An Introduction to Traditional Chinese Clothing

What comes to mind when you think of traditional Chinese clothing? In this article, we are going to explore the different styles of clothing that have existed throughout each of China’s major dynasties, the traditional dress of China’s ethnic minorities, and the role of traditional Chinese clothing in modern China.

Clothing throughout the major dynasties

China notoriously has a long history replete with various different dynasties, each special and influential in their own way. However, there are a few that really stand out when it comes to the development of traditional Chinese clothing:

Han dynasty

The Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) was China’s second imperial dynasty and was an age of economic prosperity. It is regarded as one of the most powerful and influential dynasties in Chinese history.

Even today when people think of the Chinese, they usually think of the Han people. The Han (汉族 hànzú) are the dominant ethnic group in China, and consequently Chinese characters are referred to as Han characters (汉字 hànzì). Likewise, the Mandarin language is called the Han language (汉语 hànyǔ) and traditional Chinese clothing is called Han clothing (汉服 hànfú).

During the Han dynasty, clothing designs and styles were more or less the same for men and women. To distinguish between the genders, different colors, fabrics and ornaments were used. This era was known for its “dark style,” which utilized black and red colored fabrics.

Traditional Chinese clothing, called Hanfu, dates all the way back to the Han dynasty.

Characteristics of Han clothing include very wide sleeves and a loose layered look, with clothes usually consisting of two or three garments, mainly a loose open cross-collar garment, a long wrap skirt and an open cross-collar robe used as the outer garment and wrapped around the waist.

There were two main types of robes: the curved hem robe (曲裾袍 qūjūpáo) and the straight hem robe (直裾袍 zhíjūpáo). Women also had the additional option of wearing a 襦裙 (rúqún) – a cross-collar wrap shirt paired with a long skirt.

Tang dynasty

The Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) is usually regarded as one of the most prosperous and culturally significant times in Chinese history. Thanks to booming international trade with neighbouring countries via the Silk Road, Indian, Persian and even western culture was integrated into Chinese culture.

As more fabrics and new dyes were introduced from neighbouring countries, the perfect opportunity was created to facilitate a change in traditional fashion.

Tang dynasty fashions reflected the prosperous, cosmopolitan nature of the era.

Tang fashions were very colorful, and people put a lot of thought into their outfits. The main materials used were wool, linen and silk, with the latter signifying high status. Silk was exclusively reserved for the noble class due to its price.

Gold and yellow were the exclusive colors of the emperor and royal family, and gradually evolved into symbols of imperial power. Other colors could be freely used by all social classes.

In general, women often wore long sleeved shirts with wide sleeves and collars that showed their cleavage. These shirts, which were considered quite revealing and daring in comparison to previous dynastic fashion trends, were tucked into long flowing skirts decorated with geometric patterns and secured by a sash tied around the chest.

Independent Tang dynasty women wore clothing that was considered revealing and daring at the time.

Makeup during this era was also quite daring, with drawn-on eyebrows, lead face powder to create the illusion of very white skin, and flower-like patterns painted between the brows.

Men’s clothing was a continuation of the styles seen in the Han dynasty, but with more options. Daily outfits consisted of solid-colored robes with rounded collars, usually accompanied with leather belts and boots.

Ming dynasty

Throughout China’s dynastic history, there were periods where some parts or even all of imperial China were ruled by non‐Han peoples, mainly from Manchuria or Mongolia. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE) was a Han ethnic majority regime that immediately followed the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty.

The start of the Ming dynasty represented a restoration of Han control, so one major aim of the Ming ruling class was to promote Han culture and enhance the Han people’s sense of identity within the new regime. Therefore, clothing styles closely resembled that which were seen in the Han dynasty, albeit with a twist – removing the influence of foreigners and ethnic minorities.

Ming dynasty fashions were similar to those of the Han.

Men’s fashion revolved around square collars and patterns which were used to distinguish between social class and rank. Such patterns or “markings” consisted mainly of embroidered designs featuring animals, plants, and geometric patterns.

Men typically wore their hair in a bun and officials wore a futou (襆头 fútóu), which was a black hat with two wing-like flaps made of thin, oval shaped boards on each side.

Women’s clothing became more modest during the Ming. Most women wore a midi length upper garment over a floor-length skirt. This ensemble helped create the illusion of an elongated silhouette.

Another type of style was the (袄裙 ǎoqún), a pleated skirt paired with a cross-collar cotton top that extended down below the waist. Light and pastel colors were extremely popular.

Women’s fashions during the Ming were more modest and frequently featured pastel colors and cross-collar tops.

Embroidered capes also became part of the ensemble for both men and women’s clothing. Usually, these capes had a straight collar with open sleeves.

Qing dynasty

In the 17th century, the nomadic Manchu people overthrew China’s Ming dynasty and established in its place the Qing dynasty (1636-1912 CE).

The Qing dynasty was ruled by the Manchus, a non-Han ethnic group whose traditional clothing preferences shaped fashion trends during this period.

The Qing dynasty clothing system was extremely complicated and came with a lot of different rules and regulations. During this dynasty, a robe easily revealed the wearer’s rank. The dynasty’s color was yellow, and this auspicious color was reserved only for the royal family.

Qing dynasty fashion was largely influenced by the cavalry clothing of the Manchu horsemen.

Men typically wore a tangzhuang (唐裝 tángzhuāng), a kind of jacket with a straight collar inspired by the original three-quarter-length riding jackets of the Manchu horsemen. This was usually paired with an ankle-length wrap skirt. Manchu men also shaved the front part of their hair, leaving the rest in a braid that hung behind their heads (called a queue).

Qing dynasty officials, like Li Hung-chang (pictured here), wore clothing influenced by their Manchu ancestors.

Initially, the Qing dynasty was extremely draconian when it came to clothing rules, and many Han Chinese were forced to either adopt the Manchu male hairstyle and clothing or face the death penalty. However, this later became a rule applicable only for those who served as officials or scholars, and not ordinary people.

Manchu women traditionally grew their hair long in preparation for marriage, and married women had a wide variety of hairstyles to choose from – the most common one being the Liangbatou (两把头 liǎngbǎtóu), which was the hairstyle adopted by Empress Dowager Cixi. This style consisted of a tall headdress that had two handfuls of hair parted to each side of the head and decorated with flowers and ornaments.

Unlike the men, Han women were allowed to wear the Han-style clothing from the Ming dynasty and did not need to wear the traditional Manchu hairstyle for women. The everyday clothing style for women from wealthier families consisted of a side or front-fastening robe with a wrap-around pleated apron skirt.

During the Qing dynasty, non-Manchu women were free to wear Han-style clothing, and many did.

When most people think of traditional Chinese clothing for women, they usually think of the qipao (旗袍 qípáo), also known as the cheongsam. The qipao has its origins in the Qing dynasty and was the dress of the Manchu women. However, the qipao didn’t really become popular in Hong Kong and Shanghai until the 1920’s, after the fall of the Qing dynasty.

Traditional clothing of other ethnic minorities

Today, the People’s Republic of China officially recognizes 55 different ethnic minority groups in addition to the Han. Therefore, Chinese apparel also includes a wide variety of clothing worn by members of different Chinese ethnic minority groups. Many of these minority clothing styles are still widely in use today, especially in rural areas. Here are a few examples:

Dai ethnic minority (傣族 Dǎizú)

Although the Dai are amongst the 55 ethnic minorities of China, they also belong to a larger family of Dai ethnic groups that also live in neighboring Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Their traditional clothing thus reflects a mixture of different cultural influences, with designs closely resembling traditional clothing worn in Southeast Asia.

For example, many Dai women wear a tight-fitting shirt and narrow long skirt or sarong which closely resembles the traditional Thai silk wrap skirt. Traditional male clothing consists of collarless jackets accompanied by loose trousers.

People from China’s Dai ethnic minority group wear clothing that incorporates many Southeast Asian elements.

Tibetan ethnic minority (藏族 Zàngzú)

Due to the harsh weather and barren plains of the high Tibetan plateau, many Tibetans use real sheepskin, fur garments and leather shoes in order to protect themselves from the cold and harsh weather. Due to the drastic weather changes throughout the day, layers are worn and taken off to be tied around the waist as the temperatures change.

In general, both men and women wear long robes made of wool, sheepskin, leather or cloth that are secured around the waist. Women sometimes wear elaborate headdresses usually made out of silver, coral and turquoise for various special occasions and to demonstrate their age and marital status.

Modern Tibetan people often wear long robes secured at the waste. Image credit: Anne Meredith.

Uyghur ethnic minority (维吾尔族 Wéiwú'ěrzú)

Uyghur clothing is deeply intertwined with Islamic culture and their proximity to the Silk Road. As a result, the culture of the Uyghurs incorporates aspects of the cultures of neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.

Women traditionally wear long-sleeved dresses decorated with silk embroidery. Golds, reds, and blacks are the most popular colors. Xinjiang produces the majority of the world’s cotton, so it is a widely used material in Uyghur clothing. The same holds true for satin and silk, and women usually use silk scarves as head coverings. Uyghur women tend to wear a lot of jewelry to compliment their outfits.

Men wear a long caftan with a long scarf tied at the waist and a “chapan,” which is a woolen coat worn during the colder winter months. Men also traditionally wear a doppa, which is a skull cap also worn by men in neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Uyghur women often cover their heads with colorful scarves. Image credit: Anne Meredith.

Zhuang ethnic minority (壮族 Zhuàngzú)

The majority of the Zhuang people live in Guangxi province. Their clothing is very plain and largely consists of muted and earthy colors such as brown, black and blue. The Zhuang are excellent craftspeople and have historically always self-spun, self-woven, self-sown their own clothes.

Men usually wear a black tang suit with wide fitting trousers and a waist tie, sometimes paired with a turban depending on the weather.

Women generally wear a collarless jacket which is usually blue and black, with slightly wider trousers, black turbans on their heads and aprons around their waists. Embroidery can be found on the cuffs and bottom of the placket (an opening or slit in a garment).Their traditionally plain outfits are usually paired with silver earrings, bracelets and decorative head accessories. Straw shoes are commonly used by those working in the fields.

Women from the Zhuang ethnic minority group tend to wear dark-colored clothing with embroidered accents.

CLI regularly hosts trips to the Longji Rice Terraces for students enrolled in our Immersion Program, allowing students to experience the alluring beauty and tranquility of Chinese village life, whilst simultaneously learning about the Zhuang ethnic minority who are amongst the main inhabitants of Ping’an (Zhuang) Village in Longsheng.

Traditional clothes in modern China

In recent years, traditional Chinese clothing has become increasingly popular in modern China. This is especially true amongst members of the younger generation.

A source of pride and cultural recognition

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in traditional Chinese culture in China, some of which can be attributed to the rise of period dramas. More and more Chinese youth advocate the revival of traditional Chinese clothing (mainly 汉服 hànfú) and some have even begun to wear these styles whilst engaging in everyday leisure activities.

Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see a group of Chinese teenagers or young adults wearing traditional clothing while ordering a bubble tea and strolling around in the downtown areas of major cities. Many now view traditional clothes as a source of national pride and a way to showcase the beauty of Chinese history and culture.

Formal occasions

Traditional clothing is also a popular choice for more formal occasions and celebratory events. For example, many women choose to wear the qipao for formal dinners and Chinese New Year galas and qipaos are also sometimes used as professional uniforms for workers in the high end hospitality industry.

Modernized qipaos are popular uniforms among high-end restaurant workers in China today.

Haute Couture

Many creative artists and designers working in the world of haute couture have created designs that fuse various international styles, using traditional Chinese clothing as inspiration and completely redefining the notion of “made in China.”

Some famous haute couture designers who include traditional Chinese elements in their designs are Laurence Xu, Guo Pei, Huishan Zhang and Wang Chen Tsai-Hsia (AKA the Chanel of Taiwan). Even western fashion houses such as Dior and Elie Saab have created collections entirely inspired and influenced by Chinese embroidery and imperial designs.

The new face of Chinese fashion?

Despite the ever changing trends within the fashion industry, more people in China are looking back to the traditional dress of their ancestors in order to honor their heritage and bring back a touch of ancient charm to our modern, digitalized world.

No matter which dynasty you consider, each has left its unique mark on traditional attire and continues to do so even in the 21st century. They say fashion repeats itself, but rather than following the typical 25-year repetitive cycles used in the fashion industry today, perhaps unearthing and revamping trends from hundreds of years ago is the new way forward.

Traditional Chinese fashion is currently experiencing a resurgence.

Traditional Chinese clothing vocabulary

ChinesePinyinEnglish
传统服饰chuántǒng fúshìtraditional clothing
少数民族shǎoshù mínzúethnic minorities
历史lìshǐhistory
朝代cháodàidynasty
着装要求zhuózhuāng yāoqiúdress code
长袍chángpáorobe
发型/发式fǎxíng/fǎshìhairstyle
辫子biànziqueue (braid style)
丝绸sīchóusilk
miáncotton
刺绣cìxiùembroidery
贸易màoyìtrade
外国影响wàiguó yǐngxiǎngforeign influence
社会阶层shèhuì jiēcéngsocial class
高级时装gāojí shízhuānghaute couture
复兴fùxīngrevival
民族自豪感mínzú zìháogǎnnational pride

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