Traditional Chinese Clothing & Accessories

Chester Beatty Library

Mid-18th to early 20th Century

Traditional Chinese Clothing and Accessories
Traditional Chinese dress was not concerned with the form of the human body, but with the surface of the fabric itself. Most garments for both men and women were loose fitting and simply constructed, but were richly ornamented with embroidered, woven or appliquéd designs. 
Colours and decoration were used to indicate the wearer’s status, and clothes were often embellished with symbolic or seasonal motifs. 
When the Manchus (tribesmen from across China’s northern border) conquered China in 1644, establishing the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), they asserted authority over the indigenous Han Chinese population by creating a dress code. Regulations codified dress for the imperial family, the Qing court and government officials, and distinguished the ruling elite from the general population (although after 1800, the divisions in this dress code became progressively less clear).
Dragon Robes
Dragon robes were the formal silk robes worn by the emperor, the imperial family and court for ceremonial functions. They were known as dragon robes (long pao) because they were elaborately decorated with the imperial emblem of the five-clawed dragon. Other symbols of authority and auspiciousness also adorned the robes. 

The dragon robe was worn by members of the imperial family and high-ranking court officials for semi-formal occasions and official business.

The robe consisted of a full-length, side-fastening gown decorated with dragons among clouds and waves, worn belted, with purses hanging from the belt.

In the hierarchical society of imperial China, dress was a way to designate an individual’s rank. The exact status of both male and female members of the imperial family, and of all officials, could be recognized at a glance according to the colours and designs of their garments.
The yellow robe decorated with five-clawed dragons was reserved for the emperor, while apricot was worn by the crown prince, golden-yellow by the emperor’s sons, blue or brown by other imperial family members, and blue by lower-ranking nobles and officials. 

Although they were supposed to wear the four-clawed dragon, many officials used five-clawed dragon motifs for their less formal robes.

Dragon robes were manufactured in imperial silk workshops in a complex and time consuming process. Creating a single dragon robe might require up to thirty months.

Girdle Hangings
Chinese robes were constructed without pockets, so a girdle was worn over a man’s robe and various small, decorative cases were suspended from it. By the late Qing dynasty (1644–1911), men often wore a set of receptacles, decorated with auspicious symbols, consisting of incense bags, fan cases, eyeglass cases, money pockets, pouches for snuff or tobacco and a case holding chopsticks and a knife. 

Women typically did not venture far from their domestic quarters and therefore did not require the same number of cases – they would simply have worn a purse or pendant suspended from a top button of their robes.

The fan has been an important accessory in China for thousands of years. Rigid round or oval fans (pien mien) became popular during the Tang dynasty (618-906) but were still carried into the late 19th and early 20th century.

The folding fan was introduced to China from Japan via Korea during the Song dynasty (960-1279), becoming very fashionable by the early 15th century.

'Mandarin' folding fans were made in Canton (Guangzhou) during the 18th and 19th century, largely for the export market. These fans are painted with scenes of government officials (called mandarins), figures in garden settings or of elaborate battles.

Rank Badges
In China, embroidered symbols on clothing indicated status and endowed the individual with protective or auspicious properties. Rank badges were worn by civil and military officials to indicate rank: various species of birds were used to denote the nine civil ranks, while animals were used for the nine military ranks. 

These squares were sewn to the front and back of the dark surcoats worn by government officials at formal occasions during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), when a strict dress code was enforced.

Foot binding was commonly practiced among indigenous Han women – Manchu women never adopted the custom.

Feet were bound from as early as three years of age to about thirteen centimetres (or in rare cases, seven centimetres), by forcing the toes under the arch and compressing the width using tightly bound bandages.

Tiny feet were looked upon as a great source of eroticism and girls were deemed unmarriageable if they were allowed to have natural feet.

High-ranking Manchu women wore shoes with an elevated concave heel. The tall heel kept their coat hems clean, enabled them to tower over the shorter Han women and helped them to imitate the desired swaying gait caused by bound feet.

For men, boots were seen as an indication of wealth and could only be worn by men with some position in society.

Men’s boots were expensive and could cost as much as a servant’s yearly wage.

Children's Clothing
Traditional children’s clothing was made of brightly coloured cotton or silk embroidered with flowers, fruits, animals and insects, each endowed with protective properties to ward off evil as well as to bring the child success in the future. A child’s first birthday was celebrated with a great feast. For this celebration, a boy would be dressed in an embroidered silk jacket and trousers.

Hats and shoes for young children were often made in the shape of fierce animals to fool bad spirits into thinking the child was an animal and thus not worth harming.

Sometimes bells were attached to shoes to provide an audible warning to the spirits.

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