Show Some Skin AH!, no title (22 June 2016). CC0 1.0., no title (22 June 2016). CC0 1.0.


Whenever you come across traditional Chinese clothing, do you find yourself intrigued by the different styles? In ancient China, there were many differing clothing styles, which changed with each reigning dynasty, especially women’s clothing. Thus, the clothing styles provided a reflection of the governance, values and the foreign relations of each dynasty.


Firstly, the Tang dynasty (618 BCE - 907 BCE) was known to be the most powerful and liberal empire in history with its reformed culture, art and fashion trends. This occurred because of the establishment of an unprecedented level of foreign trade and diplomatic relations with other nations such as Egypt, Africa, and the West. Under the rule of the Tang, women could be seen wearing low-cut dresses with their exposed cleavage on the streets. What was most fashionable at this point in time was for women to bare their décolletage and even the tops of their bosom! Sounds familiar? ;-) This resulted in an increasing foreign influence on the Tang culture, especially where fashion is concerned.


In contrast to the Tang dynasty, women during the Qin dynasty (221 BCE - 207 BCE) were more conservative. Not only did they keep to themselves, but they also had limited exposure to foreign influences and a strict governance. Women wore one-piece dresses with large and billowing sleeves, strictly covering their body parts. As we have noted in our previous blog post and in class 14, the Qin dynasty was one of strict internal reforms in the political, economic and military aspects. In order to unify China, Emperor Qin Shi Huang redirected individual power to one centralised authority. Foreign influences were thus limited as reverence for the state emperor was highly emphasised. Therefore, fashion trends during the Qin dynasty were a reflection of the rigidity and isolated rule of the country at that time, with little or no foreign influence.


Finally, in the Yuan dynasty (1271 CE - 1368 CE), when the Mongols established its ruling, conservative fashion styles made a comeback from the liberal clothing trends seen in the Tang dynasty. According to class 22 on the Mongols, they incorporated and assimilated with the culture of their conquered territories. Thus, they maintained a healthy balance between conservative and revealing clothing due to the encouragement of foreign trade from the Mongols (but never to the extent of the Tang dynasty). Mongol fashion styles became dominant, and clothing consisted mainly of fur and leather materials rather than silk and cotton. Women wore mostly two or more gowns that were long and loose with wide sleeves and narrow cuffs (to show successive layers of cloth, so one definitely has to know their way around harmonising colours!). Thus, it is evident that foreign influence had a profound impact in introducing variations to traditional Chinese clothing, but not to the extent of the Tang dynasty.


Next, embark on this journey with us as we present to you our video “Show Some Skin Ah!” which provides a more in-depth narration of the evolution of traditional Chinese women clothing over the dynasties.



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Media References

Brian Jeffery Beggerly, IMG_5717 (December 2006) (CC BY 2.0)

Drude, N. (2015). Chinese Garden. On Royalty Free Production Music [MP3]. Location: Germany. (CC BY 3.0)

Jack Lee, In the Mood for Cheongsam: Modernity and Singapore Women (6 April 2012) (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Kevin Poh, Beauty of Tang Dynasty Dance (2 May 2009) (CC BY 2.0)

Rashid al-Din, Mongol archers, (2005) (Public Domain)

Yuan, Zhongyi, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China (circa 1850) (Public Domain)