Thursday, November 22, 2012

(An extremely long post on) Tang Costume History

I shall attempt to get the background research out of the way as soon as possible so that the hunt for fabric can begin :)

The Tang dynasty is generally considered the peak of civilization or prosperous "golden age" in ancient China; it was famous for the poetry and artistry it produced, as well as for its culture of decadence, which resulted from the prevalence of political stability throughout the country. During this period, China was also a key centre of economic exchange in Asia, and was inevitably influenced by the cultures of the states it traded with (mainly Mongolia, India, and the Arab nations).

As society became more liberal, women in elite circles acquired more power and social status, where they ended up sharing almost equal rights with men. They could enjoy the privilege of education, marriage choice and work, and were given a favourable law as to owning land and running their own businesses.

Fashion of course evolved in response to these different views about women, where style became more liberal and challenged the norms. 

While many variations abound, these are the key garments worn by ladies during the period:

1) Ruqun (襦裙)
This is an outfit that requires lots of layering. It comprises a shirt and skirt combination; a style already prevalent in previous dynasties.  The shirt (襦)--more accurately translated short coat, but I'll call it the shirt to avoid confusion--was a short garment that reached the waist and was usually belted in at the waistline. The skirt (裙) was a simple piece of fabric tied around the waist with a belt or cloth ties, like how the hanbok's chima is wrapped around the body.   

This was how the Ruqun of earlier dynasties looked like. In the Tang dynasty however, the skirt of the Ruqun was tied much higher up below the bustline instead of at the waist. This high-waisted style distinguishes Tang clothes from the costumes of other eras...this, and the low necklines of course--but we'll talk about that a bit later.


The second picture shows the silhouette of the Ruqun in the Tang dynasty; apparently, it was supposed to better accentuate the grace and elegance of a woman while emphasizing the Tang aesthetic of suppleness and opulence.

At that time, being big was beautiful, so this way of pleating and wearing the skirt gave one a full and rounded silhouette. The hike in waistline also resulted from a more pragmatic purpose: to provide better support for a new type of undergarment, the Hezi (诃子), which was the first strapless undergarment invented at that time. Instead of halter-neck/spaghetti styled straps, the Hezi was fastened in front with buttons and was made from a heavy, slightly elasticized fabric.

In the Tang dynasty, women were allowed to bare more skin than what was typically accepted in Confucian societies. The necklines of dresses therefore increasingly dipped to the extent of our modern day tube-top, but interestingly, the degree to which this was allowed depended on one's social status:

Loosely translated, this says that only people of status were allowed to open the neckline of their robes; Princess Yong Tai could partially expose her bosom, so could dancing girls who needed to please the ruling classes, but females who were commoners were not allowed to do so [...] The Tang robes did not allow one to expose their backs and shoulders, however, in comparison to Western evening gowns.

In the latter part of the dynasty, noblewomen seemed to have eschewed the shirt (襦) altogether and went around with just the Hezi, skirt, and shawl or long outer jacket. However, they could only do this in their private quarters and had to wear a shirt beneath the Hezi when appearing in public.  

These costumes are modern remakes of course; I'm not sure if the subtle sweetheart necklines are accurate. In the first picture, the shirt was replaced by a long coat, and the crossover neckline or Y-collar (交领) opened to reveal the undergarment. In the second picture, the lady is still wearing a shirt, but one with a parallel collar (对襟), and this is tucked into her skirt with her undergarment over it. 

In the earlier half of the dynasty, it was also fashionable to wear a short-sleeved jacket (半臂 or 背心) over the shirt. There were different necklines for these and the short jackets were fasted at the front with ties.

背心 (Bei Xing)

半臂 (Ban Bi) 

Women could also choose to wear a long outer jacket (褙子) over their Ruqun, but this style only became really popular in the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties. 

Initially, the sleeves of the shirt and jackets were rather tight-fitting, but they grew larger and larger towards the latter part of the Tang dynasty. A garment called the Da Xiu Shan (女式大袖衫), literally translated big-sleeved shirt, gained popularity and this, together with the high waistline, best typifies the shape of the ancient Chinese costume as we know it today.

Although such big-sleeved garments were worn by males during the previous dynasties, Da Xiu Shan referred to a type of ceremonial dress for ladies in the Tang dynasty; it was (arguably) sometimes called 钿钗礼衣 if it was very heavily embroidered and decorated for use on special occasions. The sleeves of this garment were even broader than the usual jacket or coat, and it could be draped around the shoulders or belted together with the other inner garments at the waist. This is the dress often used in typical depictions of Chinese fairy maidens.

According to this source, the big-sleeved shirt gained popularity as a response against the tight-sleeved costumes (Hufu) of the ethnic minorities who were frequently seen in Tang society at that time due to increased trade and cultural exchange. Tang women often wore the costume of ethnic groups earlier in the period as they were comfortable and easy to wear (more on this later), but many nobles were worried that such adoption of a foreign nation's clothes would compromise their own culture and national identity. A court official, Tang Yu Zong therefore passed a law banning the noblewomen from wearing too many accessories in their hair, and from wearing narrow and short clothing. As a result, the sleeves, robes and skirts grew in length till servants had to hold up their mistresses' robes when they walked so that they would not be stained.

The drawing on the left shows the costume of ladies in the earlier half of the dynasty, and the right, the latter half. See the difference? Here are a few more pictures below to show the variations that women could achieve with these few key garments of the Ruqun. Let's try to name all the items!

This lady is wearing a greenish-yellow Hezi, a pale pink shirt (襦) with an open Y-collar over it. On top of this she is wearing a skirt belted below the bustline, a yellow big-sleeved robe (钿钗礼衣) and a sheer embroidered Da Xiu Shan that stops at the shoulders (半臂大袖衫). She has also draped a yellow shawl over her sleeves.

She's wearing a Y-collared shirt beneath her Hezi undergarment, a skirt, a red big-sleeved robe, and a black Da Xiu Shan that stops at the shoulders (半臂大袖衫). She has draped a maroon shawl over her sleeves.

Finally in this picture, the lady is wearing a skirt belted by ties at the bust like a hanbok, a parallel-collar shirt over her skirt, and a thick belt over the whole ensemble. No big-sleeved robes in this outfit!

Now that we've gotten over the most complicated garment, the other outfits will be a breeze.

2) Hufu (胡服)

This term referred generally to the dress of the minority ethnic groups in the South Western part of China; it was commonly called the garb of the foreigners. Chinese women found the Indian and Persian influences in these garments refreshing, and started incorporating some of these motifs and materials into their own garments. In the early half of the dynasty, there was a craze in society for everything novel and "foreign"; women were rushing to learn these ethnic songs and dances, and they adopted the hairstyles and clothes of the minority groups.  

The costume was made up of a tight-fitting long robe buttoned up in front with an overturned collar, long trousers, a hat and high heels.

The application of various motifs on the forehead was popular as a result of foreign influence. Often, a flower-patterned ornament was stuck between the two eyebrows. It was made of oil-tea camellia seeds or gold foil and many other materials. Alternatively, women could also cut out paper stencils for more complex shapes, and powder the stencils with rouge or other coloured powders to create their motifs.  

Hufu became less popular towards the latter half of the dynasty as previously mentioned, when the big-sleeved style became the
new favourite garment of the ruling class. The distinction in dress between upper and lower classes widened as a result, since the commoners could not afford to buy as much cloth to make garments with very big sleeves.

3) Male garments (女着男装)

Yes, women could wear male garments in the Tang dynasty. This was again, very atypical of Confucian society, where women who cross-dressed were usually viewed as promiscuous or overreaching. This trend was partially due to the influence of the minority groups and horse-riding nomadic tribes in society.
It was popular at the start of the dynasty and was commonly seen amongst the noblewomen who frequently played  polo and went horse-riding with the men.

In the film House of Flying Daggers, all these three types of outfits were donned by Zhang Ziyi:


Hufu (胡服)

The Ruqun (襦裙) with long coat (褙子) and water-sleeves. This is a dancing-girl's costume however so it differs slightly from the styles above.

Male garments (男装)

I can't quite place this one, however. It looks more like a Qing dynasty coat with cord frog fasteners or Chinese soutache button balls. Or is it similar to the costume of any minority groups?

Anyway to end off, here are the general differences in the silhouette of clothes across the different dynasties:

Shang/Zhou Dynasty

(Late) Tang Dynasty 
 Qing Dynasty

Might go into this in more detail later on. I also thought it might be fun to analyse the costuming choices for House of Flying Daggers (gives me an excuse to re-watch the movie!) I'm certainly going to make some variant of the Ruqun, and it is going to be so much fun coordinating the colours and textures peeping out through all that layering. Till the next post then!

Main source (Chinese):

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Tang Times

No this isn't it. It's a portrait of the queen in the drama, Queen Seok Duk of Shilla; an era that shares many similarities in fashion with the Tang dynasty. I have not watched the show, but I'm completely in love with the colours and the intricacies!

Anyway, for a start, here are some amazing drawings of ancient Chinese hairstyles. View more here.


The End of the Hanbok Project

Items and sources:

1) Jeogori
-Body: Whanggeum fabric from Sonjjang
-Collar and cuffs: Reverse side of whanggeum fabric
-Dongjeong: White satin from Sonjjang
-Georum: Purple charmeuse satin from Spotlight
-Lining: Black Bensilk lining from Spotlight

2) Chima:
-Skirt: Hunter green duchess satin from
-Waistband: Reverse side of duchess satin
-Overlay skirt: Black burnout fabric from Sonjjang
-Waistband of overlay skirt: Black nobang fabric from Sonjjang

3) Underskirt/Petticoats: Purchased from Sonjjang

4) Hair accessories as listed in the previous post. Norigae from Sonjjang, pendant from Etsy (SCDiva).

That's it! I might re-visit the hair again but the hanbok project is officially over after dribs and drabs of sewing over more than a year. Will look around for good photoshoot locations in the meantime. I've decided to put the Burgundian gown on hold for now; the next project will be a Tang Dynasty piece. It's going to be an interesting follow up to the hanbok as Tang Dynasty clothes (arguably) influenced Korean clothing during the Unified Silla Dynasty before Korean clothes developed their unique silhouette.

You can see here the similarity here in the way the skirt is tied with ribbons around the waist like the chima. This reminded me of Kim Min Jeong's fusion hanbok designs:

It's amazing how fashion has come full circle over a few thousand years; how the likely origins of the hanbok is now perceived as "fusion", "modern" in relation to the 20th century design. Stuff like this continues to fascinate me and make me excited about what I'm doing!

Please leave a comment if you think my work can be improved in any way, if you have any suggestions, or if you have done a similar project and would like to spread the inspiration :)

Making the Gache

I've never worked with wigs or false hair before so this was hugely fun to put together as it involved a lot of experimenting! Am really quite pleased with the results.

I got synthetic hair from Doctored Locks; they provide really good information about the various types and traits of synthetic hair on their website and their service and shipping were excellent too. I purchased nine bags of Kanekalon jumbo braid in the end, since it was loose hair that could easily be used for braiding, and the best part is, the hair comes in 48 inch lengths, which was excellent for making the huge gache braids.The jumbo braid brand is Sensationnel.

Here is how the hair looks like: 


While the hair is really voluminous, the texture is quite rough. It has the qualities of Afro-hair; the fibres are slightly wavy and they get tangled easily. This makes the hair very suitable for making dreadlocks (which is what most people use it to do), but it wasn't ideal for making the gache which has smooth, not frizzy, braids. I thought then that the hair could not be used and I should have ordered the Silky Straight Kanekalon instead, which I'd initially decided against because it looked ridiculous shiny and reminded me of cheap Halloween wigs.

Once again, Google saved the day. Hoping that a dreadlock enthusiast would have discovered some method of manipulating hair fibre I could use to salvage the jumbo braids, I stumbled across this blog that recommends straightening the jumbo braid with steam heat.

I'm so amazed it worked like magic! Here is the texture of the hair after steaming (apparently there is a special steamer for working with synthetic hair, but I used a normal clothes iron): 

The texture is perfect; not too shiny like the Silky Straight, but still carrying a nice gleam. It is smooth but not excessively to the point of slipping out of the bundle, and the hair still does get tangled once in a while. My iron was on the Synthetic heat setting, with maximum steam. Be careful not to set it any hotter than synthetic, or the hair will burn with a horrible smell. I divided the jumbo braid into a few sections of hair and ironed directly over the fibres in one direction. Iron till all the fibres have loosened up and appear silky. It takes about 4-5 presses per side of the hair bundle. Don't let the iron rest for too long on any one section, or the hair fibres might break.

Three hours of ironing later, I finally finished all nine bags of hair. Six bags make these three huge bundles: 

I then braided them into one thick braid. That's a 60cm rule besides it for reference.

After which, the fun begins. You can twist it in different ways to create any design you want; or if you have more hair to spare, you can make several thick braids and braid them around each other to create more complex hairstyles. According to this extremely well-researched hanbok costumer, such braids were used as wigs in the mid-Jeoseon period, and were called darae (다래?).

This painting below by Jeong Myoungjo was the inspiration for my wig design:

There are two main parts to the hairstyle: the huge chignon at the back of the head, and the pile of braids at the top. For the chignon, I braided two jumbo braids into my hair to make a very long pigtail, then twisted the pigtail into a big bun, securing it with pins.

For the huge braid on top (I will call it the top braid for convenience), I twisted the long braid made made from six bags of hair, and tied the ends together. I'm really not sure how else one can hide the ends of the wig in the gache, but what I did then was to wrap another small braid around the end of the braid, and tie a ribbon around where there is an unsightly joint:


I wish I'd bought more hair so that I could make a bigger wig! As it is I am quite satisfied, but I'll be sure to order more from Doctored Locks in my next purchase.

And here are the accessories I bought from a few sources:

From L-R: Etsy; the middle two are from eBay for a ridiculous price of 3.50 each! Painted them gold with an acrylic marker; Sonjjang, modified to match my hanbok colours.

And here is the final hairdo:

I think in retrospect:
1. Braids need to be bigger :) I now completely understand why these wigs were eventually banned in Korea; my braid required so much hair and already was quite a pain to carry around. Song Hye Kyo's apparently weighed 5kg in the movie.

2. Some hair fibres tend to shift out of the braids or break and fray after some time. Is there any way of keeping them in place? I tried hair wax and hair spray, but both didn't seem to work. (See the small loop of hair at the top of the wig in the first picture for an example.)

3. The braids could perhaps have been more loosely braided. But that possibly depends on the amount of hair again, because the strands might fall out if the braids are too loose, and the wig will lack volume. Either way there are so many more variations to try, so much more to experiment!


Are there better methods of ending the braids or joining the hair pieces together? Perhaps boiling to heat seal the ends? I'm sure there are better modern or professional methods out there, like how there are braids mounted on stands (see my previous post about hair), or better ways of attaching the braids to the head than with the humble bobby pin. I would love to hear from you if you have any tips to share!  

Culture Content and this blog have been invaluable in helping me put together the hairpiece. Do check them out.