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Chinese dress through the ages
Xin Hui

Short top with long skirt tied with a silk waistband from the Ming dynasty

Each dynasty in China had its own memorable culture. The many facets of color and design that emerged during a dynasty’s reign were marvelous and made every aspect of Chinese culture, including their wearing apparel, highly acclaimed works of art.
The costumes of ancient China were emblems of Chinese tradition, as well as an essential element in the history and culture of each dynasty. Costume maintained an important place in Chinese culture for more than three thousand years. The culture of China is ancient and well established, brilliant and resplendent. The costumes are likewise magnificent and colorful. There were many dynasties throughout China’s history, each having its own unique style of dress. And each style would change or disappear as its dynasty changed, declined, or was replaced.

With the advent of each new dynasty and the progression of time, costumes were revolutionized. The style was classical and conservative in the Qin and Han dynasties, luxurious and glamorous in the Tang dynasty, delicate and exquisite in the Song dynasty, graceful and magnificent in the Ming dynasty, and very intricate in the Qing dynasty.

Stylized costumes first appeared in the Yellow Emperor, Yao and Shun periods. Chinese characters were invented during the ancient Yin Shang period. Although eighty percent of the characters were pictographic drawings, they were quite sufficient for writing and had special pronunciations. The inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells in the Shang dynasty, from about the 16th to 11th century B.C., show characters representing the social classes at the time, including wang (monarchs), chen (officials under a feudal ruler), mu (shepherds), nu (slaves), and yi (tribesmen). There were also words that related to dress and personal adornments, such as as yi (clothing), lu (shoes), huang shang (skirts), and mei (sleeves). Ornaments of varying value, like jade pendants, jade rings, earrings, necklaces, combs, silk fabrics, burlaps, and copper decorations, have been found on excavated statues. Valuable, exquisite items belonged to the aristocrats exclusively, not slaves or tribesmen.

With the developments and advances made regarding textiles, articles of clothing for different functions began to appear, such as dresses, skirts, crowns, footwear, hats, and stockings. Costume styles evolved from simple and practical to ornamental. This is reflected in the invention of “twelve designs of symbols.”

Looking at the patterns and styles of clothes in history books such as The Rites of the Zhou, Book of Rites and Rites, you can see that Chinese clothing evolved from nothing to very simple and functional styles, and then to styles that were quite complex. During the Ying Shang period, the etiquette, music, rituals, and clothing showed no evidence of any distinction among different social classes. Starting in the Western Zhou dynasty, however, class distinction became apparent, as evident in the differences in clothing and personal adornment. More and more variety in clothing also appeared, depending on the occasion. For example, paying respects to the gods and making obeisance to heaven and earth at the palace temples required special clothing. Special clothes were worn for grand ceremonies. There were army uniforms, wedding ceremony outfits, bereavement clothes, and so on. Clothing at the time was still made in accordance with old systems and thus had dark tops and yellow bottoms, but official garb included four-inch-wide sashes made from silk or leather that were worn over the lapels. Other costumes included jade adornments on the waist belt linked together with silk ribbons. In addition, clothing of different colors indicated different social classes.

During the Warring States, the costume of the seven dukedoms of Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei and Qin, each developed changes accordingly. The so-called “skirt around the front of the body" style actually referred to loose-cut cloth with wide rims that was wrapped around the lower body. The ancient designers wrapped the cloth ingeniously from the front of the upper body to the back, making full use of horizontal and diagonal lines to complement space and achieve both quietude in motion and motion in quietude. Materials were light and thin, and stiffer brocade was used to embroider the borders with wavy patterns that reflected the wisdom and intellect of the designers.

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