The story of clothing and costumes is one of the most fascinating developments in human history.
Every nation in the world has its unique traditional clothing, from which the particular histories and cultures could be recognized, so as for people to be able to distinguish one citizen from another.
China, as a multi-ethnic and time-honored country, has many ethnic minorities who have their indigenous culture. The mutual influences among these different cultures have contributed to the rich textures and fabrics of history and have made Chinese clothing with great variation and glory.
Traditional Chinese dress & clothing has been shaped and developed alongside the interactive influences between the outside world and China’s own dynastic traditions.
Every different dynastic has different scopes of territory, social values, social norms, etc. Therefore, many aesthetic standards were made according to the environments (socially, geographically, economically, politically) of certain dynastic. This is the main reason why traditional Chinese clothing has such many styles.
5 Types of Traditional Chinese Clothing & Dress
For exploring the world of traditional Chinese clothing, it is necessary to learn the most classic 5 categories. Which are, respectively, Hanfu, Cheongsam, Tang suit, Zhongshan suit, and customs of the minority ethnics.
Every category has its own production techniques and considerable discrepancies could be observed when comparing different categories or 1 category at different times.
This article provides a brief introduction to each category. By reading the following contents, the basic frameworks of traditional Chinese clothing could be structured.
Hanfu, with the name oriented from the Chinese meaning ‘Han people’s clothing’, encompassing all types and styles of traditional clothing worn by the Han Chinese.
The Han Chinese trace a common ancestry to the Huaxia, a name for the initial confederation of agricultural tribes living along the Yellow River. The term Huaxia represents the collective Neolithic confederation of agricultural tribes Hua and Xia who settled along the Central Plains around the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River in northern China.
Hanfu, as its definition, born at the beginning of the history of Han ethnicity. Therefore, it has the longest history among all traditional Chinese clothing.
History of Hanfu
Hanfu has a history of more than three millennia. From the beginning of its history, Hanfu was inseparable from silk, supposedly discovered by the Yellow Emperor’s consort, Leizu.
Hanfu dominated the Chinese fashion world from the reign of the Yellow Emperor (2969 BC-2598 BC) to the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).
Each dynasty has its own styles and aesthetics. For instance, Shenyi in Pre-Qin Dynasty; Ru dress in Qin and Han Dynasty; Tiaowenjiansequn in Wei Dynasty; Bambi in Sui and Tang Dynasty, etc.
Some dresses are popular and worn by people in different dynasties, some are just a flash in the pan. In both cases, all Hanfu has evolved and influenced by each other to some extent.
Even though there are plenty of Hanfu styles, each of them could be assembled by a set of clothing pieces.
Yi (衣): any open cross-collar garment, and worn by both sexes
Pao (袍): any closed full-body garment, worn only by men in Hanfu
Ru (襦): open cross-collar shirt
Shan (衫): open cross-collar shirt or jacket that is worn
Qun (裙) or Chang (裳): skirt for women and men
Ku (裈): trousers or pants
Apart from these, ancient Han Chinese were also accessorized with tassels and jade pendants or various ornaments hung from the belt or sash, known as Pei (珮).
Follows are the introduction of some Hanfu styles.
Zhongyi (中衣): inner garments, mostly white cotton or silk
Shanqun (衫裙): a short coat with a long skirt
Ruqun (襦裙): a top garment with a separate lower garment or skirt
Kuzhe (裤褶): a short coat with trousers
Zhiduo/Zhishen (直裰/直身): a Ming Dynasty style robe, similar to a shenyi but with vents at the side and ‘stitched sleeves’
Daopao/Fusha (道袍/彿裟): taoist/ buddhist priests’ full-dress ceremonial robes
Xuanduan (玄端): a very formal dark robe; equivalent to the Western white tie
Shenyi (深衣): a long full body garment
Quju (曲裾): diagonal body wrapping
Zhiju (直裾): straight lapels
Yuanlingshan (圆领衫), Lanshan (襕衫) or Panlingpao (盘领袍): closed, round-collared robe; mostly used for official or academic dress
Cheongsam, also known as Qipao (旗袍) in Mandarin, is a traditional dress that has its origins back in the 17th century. It is a type of famine body-hugging dress with distinctive Chinese features of Manchu origin. During the 1920s-1930s, it was called mandarin gown and popularized by upper-class women in Shanghai. (here: learn basic Chinese?)
In the Qing dynasty, China was ruled by Manchus rather than Han Chinese. The rulers used an administrative division called the Eight Banner system. Originally, only the Manchu households were organized within this system, but over them, Mongols and Han Chinese were incorporated.
The Manchus, and anyone living under the Eight Banners system, wore different clothing from ordinary civilians. Such clothing consisted of similar long robes for both men and women and was known as Changpao.
For a period of time, under the dynastic laws after 1636, all Han Chinese were forced under penalty of death to adopt the Manchu male hairstyle, the queue, and dress in Manchu Changpao instead of traditional Han Chinese Clothing.
However, in the 19th century, it was very common for females to wear Qipao on both formal and casual occasions voluntarily.
Nowadays, Cheongsam is recognized around the world and has inspired many foreign adaptations because of its simple yet exotic lines. It is popular because it fits the Chinese female figure well, has simple lines, and looks elegant. It is suitable for wearing all year round for both young and elderly groups.
Modern females do not wear qipao as everyday attire. Cheongsams are now worn only during formal occasions like weddings, parties, and beauty pageants. Qipao is also used as a uniform at some Chinese restaurants, hotels, and, airlines.
It is popularly worn in China as a wedding dress, traditionally in red. Cheongsam is usually embroidered with elaborate gold and silver designs. Brides in southern China wear Qipao or a modified two-piece style, which is elaborately adorned with a gold dragon and phoenix pattern. Dragon and Phoenix is a traditional wedding dress favored by Chinese brides nowadays.