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Mandarin collars in the 1920a
China gave the world mandarin collars, frogged fastenings and butterfly buttons. The Chinese have traditionally worn layers of thick cotton coats in the winter. Even today cold days and very cold days are often referred to as "two-coat weather" and "three-coat weather." In the Mao era, many people wear puffy-looking denim jackets and trousers in the winter that were lined with cotton and look as if they were stitched from quilts. Even today old people used to harsh winters wear three sweaters, quilted pants and slippers in their homes.

Peasant girls often wear loose shifts or balloon-seated pants. Small children sometimes wear pants with the seat cut out so they don’t soil their clothes. Simple lightweight shoes are the norm. Many peasants wear plastic sandals. Some still wear straw shoes. In western China, Muslim women wear veils, often not for religious reasons, but to keep out the dust.

On the clothes and hairstyle of a kneeling archer in the China's Terracotta Army,Verity Wilson, expert on the history of Chinese textiles and clothing, told the BBC: “If we look back at pottery figures, at stone relief carvings, we see that in fact trousers were fashionable, or at least practical, for men in Liu Bei's time. Liu Bei would have worn trousers, a sort of skirt-like scarf around his waist, a sleeveless jacket and armour over his chest, of course. Like all Chinese men at the time, he would wear his hair long, curled up in a bun at the top, and fastened with wonderful trailing silk scarves and sometimes just bound with a jade band. He was rather an impressive figure, and I think that some of the depictions of him today probably are not far off what he really looked like. [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 15, 2012 >>>]

The Mongols “introduced buttons," Wilson said. "Prior to this time, men and women had always closed their robes with some sort of belt. But, the Yuan dynasty is credited with bringing to China the toggle-and-loop button, which now today we just call Chinese. It's a real marker of Chinese dress that they're closed with these toggle-and-loop buttons. But they didn't really come in until the Yuan dynasty."

Good Websites and Sources: Oriental Style ; University of Washington ; Traditional Chinese Apparel ; Chinese Moods ; Ancient Moods ; Asia Recipe Asia Recipe ; Chinatown ConnectionChinatown Connection ; Cheongsam China Vista ; Adornments China Vista


Silk in China

leftUsed for thousands of years to make clothes in China, silk is a wonderfully strong, light, soft, and sensuous fabric produced from cocoons of the Bombyx caterpillar, or silkworm. Of all the fabrics, silk is regarded as the finest and most beautiful. It has a wonderful sheen---the result of triangle-shaped fibers that reflect light like prisms and layers of protein that build up to a pearly sheen---and can be dyed a host of wonderful colors. The former fashion editor of the Washington Post Nina Hyde wrote, “Designers revel in its feel, its look, even its smell." [Source: Nina Hyde, National Geographic, January 1984]

Silk can be used for all sorts of things. In addition to being woven into fabric, it has been made into cold cream in China, beauty powder and parachutes in the United States, teeth braces in Italy and fishing nets around the world. Bicycle racers say that tires made with silk give them a smoother ride and better traction. Skiers like it because it wicks away moisture. Scientist say it is stronger than steel. In Japan silk artists are revered as national treasures. In India corpses are covered with silk shrouds as a sign of respect. Frugal Ben Franklin splurged on a silk kite for his famous electricity experiments and the first French atomic bomb was dropped from balloon partly made of silk.

Silk production is largely automated and done in factories but the raising of silk worms to make silk is still very much a “cottage industry” done primarily at people’s homes. In some places governments provide anyone who is willing to raise silkworms with 20 kilograms of very small silkworm grubs, which are placed in special boxes in special rooms and fed mulberry leaves gathered from trees near the homes of the people raising them.

Silk brocade is used to make special clothes worn by men and women on New Years's, weddings and celebrations for the birth of a son.

Early History of Silk in China

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spinning wheel
According to a Chinese legend, silk was discovered in 2460 B.C. by the 14-year-old Chinese Empress Xi Ling Shi who lived in a palace with a garden with many mulberry trees. One day she took a cocoon from one of the trees and accidently dropped it hot water and found she could unwind the shimmering thread from the pliable cocoon. For hundreds of years after that only the Chinese royal family was allowed to wear silk. Xi Ling Shi is now honored as the goddess of silk.

The oldest concrete evidence of silk weaving is a bronze urn dated to 1330 B.C. with impressions made my silk threads. The provincial museum in Hangzhou houses silk threads and embroidery knots that may be 4,500 years old. In 1982 brickyard workers stumbled across a ancient tomb from 300 B.C. with remarkably well preserved silk quilts and gowns.

The secret of making silk remained in China for 2,000 years. Imperial law decreed death by torture to anyone who disclosed it. No one is sure when the secret first seeped out of China, but it is known to have reached Japan by way of Korea by the A.D. forth century and is said to have been brought there by four Chinese girls. It is also said that silk was brought to India by a Chinese princess who hid eggs and mulberry seeds in the lining of her head dress. See Silk Road, History

Silk and Cashmere Industry in China

See Agriculture and Resources, Economic

Imperial Clothing

left The members of the court had three sets of clothing: regular, court and ceremonial. Imperial clothes were made with silk, gold, sliver, pearls, jade, rubies, sapphires, coral, lapis lazuli, turquoise, agate, various kinds of fragrant woods, kingfisher feathers and thread made from peacock feathers. Beginning in the Sui dynasty (581-618 A.D.) the emperor appropriated the color yellow and prohibited other people from wearing it based on a purported precedent set by the legendary Yellow Emperor.

Imperial clothing accessories included belts, ceremonial hats, regular hats, hairpins, headdress ornaments, bracelets, thumb rings, fragrance pouches, purses, watches, rosaries, belts (regular, court and ceremonial), necklaces, hat finials, hat decorations, silk purses, shoes for bound feet, hats with jeweled knobs, headbands, silk kerchiefs, fans, rings, buttons, hooks, earnings, brooches and fingernail guards.

Robes were the most visible and decorated garments. They were usually made of silk and featured lavish colors, exquisite stitching and a variety of embroidered decorations and symbols. Most pieces that remain today date to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Qings (Manchus) were horse people and many of their garments were designed for riding on horses. Many robes have long horseshoe-shaped cuffs because it was considered impolite to show one’s hands and fingers.

Sun Zhongshan and the "Zhongshan Suit"

The "Zhongshan suit" is named after the great revolutionary pioneer Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen) . In the last years of the Qing Dynasty, Westerners ridiculed the Chinese as "the sick man of East Asia" and a "pigtail army" in "mandarin jackets and gowns." Sun hated both Western imperialism and the corruption of the Qing Dynasty. He organized a group of ardent patriots to set up the Revive China Society aiming at "expelling the invaders and recovering China." Through the sacrifice of a lot of lives, the 1911 Revolution overthrew the Chinese monarchy and set up the Republic of China. After that, Sun issued a series of policies, decrees and reforms that included "cutting the pigtail" and "changing the clothes". He proposed to "wash away old habits and customs and be new Chinese people." After widely soliciting suggestions and conducing discussions, Sun Zhongshan concluded that "the formal dress must be changed, and the informal dress is at the people's willingness." He helped design a new style of clothes for himself and the Chinese people— a simple set of clothes with the Han people characteristics, called "Zhongshan dress." [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science Museums of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~]

According to the Chinese government: “The Zhongshan suit has absorbed the strong points of the western suit. It has a straight collar and four pockets with buttoned covers. The two pockets below are big enough to hold books. The trousers are designed like this: the front seam is sewed with hidden buttons; on either side there is a hidden pocket. The trousers waist is wrinkled.” Sun took the lead and wore the suit at various kinds of occasions. “Its appearance is symmetrical, beautiful, practical, convenient and in good taste. It can be made of both the high-class dress material and the common cloth. Advocated by Sun the Zhongshan dress became a fashion in the country at that time. The Mao suit was modeled on it. Today, it is still one of the most basic styles of clothing among the Han people.

Mao Suit and Clothing in the Mao Era

Mao in Mao suit
Until the 1970s, most Chinese wore drab, sexless, blue, grey or black Mao suits or Army-surplus clothes. Now they mostly wear Western clothes. Now many dress in loafers and jeans. Before the reform period, clothing purchases were restricted by rationing. Cotton cloth consumption was limited to between four and six meters a year per person in the 1970s.

The Mao suit as the standard form of Communist dress, Dr. Li said, evolved out of the chairman's distaste for protocol. In 1949 his chief of protocol told him that it was good idea to wear a dark-colored suit and black leather shoes while receiving foreign ambassadors. "Mao refused and began wearing what we then called the Sun Yat-sen suit and black leather shoes," Li wrote. "When other leaders imitated him, the name of the outfit changed. The grey “Mao suit” became the uniform of the day. The protocol chief was fired and later committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution." [Source: "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" by Dr. Li Zhisui, excerpts reprinted U.S. News and World Report, October 10, 1994]

Clothing in the Post-Mao Era

Before the reform period, clothing purchases were restricted by rationing. Cotton cloth consumption was limited to between four and six meters a year per person in the 1970s. In the 1980s one of the most visible signs of the economic "revolution" was the appearance in Chinese cities of large quantities of relatively modern, varied, colorful, Western-style clothes, a sharp contrast to the monotone image of blue and gray suits that typified Chinese dress in earlier years. Cloth consumption increased from eight meters per person in 1978 to almost twelve meters in 1985, and rationing was ended in the early 1980s. [Library of Congress]

“Production of synthetic fibers more than tripled during this period; in 1985 synthetics constituted 40 percent of the cloth purchased. Consumers also tripled their purchases of woolen fabrics in these years and bought growing numbers of garments made of silk, leather, or down. In 1987 Chinese department stores and street markets carried clothing in a large variety of styles, colors, quality, and prices. Many people displayed their new affluence with relatively expensive and stylish clothes, while those with more modest tastes or meager incomes still could adequately outfit themselves at very low cost. [Ibid]

Men’s Clothes in China

Chinese men are not known for being well-dressed or suave. Many wear white socks with dark shoes. Some pull their pants up near their chests. In the winter long underwear is often seen poking out from under sleeves and trouser hems. It is summer it not unusual to see men sitting around without their shirts or walking around on trains and on the streets in their pajamas.

Describing one guy he knew, Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “Yuan wore a white tank top, khaki shorts, leather loafers, and black socks pulled up to his kneecaps. He carried a money bag in one hand and a dirty white towel in the other. He puffed in the heat; he used the towel to mop sweat off his neck.”

These days top officials and businessmen favor Western-style suits and ties. Mao suits are largely a thing of the past.

Green hats have traditionally been worn by men who wives have cheated on them.

Cheongsam and Women’s Clothing in China

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qi pao
The cheongsam, a women’s dress associated with the Chinese, originated with the Manchus. Known as a "qi pao" in Mandarin, the cheongsam is a tight form-fitting Chinese dress with thigh-high slits and a high-collar. Traditionally a dress worn by Manchu women, it received some international exposure in the Suzie Wong film. The slit is supposed to rise no higher than mid thigh. If it goes any higher it is considered sluttish.

The cheongsam worn by Manchu women was loose and reached to the ankles. It evolved into a tight-fitting dress extending below the knee, with a high neck, narrow sleeves, slender waist and two slits, on the left and right, buttoning down the right side. The dress was known for showing off the figures of eastern women.

The Manchus were a horse-riding people. Wearing the qipao made it easier for the women to mount horses. Leonard Yiu, a Malaysian collector of ethnic clothes and jewelry told The Star: “Only later on did the qipao become more curvaceous because of Western influence, and then it became a one-piece costume. “In the old days, the colour red was worn only by the young while the elderly wore blue and black was for widows,” Which era the qipao originated from can be deducted from how wide or curvaceous the cut is.

Manchu men have traditionally worn a long gown and mandarin jacket. The traditional costumes of male Manchus are a narrow-cuffed short jacket over a long gown with a belt at the waist to facilitate horse-riding and hunting. Women wore earrings, long gowns and embroidered shoes. Linen was a favorite fabric for the rich; deerskin was popular with the common folk. Silks and satins for noble and the rich and cotton cloth for the ordinary people became standard for Manchurians after a period of life away from the mountains and forests. Following the Manchus' southward migration, the common people came to wear the same kind of dress as their Han counterparts, while the Manchu gown was adopted by Han women generally. [Source: *|*]

History of the Cheongsam

Because of the frigid cold in the Manchu homeland in northeast China and the needs of the hunting life, in the past, nearly all the Manchu, both men and women, wore gowns and robes with U-shaped sleeves. After Nurhachi established the "Eight Banner" system in the 17th century, the gown became the costume of "banner man". That is why we called the gown "Cheongsam"("Yijie" in Manchu). [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, ~]

Cheongsams can be classified into monolayer, cotton and fur types. In the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, the Cheongsam was a gown with patches on the sides and no collar. Its design suited for horse-riding and on-horse shooting methods of the Manchu. When going out for hunting, the Manchu people stored food in the foreparts. This kind of Cheongsam had two prominent traits: the first one was no collar. On the uniform of his bannermen, Nurhachi stipulated: "Each court dress must have a rebato and must be a mere garment in everyday life." That is to say, daily clothes mustn't have a collar and only the court dress can be added with a big shawl-shaped collar. The second prominent trait is the so-called horse-hoof sleeve (U-shaped sleeve): a sleeve broad at the top and narrow at the bottom, sort of like the shape of a horse-hoof. The design of the sleeves allowed them to be rolled up in daily life. However, in the course of hunting and fighting, the sleeves could be dropped to cover and warm hands as the gloves. Even when covering the hands the sleeves allowed a mounted warrior to pull his bow and shoot arrows. Thus, they were also called "arrow sleeves" (in Manchu, it is called "Waha"). After Manchu became the rulers of China, "putting down Waha" became a prescribed act of Qing Dynasty protocol. When officers went to court to call on the emperor or other princes and courtiers, they were required to wear a cheongsam and to reach out with their U-shaped sleeves, then bow on bended knees, with both hands on the ground.

Customarily, a short jacket was worn outside the cheongsam. This short jacket, whose sleeves were long enough to reach the elbow, had a round collar and was long enough to reach the navel. Because this kind of jacket was first worn for horse-riding and horseback-shooting, it was called "horse jacket"(mandarin jacket). In the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, the mandarin jacket was the "army uniform" for the "Eight Banner" soldiers and later gradually became popular among the common people, which resulted in its usage as a ceremonial dress and its diversity in style and material.

Under the influence of the Han Chinese clothes, with their "large collar and large sleeves", the style of the cheongsam began to change. The arrow sleeves were changed into horn-shaped sleeves and the patches on four sides were changed to patches on two sides. The traditional gown with arrow sleeves was worn only when officers went to court and the common banner men formally went out. After the period of Jiaqing and Daoguang, the arrow sleeves began to die out. By the 1930s, the old-fashioned gown with arrow sleeves had been replaced by the long and cylindric gown with a broad front and large sleeves. Since the 1940s, under the influence of modern styles and new kinds of clothing, the man's cheongsam disappeared and the woman's cheongsam became almost unrecognizable from its original form. The broad sleeves were replaced by narrow sleeves, the length was extended to the ankles, the loose-fitting design suited for riding horses bowed out to a tight-fitting design best suited for appearing sexy in.

Feminine Clothing in Mao Era

right In the Mao era, clothes were made with little regard to sizing and fit. Stores had no place to try on clothes and costumers couldn’t bring back clothes that didn’t fit. In some stores saleswomen grabbed women by their breasts to determine their size.

The idea of wearing colorful clothing during the Mao years was considered scandalous and bourgeoisie. During the Cultural Revolution one man told writer Paul Theroux, the Red Guard "used cut your cuffs if they were too wide or too narrow. They cut your hair if it was too long."

During the Cultural Revolution some women used to wear frilly lace blouses and brightly colored sweaters under their baggy Mao suits and compare them in the washroom before starting work. In 1976 Chinese journalists were shocked when they found a young female shipyard worker "wearing a pink blouse under her Mao jacket." British journalist Martin Wollacott wrote: "that scrap of cloth sticking out from under her collar, a tiny signal of forbidden femininity, was the basis for many essays on how the wind was shifting in China."

Fur Coats in China

In a country wear people eat dogs and tiger bone medicines, wearing a fur coat is not looked with kind of disgust that it in the West. Harbin-based Northeast Tiger Fur is one of the world’s largest fur companies.

Chaowal Street is a dusty market alley in Beijing, featuring more than 100 stalls selling nothing but fur garments: coats, jackets, hats, gloves and other items made from mink, rabbit, goat, fox and even dog. The most serious buyers are Russians. Almost one out of three coast ends up in former Soviet Union.

One Lithuanian buyer on Chaowal Street told the Washington Post he visited Beijing every three weeks and said he purchased thousands of coats. A Russian trader said, "The quality is not very good. But its cheap, and it stand up better than our fabrics.”

When told about animal rights campaigns against fur coat sellers in the West, one Chinese trader on Chaowal Street told the Washington Post, "We've heard that. But these animals are raised for their fur. Americans eat beef don't they? You kill those big animals for food: we kill those little minks for fur. What's the difference?"

Pulled Up Shirts and Exposed Bellies in China

On hot summer days in Beijing and other places, it is a common sight to see men running around without shirts or with their shirts rolled up under their armpits exposing their bellies. They hang around, play cards, drink tea, stroll on the sidewalks without their shirts, exposing their less than ideal bodies. Flabby tummies and spares tires are the norm, not rippling abs. They also like to pull up their trousers past their belly button, with the legs rolled up. One Chinese academic told the Los Angeles Times, “Foreigners who visit always ask why are there so many half-naked men in Beijing."

Chinese men expose their bellies to the air as a means of cooling themselves. Some also hike up their pant’s legs. Even though men from a wide range of ages engage in the custom those that do it are smirkingly known as bang ye (“exposing grandfathers”). One man spotted with his flabby tummy exposed told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t know, it just feels cooler. Look, you just shake your shirt to create breeze.” [Source:John Glionna, Los Angeles Times, August 2010]

Many younger, more sophisticated Chinese don’t like th custom. A man who works at department store in told the Los Angeles Times, “It lower’s Beijing’s standing as an international city. If my dad reaches for his shirt when I’m out with him, I threaten to go home. It’s just so embarrassing.”

The habit is actually a sort of compromise to the custom of men going totally shirtless. A Chinese medicine doctor told the Los Angeles Times, “People chose to expose their belly because they feel so hot in summer but feel embarrassed to take off their shirts completely.”

Authorities began to crack down on the no-shirt habit during the pre-Olympic run up. During that campaign the Beijing Truth Daily ran pictures of men who went around shirtless, often with less than attractive upper bodies, in an effort to shame them into dressing respectfully.

Pajama-Wearing in Shanghai and Slit-Seat Pants for Toddlers

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Mother and peeing child
Especially in Shanghai it is not uncommon to see men in pajamas and women in nightgowns at busy markets or walking around in the street or in hotel lobbies. Some people slip into their pajamas when they come home from work and go shopping. Others get comfortable on long distance train rides by wearing pajamas.

In Shanghai, wearing pajamas in public began in the early 1990s, when people traded in their Mao suits for more comfortable and fashionable clothes. One Shanghai resident told AP, Only people in the cities can afford clothes like this. In farming villages, they still have to wear old work clothes to bed.A 17-year-old high school who likes to wear a pink nightgown with a kitten face said, “Pajamas look and feel good. Everyone wears them outside. No one would laugh.

Gao Yubing wrote in the New York Times, “Pajamas---not the sexy sleepwear you find at Victoria’s Secret, but loose-fitting, non-revealing PJs made of cotton or polyester---have been popular in Shanghai since the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping, then China’s leader, sought to modernize the economy and society by opening up to the outside world. The Chinese adopted Western pajamas without fully understanding their context. Most of us had never had any dedicated sleepwear other than old T-shirts and pants. And we thought pajamas were a symbol of wealth and coolness.” [Source: Gao Yubing, New York Times, May 17, 2010]

Shanghainese began wearing them to bed---but kept them on to walk around the neighborhood, mainly out of convenience. At that time in Shanghai, people lived in crammed, communal-style quarters in shikumen---low-rise townhouses in which families shared toilets and kitchens. Through the 1980s and “90s, the average person had less than 10 square meters of living area. To change out of one’s pajamas just to walk across the road to the market would be too troublesome and unnecessary.” [Ibid]

Besides, as a retiree told a news reporter: Pajamas are also a type of clothes. It’s comfortable, and it’s no big deal since everyone wears them outside. and Mrs. Wang, who lived on the street where I grew up in Shanghai, used to stroll after dinner in their pajamas---nice matching costumes for a loving couple, now that I think about it. Then Wang would go out to buy cigarettes. In the mornings, Mrs. Wang, still in her pajamas, would dash to a street stall to pick up sheng jian (fried buns) for breakfast...My own family, a little particular about clothing and slow with fashion, happened not to be part of the pajama troupe.” [Ibid]

Kaidangku are pants for toddlers with a slit in the seat that allow a child to relieve himself without removing his paints. Sometimes foreigners are shocked to seem them but many Chinese defend them as comfortable and healthy, plus they make potty training easier. Sex shops sell adult verison of kaidangku that are “transparent, green and charming” and “convenient for you and your partner.”

Anti-Pajama-Wearing Campaign in Shanghai

For Shanghai’s many pajama wearers, the start of Expo 2010 also signified the start of a nightmare,” Gao Yubing wrote in the New York Times. “Catchy red signs reading Pajamas don’t go out of the door; be a civilized resident for the Expo are posted throughout the city. Volunteer pajama policemen patrol the neighborhoods, telling pajama wearers to go home and change. Celebrities and socialites appear on TV to promote the idea that sleepwear in public is backward and uncivilized. [Ibid]

But even those of us who never wore PJs in public are unhappy about the ban. Two journalists from Hong Kong’s Weekend Weekly magazine have already challenged it. They marched in their silk pajamas along Nanjing Road, a major shopping area in central Shanghai, and sat down in a restaurant. They met only one pajama-wearing comrade, and many people made fun of them (maybe because on a rainy day they were wearing silk jammies rather than the quilted or heavy flannel styles normally worn in cool weather). It wasn’t what they expected in Shanghai. [Ibid]

Yang Xiong, the executive vice mayor of Shanghai and a director of the executive committee for the Expo, has acknowledged the practical limitations that led to pajama wearing, but still insists it is now inappropriate. The Expo, the logic goes, offers a perfect opportunity to kick the habit; with a large influx of foreigners in town (though, in fact, they are expected to account for only 5 percent of all visitors to the Expo), we don’t want to ruin our cosmopolitan image. [Ibid]

Yet even foreigners are disappointed about the pajama ban. Justin Guariglia, an American photojournalist who showcased Shanghai’s lively pajama scene in his 2008 book, Planet Shanghai, says the fashion adds to the city’s character. A British friend of mine told me last winter, before traveling to Shanghai for the first time, I want to see the Bund, the Jin Mao Tower and Shanghainese women in pajamas!

The historic buildings along the Shanghai Bund will be there for a long time to come. So will the 88-story Jin Mao Tower. But street pajamas may disappear as everyone moves into modern, spacious apartments. By then, some Chinese fashion designer might, as Dolce & Gabbana did last year, send models down the runway wearing pajamas---and how the audience will applaud! [Ibid]

Image Sources: University of Washington except men's clothing, Columbia University; Imperial clothing, Toranhouse, Mao-era posters, Landberger, and Western fashions, Perrechon.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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