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Ancient Chinese Clothing (Chinese Traditional Style Dress)


In ancient society people lived in crude caves, naked. During the New Stone Age they invented bone needle and began to sew simple winter dress with leaves and animal skins. With the development of the society, people were engaged in agriculture and they started to spin and weave, even sewed coats with linen.

In the class society, dress became the token of social status. It was from the Xia and Shang Dynasties that dress system came into being in China. In the Zhou Dynasty, the system was perfected. From then on the distinctions as to color, design and adornment of dress were strictly made among the emperor, officials and the common people.

China is a multi-national country. Each nation has a traditional culture of its own. The mutual support and inspiration among different nationals made Chinese dress more plentiful and glorious.

During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, the economy boomed and people led a quiet life. People from different countries gathered in Changan and Luoyang to promote the international cultural exchange. Particularly the culture of

middle Asia deeply influenced Chinese dress system.
On the other hand the ideology also directly influenced dress and adornment. During the Warring States period, many vassal states were competing with each other, hence the patterns of dress and adornment became diversified. During the Sui and Tang, the unity of ancient China and the prosperity of economy brought about new thoughts, and the dress became splendid, particularly the decolIetage appeared. Because of the intensity of the feudal ideology, the patterns of dress and adornment gradually became conservative from the Song and Ming Dynasties. Influenced by western cultures, the designs were more fitting and tasteful from late Ming.

The patterns of ancient dress were classified into two groups:"coat-and-skirt" and "one- piece". "Coat-and-skirt" were mainly worn by women and "one-piece" by men.


Stringent rules are made for the color of ancient dress and adornment. Yellow is the most valuable color as a symbol of center. Green, red, white and black symbolize the East, the South, the West and the North respectively. Green, red, black, white and yellow are pure colors applied by the emperors and officials. The common people could only apply the secondary colors. With the development of the society, the colors of the dress, which are more harmonious and form a partial contrast, replace that of remote ages, which was very simple. These changes make the dress and adornment splendid.

The geometrical patterns, the pictures of animals and plants were widely adopted on ancient dress and adornments. Before Shang and Zhou, the patterns were primitive, succinct and abstract. After Zhou the patterns became much neater. The compositions were balanced and symmetric. During the Tang and Song more attentions were paid to the compositions. From the Ming and Qing Dynasties most of the patterns were realistic, and the flowers, animals and mountains-and-waters were all really true to life.

The articles of clothing of past dynasties are one chapter of Chinese long history and culture. They are not only the reflection of the politics and economy of a given society, but also the great contributions for world civilization.

An outstanding characteristic of traditional Chinese clothing is not only an external expression of elegance, but also an internal symbolism. Each and every piece of traditional clothing communicates a vitality of its own. This combination of external form with internal symbolism is clearly exemplified in the pair of fighting pheasant feathers used in head wear originating in the battle wear of the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.). Two feathers of a ho bird (a type pheasant good at fighting) were inserted into the head wear of warriors of this period to symbolize a bold and warlike spirit.

Archaeological findings of 18,000 year-old artifacts such as bone sewing needles and stone beads and shells with holes bored in them attest to the existence of ornamentation and of sewing extremely early in Chinese civilization. Variety and consistency in clothing were roughly established by the era of the Yellow Emperor and the Emperors Yao and Shun (about 4,500 years ago). Remains of woven silk and hemp articles and ancient ceramic figures further demonstrate the sophistication and refinement of clothing in the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th century B.C.).

The three main types of traditional Chinese clothing are the pien-fu, the ch'ang-p'ao, and the shen-i. The pien-fu is an ancient two-piece ceremonial costume of a tunic-like top extending to the knees and a skirt or trousers extending to the ankles. The ch'ang-p'ao is a one-piece garment extending from the shoulders all the way to the heels. The shen-i is a cross between the pien-fu and the ch'ang-p'ao; it consists of a tunic and a skirt or trousers like the pien-fu, but the tunic and the skirt are sewed together and essentially one piece like the ch'ang-p'ao. Consequently, the shen-i was the most widely worn of the three types. Typical of these three types of clothing were wide and voluminous sleeves and a very loose fit. Tunic and trousers or tunic and skirt, utilized a very minimum number of stitches for the amount of cloth used. So because of their relatively plain design and structure, embroidered edgings, decorated bands, draped cloth or silks, patterns on the shoulders, and sashes were often added as ornamentation. These varied designs came to be one of the unique features of traditional Chinese dress.

Darker colors were favored over lighter ones in traditional Chinese clothing, so the main color of ceremonial clothing tended to be dark while bright, elaborate tapestry designs accented. Lighter colored clothing was worn more frequently by the common people for everyday and around the house use. The Chinese associate certain colors with specific seasons: green represents spring, red symbolizes summer, white represents autumn, and black symbolizes winter. The Chinese are said to have a fully developed system of matching, coordinating, and contrasting colors and shades of light and dark in apparel.

- Chinese Style Clothes --- the Vogue of the Day
- Traditional Style Dress Comes Back Into Vogue


Today, Fashion designers use a mixture of traditional and modern ideas to create new fashions. These new fashions also incorporate age-old motifs such as guardian deities, lions, and masks of Chinese opera characters. Chinese bronze is another source of printed, woven, embroidered, and applied design for clothes. Some of the distinctive designs include dragons, phoenixes, clouds, and lightning. Motifs from traditional Chinese painting also end up in woven or printed fashion designs.

In modern society, men are seen at social occasions wearing the dignified and refined traditional Chinese long gown, and women often wear the ch'i-p'ao, a modified form of a traditional Ching Dynasty fashion, on formal occasions. The variations of height, length, width, and ornamentation of the collar, sleeves, skirt, and basic cut of this Oriental fashion are limitless.

Many accessories such as macram are used to decorate shoulders, bodices, pockets, seams, and openings of clothing, as well as belts, hair ornaments, and necklaces. Some successful examples of combinations of modern and traditional fashion elements are the modern bridal tiara, based on a Sung Dynasty design and the Hunan Province style of embroidered sash made in the traditional colors of pure red, blue, and green. From these examples, it can be seen how traditional Chinese dress is the foundation of modern fashion. However, the Chinese have also adopted many Western styles of clothing such as business suits and jeans.

Woman's upper garment of sky blue gauze and elaborate borders
Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Length 97.5 cm, greatest width 143 cm, sleeve hem widths 46 cm, hem widths 93 cm

The garment with low stand-up collar and wide sleeves opens on the right with two pairs of double toggles. The sky blue gauze is woven with a pattern of endless knots and stylized shou characters. A very wide border in several stripes of varying widths, including two black narrow stripes, and variously embroidered with bats, plum blossoms and bamboo, and floral sprigs ornament the collar, the opening, the hems and the sleeves. Garments with this style of decorative border were very trendy in the late Qing period.

For instance, when they are asked to wear black tie, they wear a pair of slippers; when they are invited to barbeque in the open air, they wear a swallow-tailed coat. Anyway, dress code is just dress code but not everybody use the same one.

Similarly, Chinese people pay much attention to their suit. As China is a very traditional oriental nation, it attaches much importance on etiquettes. Take dress wearing for an example. They think to respect others and esteem themselves, they should wear decent dress. So, it's infrequent to see Chinese girls in the very low dress in public. Wearing like that is a great challenge for them indeed.

In addition, Chinese people like red color very much. At festivals or great ceremonies, they prefer to wear red clothing. Even if some people don’t like red, they also choose brightly-colored clothes. In their mind, red symbolizes luck and fortune; only bright colors can match the atmosphere of festivals. If you travel to China or visit your Chinese relatives during the Spring Festival, please prepare some brightly-colored coat in advance. This is so-called ' When in Rome, do as Romans do.'

If you are going to visit a Chinese family, please don't worry about your clothing. Although Chinese people value various etiquettes, they are not very fussy about their guests' clothes. As long as you don't wear too weird or body-revealed, it will be fine. Plain clothes are also acceptable.

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