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):


  1. Thank you for posting this! Its been incredibly helpful!

  2. What a fantastic blog! Thanks! I am just starting on Tang costuming...

  3. Thank you so much for the informative post.

  4. great article, very helpful, you show more clearly than many others how the clothing should be worn, many thanks.

  5. Thank you so much for doing this post, you have really enlightened me on the clothing of the Tang Dynasty since I'm incorporating this into a novel and this is really helpful

  6. Thanks to share wonderful post, i like your blog its really interesting, Great job.!!

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