Shorts - Ethnic Garments & Accessories
Chinese clothing changed considerably over the course of some 5,000 years of history, from the Bronze Age into the twentieth century, but also maintained elements of long-term continuity during that span of time. The story of dress in China is a story of wrapped garments in silk, hemp, or cotton, and of superb technical skills in weaving, dyeing, embroidery, and other textile arts as applied to clothing. After the Chinese Revolution of 1911, new styles arose to replace traditions of clothing that seemed inappropriate to the modern era.
Throughout their history, the Chinese used textiles and clothing, along with other cultural markers (such as cuisine and the distinctive Chinese written language) to distinguish themselves from peoples on their frontiers whom they regarded as "uncivilized." The Chinese regarded silk, hemp, and (later) cotton as "civilized" fabrics; they strongly disliked woolen cloth, because it was associated with the woven or felted woolen clothing of animal-herding nomads of the northern steppes.
Essential to the clothed look of all adults was a proper hairdo-the hair grown long and put up in a bun or top-knot, or, for men during China's last imperial dynasty, worn in a braided queue-and some kind of hat or other headgear. The rite of passage of a boy to manhood was the "capping ceremony," described in early ritual texts. No respectable male adult would appear in public without some kind of head covering, whether a soft cloth cap for informal wear, or a stiff, black silk or horsehair hat with "wing" appendages for officials of the civil service. To appear "with hair unbound and with garments that wrap to the left," as Confucius put it, was to behave as an uncivilized person. Agricultural workers of both sexes have traditionally worn broad conical hats woven of bamboo, palm leaves, or other plant materials, in shapes and patterns that reflect local custom and, in some cases, ethnicity of minority populations.
The clothing of members of the elite was distinguished from that of commoners by cut and style as well as by fabric, but the basic garment for all classes and both sexes was a loosely cut robe with sleeves that varied from wide to narrow, worn with the left front panel lapped over the right panel, the whole garment fastened closed with a sash. Details of this garment changed greatly over time, but the basic idea endured. Upper-class men and women wore this garment in a long (ankle-length) version, often with wide, dangling sleeves; men's and women's garments were distinguished by details of cut and decoration.
Sometimes a coat or jacket was worn over the robe itself. A variant for upper-class women was a shorter robe with tighter-fitting sleeves, worn over a skirt. Working-class men and women wore a shorter version of the robe-thigh-length or knee-length-with trousers or leggings, or a skirt; members of both sexes wore both skirts and trousers. In cold weather, people of all classes wore padded and quilted clothing of fabrics appropriate to their class. Silk floss-broken and tangled silk fibers left over from processing silk cocoons-made a lightweight, warm padding material for such winter garments.
Men's clothing was often made in solid, dark colors, except for clothing worn at court, which was often brightly ornamented with woven, dyed, or embroidered patterns. Women's clothing was generally more colorful than men's. The well-known "dragon robes" of Chinese emperors and high officials were a relatively late development, confined to the last few centuries of imperial history. With the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911, new styles of clothing were adopted, as people struggled to find ways of dressing that would be both "Chinese" and "modern."
Cloth and Clothing in Ancient China
The area that is now called "China" coalesced as a civilization from several centers of Neolithic culture, including among others Liaodong in the northeast; the North China Plain westward to the Wei River Valley; the foothills of Shandong in the east; the lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze River Valley; the Sichuan Basin; and several areas on the southeastern coast. These centers of Neolithic cultures almost certainly represent several distinct ethnolinguistic groups and can readily be differentiated on the basis of material culture. On the other hand, they were in contact with each other through trade, warfare, and other means, and over the long run all of them were subsumed into the political and cultural entity of China. Thus the term "ancient China" is a phrase of convenience that masks significant regional cultural variation. Nevertheless, some generalizations apply.
The domestication of silkworms, the production of silk fiber, and the weaving of silk cloth go back to at least the third millennium B.C.E. in northern China, and possibly even earlier in the Yangtze River Valley. Archaeological evidence for this survives tombs from that era; pottery objects sometimes preserve the imprint of silk cloth in damp clay, and in some cases layers of corrosion on bronze vessels show clear traces of the silk cloth in which the vessels had been wrapped. Silk was always the preferred fabric of China's elite from ancient times onward.
As a proverbial phrase put it, the upper classes wore silk, the lower classes wore hempen cloth (though after about 1200 C.E. cotton became the principal cloth of the masses).
Depictions of clothed humans on bronze and pottery vessels contemporary with the Shang Dynasty (c. 1550-1046 B.C.E.) of the North China Plain show that men and women of the elite ranks of society wore long gowns of patterned cloth. Large bronze statues from the Sanxingdui Culture of Sichuan, dating to the late second millennium B.C.E., show what appears to be brocade or embroidery at the hemlines of the wearer's long gowns. Later depictions of commoners portray them in short jackets and trousers or loincloths for men, and jackets and skirts for women. Soldiers are shown in armored vests worn over long-sleeved jackets, with trousers and boots.
Chinese silk textiles of the later first millennium B.C.E. (the Warring States Period, 481-221 B.C.E.) testify to the possibility of making very colorful and elaborately decorated clothing at the time. Surviving textiles also demonstrate the widespread appeal of Chinese silk in other parts of Asia. Examples of cloth woven in the Yangtze River Valley during the Warring States Period have been discovered in archaeological sites as far away as Turkestan and southern Siberia. Painted wooden figurines found in tombs from the state of Chu, in the Yangtze River Valley, depict men and women in long gowns of white silk patterned with swirling figural motifs in red, brown, blue, and other colors; the gowns are cut in such a way that the left panel wraps over the right one in a spiral that goes completely around the body. The gowns of the women are closed with broad sashes in contrasting colors, while the men wear narrower sashes. Bronze sash-hooks are common in tombs from the second half of the first millennium B.C.E., showing that the style of narrow waist sashes lasted for a long time. Elite burials also demonstrate a long-enduring custom of the wearing of jade necklaces and other jewelry.
China: History of Dress By John S. Major