Chinese Fashion History

French Historian Fernand Braudel claimed fashion is “peculiarly a feature of Western history.” The New York Times in 1913 exclaimed “The fashions in China? It never occurred to you, perhaps, that there were any!”

But both of these claims are based off of Western assumptions. They believed that fashion didn’t exist in China because it appeared to them that sartorial practices hadn’t changed for centuries. But Chinese history shows that fashion has existed in China as early as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which is comparable to the (initially unconscious) Western inception of fashion during the Middle Ages… The Chinese fashion system has just existed and developed separately from the Western one until recently, so Chinese sartorial changes may not be as apparent to the Western eye at first glance.

So in order to prove that ‘fashion’ existed in China, we first have to define fashion. My personal definition of fashion is clothing that extends beyond the primary functions of protection or modesty. Initially, fashion gained three “emergent functions” in the West due to economic development: adornment, social stratification, and imitation. These emergent functions also existed in Chinese sartorial practices since at least the Ming for similar reasons, so fashion has existed on the Mainland for centuries.

This is a wonderful drawing from Chinese artist Maleonn, which demonstrates sartorial changes from the end of the Qing Dynasty (1880) until 1970, over 20 years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

In 1880, most people wore two pieces with many layers, which made them appear more round and a bit stiff I would say. Their collars were high, and most parts of the body were covered.

Around 1900, they lost a few layers and slimmed down their silhouettes. They had fancier embroidery and embellishments on their garb, lower collars, and head pieces to complement a new hair style.

To see the changes after dynastic rule collapsed in China (circa 1911), you can check out the 1910-1920 tab.