China Dresses Up Its Fashion, Reviving Colorful Imperial-Era Costumes

By Arthur Xie
Female graduates dressed in traditional Chinese costumes pose for graduation photos on the glass bridge at the Tianlongchi scenic area in Pingdingshan, Henan province, on June 18. Photo: IC
Female graduates dressed in traditional Chinese costumes pose for graduation photos on the glass bridge at the Tianlongchi scenic area in Pingdingshan, Henan province, on June 18. Photo: IC

(Beijing) — Why doesn’t modern-day China have a national costume that is the equivalent of a Japanese kimono, an Indian sari or a Moroccan djellaba?

This long-running debate was reignited in May when a poster of actress Lin Chi-ling wearing a beautifully crafted “Hanfu” — one of China’s traditional dresses — appeared on the big screen at New York’s Time Square, making passers-by freeze in awe.

Despite the sartorial diversity among China’s 56 ethnic minorities, drab images of stiff Mao jackets or of the “qipao” — a silk dress with a mandarin collar and side slits derived from Manchu fashion— are the first things that come to mind when one thinks of “traditional” Chinese attire.

But Lin’s pea-green silk robe with a mandarin collar and loose long sleeves was decorated with plum blossoms arranged in the shape of butterflies in traditional Han style. According to its designer, Zhong Yi, plum blossoms symbolize tenacity in Chinese culture as they usually bloom in winter, and the butterfly pattern signifies hope for a flourishing spring that carries one through a harsh cold spell.


A photo of actress Lin Chi-ling in a Hanfu appeared on the large screen in New York’s Times Square in May. Photo:

Hanfu is nowadays used as a catchall phrase to refer to all kinds of traditional fashion trends that existed from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) all the way to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and refers to clothes worn by China’s Han ethnic majority.

The clothes, which were first suppressed by Manchu rulers in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), went out of fashion as China became increasingly Westernized in the 20th century. But the rich, ornate costumes that feature white, purple or gold dragons for men and phoenixes flying across bright red silk fabrics for women have made a comeback in the last decade. Several academics interviewed by Caixin said this revival is part of a larger movement that also includes efforts to dust up Confucius classics and breathing life into dying cultural festivals. This comes as more Chinese are becoming nostalgic for traditions that were forgotten during the country’s headlong rush to urbanize and push up economic growth.

Popular period dramas featuring conniving concubines dressed in splendid Tang or Ming dynasty costumes and aired on state TV were also fueling the desire for an “authentic Han Chinese look.”


A cheongsam, or qipao, from the early 20th century is part of the collection of associate professor Zhu Xiaoshan of Tsinghua University. Photo: Li Yingjun

But questions have been raised about the historical accuracy of costumes on television soaps, and now a small group of designers like Zhong are working on creating “accurate” Han clothes. Some are also going a step further and trying to bring back the unique design process behind Hanfu that differs from Western tradition.

Western aesthetic values emphasize on three-dimensional close-fitting clothes that require sewing separate pieces like a collar or sleeves on to a body, according to professor Li Yingjun at the Academy of Art and Design of Tsinghua University. But Chinese tradition is centered on the idea of keeping “all parts together and unified,” and this involves creating a garment from one piece of fabric, said Li, who is also among this new wave of designers. The cheongsam, or qipao, in the early 20th century was still made by a whole garment piece, he added.

“It is about what kind of worldview we choose to look at our traditions,” Li said. “Traditional clothes will have many ‘problems’ if we view it through a Western lens.”


The "cruciform structure," representing a traditional method of clothes making, is shown on garments. Photo: Li Yingjun

“In order to inherit our tradition, it is also important to keep it in our life. To keep it alive, it has to fit in to our lifestyle,” he added.

In recent years, China’s rich have been flocking to boutiques selling homegrown haute couturier replete with traditional symbols. Chinese fashion brands like NE Tiger have taken the catwalks of Paris and Milan by storm with eveningwear inspired by ethnic clothes.

But it is still rare to see anyone wearing Hanfu in real life. Photos of lavish weddings where the couple is wearing Tang or Ming dynasty costumes instead of the popular white wedding gowns that mimic Western tradition are shared on social media from time to time. Culture clubs dedicated to the study of Hanfu have also popped up in universities at home and abroad.

“As Hanfu is the historical clothing of Han Chinese, it is a way to show Chinese history and culture,” said Victoria Guo, a Chinese student and founder of the Sinology Learning Club at the University of British Columbia. “Even many young Chinese people are into Korean pop or Japanese pop, but they are not fans of Chinese pop. So I think Hanfu is a kind of reminder to let people know that Han Chinese have such gorgeous costumes, and that there is a deep philosophy behind Hanfu.”


Design works of “Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk,” a series by Professor Li Yingjun, are shown. Photo: Li Yingjun

While some members of these clubs are nostalgic for China’s lost imperial luster, others are just having fun as they dress up to look like disciples of the philosopher Confucius for their graduation photos.

Sales of cheaper versions of Hanfu that cost about 150 yuan ($22.50) are brisk during college graduation season. But handmade designs could cost as much as 9,000 yuan. Taobao, China’s popular online shopping site, is often a good place to purchase Hanfu, according to Guo. Ziyu, owner of a Hanfu store on the site named Xian Ni Xiao Zhu, told Caixin that sales of Hanfu have been growing 20% to 30% annually in the past five years. Industrywide data is not available to confirm this trend. But lively discussions on Chinese social media on the need to revive Hanfu hint at the popularity of period costumes.

“I really like Hanfu. I hope that our country’s traditional dress can come back to life in our modern daily lives,” wrote one Weibo users named “Cutanzi,” or Vinegar Jar. “Then we can wear them for occasions such as Lunar New Year and other festivals.”

Chinese intellectuals and social reformers have time and again debated the need for a “national dress” for the Han majority. Manchu clothing was widely adopted among the elite during the Qing Dynasty; after the dynasty fell, there were a few attempts to revive ethnic Han clothing. For example, during the short-lived Empire of China (1915-16), warlord Yuan Shikai wore a black Hanfu with blue borders for his coronation ceremony and ordered all attending offices to dress in Han costumes.

But in the Republic era that followed until 1949, leaders were more interested in adopting Western values, including its dress code. Interestingly, it was revolutionary Sun Yat-sen who introduced what is now called the Mao jacket in a move to “Westernize” menswear in the country in the early 20th century. The eagerness to crush “all things old” during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-76 made it a counterrevolutionary act to wear Hanfu.

Then came the headlong dive toward modernization. Professor Li from Tsinghua University, who studied the Naxi minority in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, said some villagers had sold their traditional wedding attire for a few yuan when they had to sell their houses to real estate developers for a tourism project and moved out of the village.


Professor Li Yingjun of the Academy of Art and Design of Tsinghua University says that Chinese tradition, unlike that of the West, is focused on creating a garment from one piece of fabric. Photo: Li Yingjun

“Their traditional lifestyle were challenged by urbanization,” Li said. “So we cannot ask them to always dress as they did in the past. They might abandon their homespun clothes when they have lighter and cool materials to make clothes out of. They may not continue their time-consuming traditional dyeing technique when chemical dyes are introduced at a lower cost.”

Urbanization was threatening ethnic clothing traditions around the world, Li said.

Reviving Hanfu

“Regardless of whether it’s Hanfu or other ethnic clothes, the desire to revive, replicate or study these designs shows that we are starting to pay attention to our own traditions and to like them,” Li said. “It’s a good sign because there was a time that we denied our own tradition and thought that they were out of fashion and not good-looking.”

According to Li, focusing on functionality and reviving Chinese traditional aesthetic values were key to reviving traditional clothes.

Li is a proponent of making Han fashion more practical for modern use. We must “consider how it might fit into today’s life rather than seeing it as a historical thing only,” he said. For example, “people during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) would not wear clothes from the previous Tang period (618-907) because their sense of beauty and lifestyle changed. For example, sitting on chairs was not a common habit for people in the Tang Dynasty, but chairs and tables had become part of life for those who lived in the time of Song,” he said.

The “reformed cheongsam or qipao” is one example of how traditional fashion was successfully modernized. Interestingly it was based on a gown for male scholars, and adapted for women by French-inspired tailors in Shanghai in the 1920s. It was very popular among women, who wore it to do sports or ride bikes, Li said.

It also went beyond functionality. Women’s affirmative action during the May Fourth Movement was another reason for the qipao to become popular among women in China. In “Chinese Women’s Clothing and Body Revolution (1911-1935),” author Wu Hao writes that women who participated in this movement thought that wearing a qipao revealed a new and more equal relationship between men and women — it made women look more similar to men in appearance.

It is also critical to understand the difference between aesthetic values in China and the West before modernizing traditional clothes, Li said.

“The present mainstream of international fashion is still in Europe and North America, but what distinguishes the Chinese style has to be our own tradition rather imitated designs of Western style,” he said.

According to Li, the modern qipao is again a good example of a dress that has kept the traditional form of cloth-making intact while modernizing the appearance or functionality of the dress.

He said its “cruciform structure” represents a traditional methodology of clothes making where the whole garment piece only requires clipping at the side seam except the lapel and collars. When a garment piece is unfolded, it looks like a cross with a slit at the center for the head, which has been seen as a central principle of traditional Chinese garment design for thousands of years.

”As Chinese costume designers, we need to have this notion of connecting tradition and modernity,” Li said. “Through my own design practice, I will be able to know if I can build this connection.”

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