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Shenyun Performing Arts World Tour

September 2013, New York, USA

Han Couture: Song and Ming Dynasty Clothing

Song Dynasty

Although Song Dynasty’s clothing system followed that of Tang Dynasty, it had its unique style. During that time, the social trend favored the philosophy of "Follow the Heaven’s way and get rid of human desires" and promoted conservative moral values. For example: the architecture in Song Dynasty maintained a style of white walls and black-tile roof. The threshold or support beams were generally in plain wood with its natural color. The philosophy got reflected in clothing more obviously, in that nature and simplicity replaced opulence and flamboyance.

In Song Dynasty, men’s garment continued to have the style of cross-collar with upper shirt pulled to the right side or straight collar plus turban head. The colors of the robes and shirts varied according to the rankings of the officials. From the emperor to all levels of officials, everyone wore simple head covering which slowly evolved into a hat. The only exception was that during religious ceremonies or formal court gatherings, everyone wore formal crowns. During that time, the scholars favored the old fashioned way and the most popular way was called Dongpo Wrap, a way to wrap a piece of silk around the head. (Su Dongpo, a famous poet from Song dynasty in Chinese history)

Robe in Song Dynasty
General Yue Fei with round collar robe, leather belt and tall boots

Women’s clothes had quite a variety of different styles in Song Dynasty. Compared to men’s garments, women’s garments were more varied. There were shirt-jacket, coat, gown, big sleeves, Baizi, short sleeves and others for the upper body and skirt for the lower body. For women, short jacket and skirt were casual wear. Since it was tight to the body, it was good to wear when doing housework and thus became very popular.

Beizi was a very common style for women in Song Dynasty. It could be worn by everyone, from the queen to service women. Beizi was an outer jacket, straight collar, length over the knee with either wide or narrow sleeves. Under both armpits there were slits that were over two feet long, which was not common in other styles of female garments.

Another common style for women with high social status in Song Dynasty was called "Grand Sleeves", named after the two big wide sleeves. It was common to wear this kind of clothes with long skirt, colorful silk shawl and a hanging jade piece.

The skirts for women in Song inherited the style from late Tang Dynasty period. A skirt had at least 6 pieces of fabrics. There were many styles, including pomegranate skirt, double butterfly skirt and embroidered skirt.

Women from rich families liked to use tulip grass to dye skirts so that fragrance slowly permeated the air. That was called “Tulip Skirt”. One kind of skirt with pleats all over was called “Hundred-Pleat Skirt.” If tiny folds were between pleats, the skirt was called “Hundred-Fold Skirt.” Meanwhile, with silk sashes to tie around the waist and a piece of jade ring hanging down, the outfit appeared quite stylish.

Ming Dynasty

The decision to replace costumes from Yuan Dynasty was made right after Ming Dynasty was established. Clothing from Ming Dynasty adopted systems from traditional Han nationality, namely from Zhou, Han to Tang and Song Dynasties. The clothing system included formal and daily wear for the emperor, formal and daily wears for the queen and court ladies, formal and daily wear for civil and military officials and clothing styles for all different social classes. The design of this system took more than 20 years and was finally completed during the Hong-Wu Emperor Period.

There were many styles of headdresses for men in Ming Dynasty. During the 200+ years of its history, several dozen styles of headdresses appeared, among them the most popular were the net scarf, black silk hat , square scarf and six-piece scarf.

Official wear of Ming Dynasty
Official wear of Ming Dynasty with black silk hat, round collar with embroidery at front

There were a wide range of fabrics and well developed embroidery techniques for Ming style clothes. Robes and gowns were the main apparel for men. Officials wore daily wear most often, which consisted of a round collar gown, a black silk hat and a leather belt. The front and back of the gown were decorated with a square embroidery, with the image of birds for civil officials, and mammals for military officials. From first to the ninth ranks, each rank had its clearly defined patterns. For example; for civil officials, first rank—white cranes, second rank—golden pheasants, third rank—peacocks, fourth rank—wild geese, fifth rank—silver pheasants, sixth rank—herons, seventh rank—purple water birds, eighth rank—orioles, ninth rank—quails; for military officials, first and second ranks—lions, third and fourth ranks—tigers and leopards, fifth rank—bears, sixth and seventh rank—little tigers, eighth rank—rhinos, and ninth rank—sea horses.

Daily wear for ordinary men were plain, straight long gown, Taoist robe, simple gown, etc.

Clothing for wives and mothers of officials also had two styles: formal and daily wear. The formal style had big sleeves, a decorated crown, embroidered shawl and a short top with slits up to armpits. The shawl was a long piece of cotton of 5 feet 7 inches long and 3 inches wide, embroidered with phoenix and flowers and decorated with gold or jade hangings. Ladies from higher social status wore a combination of long gown and long skirt as daily wear. "Shanzi" was also a type of daily wear favored by women from all social status. It had many styles. Among them, tuanshan, a long loose gown with cross collar and big sleeves, was the most popular style.

For ordinary women, there were gown, coat, shawl, short top with slits, and short top without sleeves as well as paddy robe and skirt. Paddy robe was made of a rectangular piece of fabric which was spliced with many pieces of fabric like a paddy field. Its design was unique and gained popularity among women.

The skirts of the early Ming period were light and simple in color and pattern. Although there were embroidered designs, most of them were not ostentatious. Most women preferred simple and elegant skirts, with embroidered designs at the bottom 2 inches of the skirts, if any. Decoration on skirts increased during the later Ming period and a good example was the popular "Moon flower skirt". It was a skirt spliced with 10 pieces of fabrics and fine pleats between skirt and waist band, every pleat had a different color. When a breeze passed by, the skirt was like a gorgeous flower under moonlight.

With five thousand years of culture, Han couture had its own characteristics from dynasty to dynasty, but by and large it had two styles: “two-piece set” or “one-piece robe”. The grace and richness of Han couture represented the spirit of ancient Chinese people: diverse, elegant and broad-minded. From the beginning, Han Couture reflected Chinese people’s spiritual belief, their respect for Heaven and divine beings, their belief that heaven and people were one, as well as their philosophy of life . As a result, Han couture was so enriched: from the grandness of the Han Dynasty, to the magnificence of the Tang Dynasty, to the simplicity and elegance of the Song dynasty, to the delicacy and dignity of Ming Dynasty. During the course of China’s 5000 years of history, Han couture fully exhibited the meaning of ancient codes of conduct: kindness, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, and trust. It also showcased the goodness and beauty of traditional couture culture.

Note: Clothes from both Yuan Dynasty and Qing Dynasty are clothes from minority ethnic groups and are not considered as part of Han couture.