An Introduction to Traditional Chinese Dress
China has a long and storied history of creating extraordinary traditional clothing. People in China began making hand-woven clothing as far back as prehistoric times, according to archeological discoveries. Chinese ingenuity also led the world in silk-woven products for more than 3,000 years, and high-quality clothing has defined traditional wear as iconic and exquisite.
Although China’s world-renowned reputation tends to be pictured in traditions that seem familiar to visitors, traditional Chinese clothing has evolved significantly. Silk-weaving and sewing methods have led the numerous ethnicities across the vast Asian nation to develop unique clothes, techniques, and styles. Simply put, there is no single traditional piece of clothing that epitomizes China’s ancient and diverse style. There are, however, historical threads that bind the culture and traditions together.
History of Chinese Clothing
Chinese clothing has been closely associated with a person’s station in life for thousands of years. Clothing designers worked diligently to build a “Kingdom of Clothes” that identified people by wealth, social status, and royalty, among other things. As the skill and manufacturing moved forward, traditional Chinese fashioned evolved as well. Many of the iconic styles are closely associated with specific dynasties, including the following.
- Han Dynasty: During this era, people of certain stations in life were required to wear specific costumes. For example, imperial officers changed the color of their outfit based on the season. Female workers generally adorned short jackets and dresses, while men wore calf-nosed pants and aprons. Advancements in yarn-dyeing and embroidery opened the door for enhanced costume adornments.
- Tang Dynasty: This period was marked by Chinese prosperity and the clothing ranks as, perhaps, the most iconic. Colorful women’s long flowing dresses were usually crafted from fine silk, and their elaborate hair adornments were remarkable. The fashion industry looked to other cultures and expanded on its own traditions to include items such as flowing scarves.
- Qing Dynasty: This era ended in 1911, and the designs are closely associated with modern Chinese clothing styles. Women wore snug-fitting, sleeveless dresses that often button down the left side. The clothing designs were highly conscious of accentuating a woman’s natural grace and beauty. While the West was enjoying an expansive Renaissance, China closed its doors to outside influences and protected its traditions. Clothing signified rank, wealth, and position.
- Modern Era: Since the 1930s, Qipao and the Longfeng Kwa dress are considered iconic and remain traditional clothing options. These close-fitting outfits began as everyday wear for slim women until the 1960s.
Although Chinese clothing traditions are embedded in history, trends, and evolving culture, there are clearly identifiable things that tie them together.
Traditional Chinese Clothing Styles
If there’s a common thread that runs through traditional Chinese clothing, it’s the way designers created streamlined base styles that could be accentuated. From the earliest fashions, China’s clothing designers crafted distinctive, yet simple, options that could be built upon. The tradition of a simple, elegant dress that could be embellished with ornamentation, embroidered, or accessorized with items such as sashes and bands runs throughout the various dynasties and ethnicities. These rank among the most recognizable clothing items.
- Dragon Robe: The Emperor traditionally wore the dragon robe as a symbol that he represented the mythical heavenly creature. The costume features buttons down the right, a rounded collar and was often yellow.
- Imperial Officer Uniforms: Ancient Chinese culture required government officials to wear specialized uniforms, so they could be easily identified. During the Ming Dynasty, civil servants wore the likeness of feathered creatures. Beginning with the lowest rank, civil officers were expected to wear a crane, followed by a golden pheasant, peacock, wild goose, silver pheasant, egret, purple mandarin duck, oriole, and lastly the quail.
- Ethnic Minorities: China enjoys a wealth of diversity, and there are 54 identifiable ethnic minorities. Each values traditional clothing specific to their subculture. For example, the Mongolian and Tu ethnicities generally wore gowns that button in the front with high collars. In Tibet and Monda, collarless gowns with buttons on the side are preferred. While many traditions have evolved over the centuries, the Han Dynasty styles remain prevalent today.
- Tang Zhuang (Chinese Suit): The traditional Chinese suit for men is a blend of the Manchu jacket dating to the Qing Dynasty and Western-influenced color.
- Seasonal Considerations: Similar to the Western tradition of not wearing white after Labor Day, Chinese culture identifies a specific color to each season. Appropriate traditional Chinese clothing colors include green for spring, red for summer, white during autumn, and black during the winter months.
- Weddings: Red remains the favorite color worn at Chinese weddings and is considered good luck.
In ancient China, clothing with patterns such as peonies or water lilies are generally associated with wealth, prosperity, and elegance among women. Each dynasty and ethnic minority put its fingerprint on the evolution of fashion and style in China. During the Xia Dynasty (21st — 17th century BC), black was the favored color. Whites ruled clothing during the Shang Dynasty and red during the Zhou era. Understanding traditional Chinese clothing often means recognizing the style, colors, and adornments worn during a Dynasty and by a specific person.
How to Make Traditional Chinese Clothing
Although China enjoys the diversity of more than 50 ethnic minorities with nuanced clothing, visitors often associate the Qipao dress, also known as Cheongsam, with traditional garb.
The Qipao is recognized by its high neckline the ornate clasps that fasten this silk dress. Women working in Beijing’s restaurants and other businesses that greet visitors often wear Qipao-style dresses. They are also commonly worn during ceremonies as a symbol of Chinese culture. These dresses are also generally accompanied by a colorful opera mask. Artists have been painting the accompanying masks for thousands of years in China. If you are interested in making your own Qipao dress and accompanying mask, follow these steps.
Making a Qipao Dress
- Select a dress pattern kit from a local Beijing fabric shop or order one online.
- Select a silk fabric and suitable zippers or buttons that match the pattern.
- Cut out the paper pattern and pin it to your fabric.
- Sew the cutout fabric together according to the instructions.
- Complete the edges and topstitch by using bias tape.
- Attach fixtures and suitable accessories.
Making a Mask
- Purchase a ceramic mask from a Beijing shop or online resource.
- Purchase paints and brushes specifically for ceramic surfaces.
- Keep in mind that colors are associated with specific meanings in Chinese culture.
- Pencil your design onto the mask
- Paint the mask and allow it to dry overnight.
Where to Buy Traditional Chinese clothing in Beijing
Among the most prominent brands in Beijing, Gege Qipao and Mu Zhen Le Qipao can be purchased at most shopping malls. These include the Malls at Oriental Plaza, Wantong New World, and Xidan Saite Shopping Mall in Beijing, among others.
If you are interested in a custom-designed Qipao dress, or a traditional men’s Tang suit, considering visiting one of the luxury shops. A perfectly fit custom dress or suit generally takes anywhere from 24 hours to 10 days to complete. Many of the Beijing Chinese tailors who custom-design outfits can reproduce a wide range of traditional clothing options. You may want to visit several tailors and consider traditional clothing from various Dynasties before selecting the option that best suits your unique style.