A Review: 5000 Years of Chinese Costumes

Time is so accelerated today.  Technology advances practically at the speed of light.  Micro-chips double in capacity year over year.  The camera on your phone is as good as if not better than the camera's you buy as separate items.  With the information of the world literally at your fingertips, it's hard to put in perspective just how advanced silk weaving was for it's day.  Silk has been found in Henan province dating to 8500 years ago.  And we know clothing for the elite in China has been made of silk for at least 5000 years.

Last week, I mentioned the impulse buy of 5000 Years of Chinese Costumes.  This book is a quick overview of Chinese fashion from the last 5,000 years. The book is broken down in to nine distinct sections. Each section starts with a brief introductory essay followed by photographs of art work from the period in study, from which the author’s extrapolate what the garment would have looked like. This is not that odd, considering this is how costume in the west was recreated from ancient Greece and Rome up until approximately the late 17th century when garments started being preserved. That time holds true for China, as the book starts including photos of extant garments from about the mid-17th century to present, with the occasional photo from well preserved tombs thrown in to earlier eras under discussion.

First up was Ancient Times. This section broadly covers the time from 4000 BC to the start of the Qin Dynasty, approximately 221 BC. Note: the BC/AD time connotations (before Christ/Anno Domine) are from the book, and so that is the designation used for this review, rather than BCE/CE (before common era/common era). This section contains photos of ancient sculptures depicting hairstyles used, hair pins of jade and bone, and line drawing extrapolations of dress from this time, based off of sculptures from the period.

The next section covers the Qin and Han Dynasties, with the Qin dynasty lasting from 221 BC to 207 BC and the Han Dynasty from 207 BC to approximately 7 AD. Here we start to see codification of dress, with hats first making an appearance as a marker of rank. Drawings of garments are again based existing sculptures and murals. The most frustrating part is the line drawings only show the front of the garment, so there is no way to determine how a garment wraps around the wearer. In this chapter we have the first photo of an extant garment, a printed crimson silk straight robe found in the number 1 Han tomb at Mawangdui in Changsha, Hunan Province. So the Chinese had figured out fabric printing sometime between 207 BC and 7 AD.

The next section is the Wei, Jin and The Southern and Northern Dynasties. The Wei dynasty was from 386 to 534 AD, the Jin dynasty overlapped spheres of influence, covering from 266 to 420 AD. The Southern and Norther dynasties were from 386 to 589 AD. In this section, extrapolations of garments start to be made from portraiture and drawn art work, rather than solely from sculptures and murals. The paintings the clothing are pulled from are incredibly sophisticated, especially in comparison to European artwork from the same period, and it becomes easier to see the connection between what the garment is believed to look like and the image it is drawn from. We start to see sophisticated weaving techniques from existing fabric samples, brocades and dense embroidery.

The Sui, Tang, and Five Dynasties are discussed next. The Sui dynasty emerged from the merging of the Northern and Southern dynasties and ran from 581 AD to 618 AD. The Tang dynasty started where the Sui dynasty ends, running from 618 AD to 907 AD. The Five dynasties occurred when the Tang dynasty fractured in 907 AD and the country remained fractured until 960 AD. This section continues to extrapolate garments from artwork, and the garments become ever more elegant.

The Song dynasty ran from 960 to 1279 AD dress during this time became more and more codified. Photos of extant garments pulled from tombs in China bear witness to how durable silk is, looking as elegant as anything at Saks. But the most interesting picture I found was on page 120, where there was a photograph of an extant garment.  Labeled as being from Huang Shen's tomb of Southern Song in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, the garment is an Over-dress made from crepe fabric.  Now, in my post on Crepe de Chine, I had said the earliest reference I was able to find to Crepe de Chine was from the 19th century in France. I should have waited to write the Crepe de Chine post.  The Song Dynasty was from 960 to 1279 CE.  So my guess was off by an alarming 600 years.  Which is good news for anyone who likes Song Dynasty costuming.  Not so good news for the egg on my face...

The Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties share a section. The Liao dynasty ran concurrent with the Song dynasty but oversaw a section of east Asia, and ran from 916 to 1125 AD. The second Jin dynasty was from 1115 to 1234 AD and the Yuan dynasty was the dynasty of Khublai Khan after the invasion of Mongolia and ran from 1271 to 1368 AD. The Yuan dynasty is where the Dragon robes as they were later adopted by the Ming made their first appearance, and embroidered badges made their first appearance as a system of ranking. Embroidered badges remained the method of identifying rank through the end of the Qing dynasty in the 20th century.

The Ming dynasty was from 1368 to 1644 AD and the Dragon robes became fully codified. At this point, there are less extrapolations of what garments looked like and more photos of actual extant garments. Also included are photos of the hats and head wear royalty would wear.

The Qing dynasty was the last dynasty of China and ran from 1636 to 1912 AD. Here again are photos of extant garments and, toward the later Qing sections, as well as portraiture of the royal family wearing the garments in question.

The last section is labeled Modern times, from 1912 to present. This section focuses almost entirely on the qi pao (more commonly known as the Cheong sam).

The last part is the appendices. Appendix I was very useful as it shows a time line comparison of men’s and women’s costumes from each period so that, at a glance, you can see the changing silhouette of the garment cut. Appendix II points out the specific details referenced in each garment

Overall, this is a useful book for anyone wanting an idea of changing Chinese costume over the centuries. But as the title says, its for Chinese costume. And as it rapidly covers 5000 years in 256 pages, it only provides a snapshot of how the different dynasties impacted fashion changes. If you want depth in detail, it is not in this book. But it does have excellent pictures and extrapolations on how to get the look.