Throughout five thousand years of human civilization, clothing has served a simple need and a complex one: protection against the cold and a comprehensive manuscript on which human evolution and societal progression is recorded. Now evolved, clothes have become costumes of varied design and a medium for lively and creative art. In essence, the evolution of clothing reflects the constant changes in humanity. Attire really is a reflection of a nation’s intellectual growth.
Even though intellectual exchange between the East and West never truly stopped, in the realm of fashion, each side has retained its uniqueness. Technology has made the world smaller. Famous western fashion brands permeate the globe. Chinese people have recently enjoyed a resurgence of their traditional culture including traditional Chinese garb, causing waves of astonishment among Westerners. Oriental elements are now found in major fashion shows, and more homage is paid to Chinese history than every before. As Chinese, how can we open our eyes and be proud of our beautiful, majestic fashion? My name is Lan Jun. I am the Taste of Life fashion editor and I want to temporarily put aside current fashion trends and talk about the differences between and origins of Western and Oriental fashion.
Based on historical sources, Chinese couture can be traced as far back as 7,000 years ago to the Three Emperors and Five Sovereigns era. The ancient Book of Changes describes the fashions of the Shang, Zhou, Qing, Han, Sui, and and Tang dynasties and finally the Song and Ming dynasties.. Massive sleeves and loose robes of emperors and long flowing dresses of court ladies are easily attributed to Chinese today. But Chinese fashion also includes the 3-collared robes, straight robes, overcoats, shirts, and various skirts and sleeves. There are countless combinations and variations.
Han couture can be considered the earliest establishment of Chinese fashion. The Han Dynasty upheld the ideas of “Harmony between Man and Nature” and “Immitation of Nature” and made use of those natural elements when designing robes. The rounded upper part of the robe is simple but as round and full as a clocktower bell. The 2-piece wrap on the chest of the robe looks imposing but also restrained. From the golden era of the Tang Dynasty came the elegant skirt with its flowing robe and silky thin sleeves. The Song Dynasty upheld Confucius’ values, hence the simple elegance, the inclusion of a skirt waist and the conservative but exquisite feel of the robe. After the explosion of the handicraft industry in the Ming Dynasty, more focus was placed on decorating commoners’ apparel. Square fabrics, patchwork “Paddy field garments” and delicately sewn strips of the “Phoenix-tail skirt” became the center of fashion.
Meanwhile, Europeans emphazised curves and made strides in the art of body contours. The undergarments of today come from corselettes worn by European ladies. The most traditional corsage has a layer of wool fabric lining the inside. The “rigid skeleton” lies over the wool layer with a row of metallic buttons secured at the front and 2 rows of metallic clasps at the back. When it’s fastened together, it should be as tight as possible to show off one’s waist and bosom. Add in the loose and puffy skirt with some fancy stichwork and this is a typical look of a European lady of days gone by.
The method of draping prevalent in the clothing industry is the invention of Europeans. As one may find out while folding clothes, a dress can never be completed pressed down, there is always going to be unevenness. This is because the manufacturing of Western dresses follows the human body’s curves from the very beginning. Dressmaking started by putting the garments on the body, cutting off pieces where there was too much, and finally, sewing all the peices together. This is the technique known as “draping”.
In contrast, ancient Chinese’ conservative and introverted nature is reflected in their clothing. Han Couture is mostly comprised of straight cuts, something like a simple T shape when you lay it down. It’s not extremely fitting but it naturally has character and style. One can see the Chinese’s belief of “The sky is round while the land is flat” on the broad and loose sleeves from the Tang dynasty, the phoenix-tailed skirt and the paddy clothes of the Ming Dynasty. This elegant and majestic fashion trend not only circulated in China for thousands of years, but also affected fashions of other Asian countries, especially Korean and Japanese.
Billions of dollars in fashion sales change hands every year, demonstrating the age-old desire to clothe ourselves beautifully. Then what is “fashion”? In Paris, the fashion capital of the world, I conducted a survey and found the results shockingly similar across all levels of society and walks of life. The majority considers “fashion” to be simply something you enjoy wearing and feel comfortable wearing. No matter how the trend flows in the fashion industry nor how much clothing becomes an artistic display of an individual, it still remains first and foremost protection for our body and a reflection of our inner self. True fashion should not be a craze on the spur of the moment. As for the pursuit of beautiful clothing, we should not be led astray by anything crazy or outlandish. Many find inner peace and freedom in the refined, elegant Han clothing. I hope looking at this treasure of the Chinese civilization inspires everyone to incorporate a classical look in their clothing.