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Fashion Throughout the Ages

As the saying goes, “Clothes make a man”. Clothing can be seen as a form of identity - how you choose to dress can portray the mood you are in, the style you like and the kind of personality you have. With that in mind, surely you would have guessed the topic that we have chosen to talk about today: Clothes. According to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), clothing is seen as a basic need. In today’s society, clothing serves not only a functional need which helps to keep us warm but also fulfils a cultural need for the different cultures to identify themselves.

Here in Singapore, we are a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicity. For each group, we have our own ethnic clothing. Take for example, the Chinese Cheongsam, the Malay Baju Kurung and the Indian Sari. Hence, have you wondered what common folk in the ancient civilizations wore and how was their clothing like?  Let’s take a trip back in time to look at how people dressed in the ancient Chinese and Indian civilisations to see how similar it is to the ones that we see every Racial Harmony Day.



The ancient Chinese wore mainly robes known as Hanfu from the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 - 1000 BC). The men wore tunics that reached their knees, while the women wore lengthy tunics that reached the ground. The sleeves of their garments were wide and loose fitting, with sashes being added as an ornamental design for the ladies. Darker shades of clothing were preferred over light ones.

Over the years and many dynasties, the Hanfu underwent many modifications due to different preferences in style. There were primarily, three variations of ancient Chinese garments.

Pien-Fu: A 2 piece ceremonial costume, consisting of a tunic top extending to the knees, and worn with ankle length skirt or trousers. Ch’ang P’ao: This is a one-piece ankle length tunic dress. Shenyi: A combination of the first two, a shenyi is a 2 piece top and trouser/skirt outfit that has been sewn together to make a one-piece garment.




Jewelry was also considered an important part of fashion. It was worn by both genders to show nobility and wealth. The dragon in particular was a very popular motif for jewelry and was most commonly worn by the royals. The masses wore Jade and Gold in their pendants and rings as well as in their earrings and hair ornaments for the ladies.

EarringsJade BraceletsJewelry Set

In addition, what the women wore on their heads determined their social status and hence, they were very careful with the materials and design of their hair ornaments.

Hair Pins



People in the Indus Vally Civilization wore mainly cloth clothing made out of cotton as they were one of the first people to cultivate cotton crops and it was their most abundant source of material.

The women wore one very long piece of cloth (that can go up to lengths of 4 to 6 metres) called a Sari. The sari was first mentioned in the Vedas around 600 BC. As seen from the picture above, there were many ways in which the Sari can be wrapped and this signified the different roles they played in society.

For example, women wore saris like skirts with the top part thrown over their shoulder or worn over their heads as a veil when they wanted to dress up for an occasion. Those working in the fields often rolled up their saris to make pants to make them feel more at ease. There were also women who were part of the army and they tucked in the top part of the sari in the back to free up their arms. After the opening of the silk route, India began trading with China and upper class women had their saris made in silk.

The males wore similar one-piece cloths named Dhoti that was about 5 yards (4.57 metres). Again, Dhoti was mainly made out of cotton and in the colour white. The dhoti was fastened at the back and legs of the men to form something that was similar to pants. Similar to the women, those in the upper class had their Dhoti made in silk.

Regarding accessories, the women wore necklaces, armlet, fillets and finger-rings. They fancied bracelets made out of shells, and also earrings, anklets made of gold and used other various precious stones, shells and bones in their jewellery. 

The men wore turbans which were used not only for functional purposes. They could not cut their hair due to their religion and it was a good way to keep it neat, hence the turban was seen as a highly respectable symbol.



As discussed in class, the Romans deemed pants as barbaric and they would not be pleased to find out that till today, pants are being worn by people all over the world. However, some of the traditional costumes from the past are losing their appeal among the younger generation. With globalization, the younger generation might see such traditional dressing as unfashionable and obsolete in this time and age. Hence, fashion designers should continue to try and incorporate traditional dressing with modern day needs and fashion to prevent a rich part of culture fading into oblivion.