to the world and is therefore very important to study. Today, China’s influence on the global luxury and fashion industry is growing rapidly. Evidence for this is that in last year’s winter New York Fashion Week, for the first time in its 75 year history, there was a dedicated day featuring Chinese designers and brands. New York Fashion week is expected to see an influx of Chinese brands, designers, influencers making an impact on the mainstream fashion scene. Chinese fashion designers are also making appearances at top fashion shows in cities such as Milan and London. The future of Chinese fashion is very exciting because the Chinese tend to be more open to experimentation than the West. China’s demand for fashion and accessories is expected to continue to expand and become increasingly sophisticated in the future. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, China is even expected to possibly overtake the United States as the largest fashion market in 2019. Chinese fashion has clearly experienced immense changes throughout the years and in the future, there is much more to come.

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The Evolution of Fashion In China. (2021, Apr 08). Retrieved December 1, 2023 , from

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