Clothing of Early Asian Cultures

UU p until very recently, people in the Western world had a very limited understanding of the kinds of clothing worn in Asia. Our pictures of Asian clothing relied on stereotypes of Japanese people wearing kimono, or long robes with wide sleeves, and Chinese people wearing Mao suits, the simply cut, dull-colored outfits favored by the Communist Party. In fact, the peoples of Asia have a clothing tradition every bit as rich and varied as that of the cultures of the West. Understanding of Asian clothing traditions remains rather limited, however, for a number of reasons. Differences in language and culture have made studying Asian cultures difficult for Western historians. China has been closed to Western historians for political reasons for much of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and because of the nation's poverty it has not devoted a great deal of money to its own archeological research. Japanese costume is much better known, thanks to that nation's wealth and great respect for tradition and research. Until early in the twenty-first century, however, the history of fashion was considered unimportant and didn't attract the attention of capable scholars. Today, thanks to growing research and to the translation of Asian works, the basics of the clothing traditions of two major Asian cultures—China and Japan—are better understood.

Ancient Chinese dress

Organized societies emerged in China as early as 5000 B.C.E., or about the same time as they did in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. By about 1875 B.C.E. these societies grew complex enough to organize large areas of land and people into the first of the Chinese dynasties, organized societies ruled by members of a particular family. These dynasties controlled China, though not without interruption, until 1911 C.E. Beginning with the earliest Xia dynasty (1875—1550 B.C.E.), we can see some of the basic forms of Chinese dress. The majority of the people wore a simple outfit consisting of a tunic or jacket called a san and a pair of loose trousers called a ku. Depending upon the time of year, the tunic might be short, ending at the waist, or much longer, reaching to just above the ankle. The earliest known examples of such an outfit show the use of the characteristic Chinese collar, usually known as the mandarin collar, which stood up from a round neck opening, with a small gap in the front.

The customary garment of the upper classes in ancient China, which included the emperor and his family, a court of nobles, and a wide range of officials, was the robe, a long-sleeved, loose-fitting garment that fastened in the front. The exact cut and style of these robes changed significantly over the course of Chinese history. At times the sleeves were narrow; at other times quite loose and billowing. Sometimes the robes were belted, while at other times they hung loose about the waist. These robes were fastened either down the middle or across the right side of the chest, but never across the left. Fastenings that crossed the left side of the chest were considered barbaric. Most often these robes were made of silk, but some emperors made a show of wearing robes made of other materials, often to demonstrate their frugality or to make a political statement. By the time of the Qing dynasty (1644—1911 C.E.), the highly ornamented dragon robe had become the signature garment of the ruling class.

In the earliest years of China, poorer people used hemp to make their clothing. Hemp was a fiber made from a tall Asian herb and is similar to linen. Beginning in the Song dynasty (960—1279 C.E.), cotton replaced hemp as the primary material used for the garments of common people. Cotton could be dyed more easily and was easier to grow. Padding was added to clothes for cold seasons, but the garments did not change a great deal from season to season. The material preferred by members of the upper classes was silk. Spun by silk worms that lived in mulberry trees, silk was a rich, soft fabric that was treasured for its sheen and its comfort. It could take many different color dyes. One fabric that was traditionally shunned by the Chinese was wool. From the earliest times wool was considered a "barbarian" fabric used only by non-Chinese. The association of wool with hated foreigners was so strong that it lasted until the twentieth century.

Chinese costume has always been characterized by a deep respect for conventions and for the symbolism of certain colors and decorations. The clothing worn by the emperor was considered especially important. According to Valerie Steel and John S. Major, authors of China Chic: East Meets West, clothing "was an instrument of the magical aura of power through which the emperor ruled the world; in addition it served to distinguish the civilized from the barbarous, the male from the female, the rich from the poor, the proper from the improper." From as early as the third century B.C.E. written documents indicate that the emperor wore certain colors of clothing at certain times of the year—yellow for the summer, for example—in order to lead the changing of the seasons. Strict rules insured that clothing showed clear distinctions between the different ranks of society, and it was considered a serious offense for poor people to wear showy or decorative clothes.

China and modern dress

China maintained its traditional practices in clothing for an unusually long time, right up to the twentieth century. Then, beginning in 1911, China's clothing styles changed very dramatically. A revolution led by Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) toppled the emperor, Pu Yi, and finally allowed Western dress to enter China. (Western dress had been either forbidden or frowned upon during the nineteenth century.) Many Chinese people adopted Western fashions. The cheongsam dress for women was a combination of Western and Chinese styles, and it became very popular. By 1949, however, a violent civil war brought a Communist government to China. (Communism is a system of government in which the state controls the economy and all property and wealth are shared equally by the people.) Under Communist rule, Western dress was again shunned. The new government, which controls China to this day, favored a basic garment called a Mao suit (named after the Communist leader

Chinese Middle Age Man
A young Asian man working in the fields wearing a red del jacket for warmth. Reproduced by permission of © Dean Congerl CORBIS.
Asian From The Middle Ages

A woman wears a bright red kimono, one of the most recognized garments from Japan.

Reproduced by permission of © Dallas and John Heaton/ CORBIS.

A woman wears a bright red kimono, one of the most recognized garments from Japan.

Reproduced by permission of © Dallas and John Heaton/ CORBIS.

Mao Tse-tung [1893-1976]), with plain trousers and a tunic with a mandarin collar and two pockets on the chest. People of all classes throughout China wore the Mao suit, and its drab uniformity showed the world that there were no class differences between people. As China modernized in the last twenty years of the twentieth century, some Western dress began to appear, but for many the Mao suit remained the common garment for daily wear.


Although we know that people lived on the islands that make up the modern nation ofJapan from as early as 13,000 B.C.E., our first real knowledge of Japanese culture comes from the period when Chinese influences began to be felt, in about the sixth century C.E. Japan borrowed many Chinese customs, including rule by emperors, growing rice, the Buddhist religion, and many clothing traditions, including the wearing of robes for the wealthy and trousers and simple tunics for the poor. During the Heian period (794-1185 C.E.), however, the Japanese began to create distinct versions of clothing. While poorer classes continued to wear fairly simple clothing, including loose trousers and a simple linen shirt for men and a loose skirt for women, members of the upper classes and nobility began to develop very distinct clothing traditions.

The basic Japanese garments were the kosode, a short-sleeved shirt that opened in front, and the hakama, or long trousers. The kosode eventually evolved into the garment most associated with Japan, the kimono. The kimono, whose name means "thing to wear," is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese robe and is worn by both men and women. It is a long garment tied at the waist with an obi, or sash. The kimono has many variations according to the circumstance in which it is worn. Many other garments form part of the traditional Japanese dress, such as the haori, the ho, the kataginu, and the kinu. A common characteristic of

Japanese dress is the careful attention to detail in the way the garment is cut and the beauty of the fabric.

One of the most important influences on Japanese fashion came from the samurai, a class of elite warriors who helped secure the power of the rulers of Japan's various states. The samurai were a distinct social class, and they developed rules and traditions for clothing that were very complex and linked to ceremonial occasions. Another class of mostly female entertainers, known as geisha, also had a great influence on Japanese dress.

The Japanese were first exposed to Western dress in 1542, when British and Portuguese traders visited the nation, but they did not embrace Western dress until the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century most Japanese people adopted Western dress, such as trousers and suits for men and skirts and blouses for women, for their everyday wear, but traditional dress remained a very important part of their culture, worn for important events like weddings and funerals.


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Feltwell, John. The Story of Silk. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Kennedy, Alan. Japanese Costume: History and Tradition. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

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Sichel, Marion. Japan. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

"Silk." Insects and Human Society. lectures/silk/index.shtml (accessed on July 29, 2003).

Steele, Valerie, and John S. Major. China Chic: East Meets West. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

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Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopedia of World Costume. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.


Two Chinese women wearing patterned cheongsams, which are considered the national dress of Hong Kong. Reproduced by permission of© Bettmann/


Women Fashions The Middle Ages

The cheongsam (CHONG-sahm) is the dress that most westerners associate with China. It is a long, close-fitting dress with short sleeves, a slit up one side, a mandarin collar (a round, stand-up collar that is worn close to the neck), and a fastening across the right side of the upper chest. The cheongsam, also known as the qi-pao or the cheung sam, is considered the national dress of Hong Kong, a major island off the coast of China. Though outsiders see the cheongsam as typically Chinese, in fact the dress represents a mixing of Chinese and Western clothing styles.

The cheongsam first appeared shortly after the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, which had ruled China since 1644. China, which had been isolated from the rest of the world during the Qing dynasty, began to modernize fairly quickly, both in its politics and its economy. Women especially began to have more freedom and wanted to modernize their clothing to allow more freedom of movement and comfort. But they didn't want to just adopt Western dress. The cheongsam represented a compromise. It used traditional Chinese fabrics like silk and included a traditional collar and fastening across the right side. But the form-fitting cut and the lack of binding ties were distinctly Western.

The cheongsam soon came to represent the politics of a modernizing China. It was advertised heavily and worn by famous actresses, often with high heels popular in the West. However, when the Communist Party took control of mainland China in 1949, the cheongsam quickly went out of style. (Communism is a system of government in which the state controls the economy and all property and wealth are shared equally by the people.) By 1966 it was banned by the ruling party. In Hong Kong, on the southeast coast of China, however, which until 1997 was a crown colony of Great Britain with a majority Chinese population, the cheongsam never went out of style. The dress was particularly popular during the 1950s and 1960s, for it marked Hong Kong's resistance to the changes being brought to China by the Communists, who severely restricted what the Chinese people could wear.

Since the 1960s the cheongsam has been adopted as a uniform of sorts in the service industry in Hong Kong, but in the 1990s the dress had a new boom in popularity, in part because China and Hong Kong were reunified in 1997. Western designers offered their own versions of the cheongsam, and women in Hong Kong wore the dress to celebrate their cultural identity. As a sign of the importance of the dress, the Mattel toy company issued a special collectible Barbie doll, the Golden Qi-Pao Barbie, for the occasion.


Clark, Hazel. "The Cheung Sam: Issues of Fashion and Cultural Identity." In China Chic: East Meets West, edited by Valerie Steele and John S. Major. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999, 155-65.

Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopedia of World Costume. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.

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