From the emperor to peasants, China has a long history of iconic clothing that is easily recognized all over the world. Silk is the most famous Chinese fabric and embroidered designs such as the dragon, phoenix, and tiger are most often associated with Chinese style. But when you travel to China, don’t expect to see everyone wearing silk embroidered jackets and dresses. Iconic Chinese fashion comes from traditional outfits which are not often worn in China. Here are the main types of traditional Chinese clothing.
汉服 hàn fú
The oldest traditional style of clothing, Han fu is named for the Han ethnic group (汉族, Hàn zú) which is the majority of Chinese people (>90%). Han fu started as imperial clothing before 2000 BC through the Ming Dynasty (1644). Both men and women wear long flowing robes with wide sleeves, often buttoned diagonally from the collar and closed with a belt at the waist. Loose flowing clothing isn't very practical so this style is associated with luxury and a life of leisure. Now, the only time people wear Han fu clothing is as a costume, especially for taking photos in famous and old locations around China.
唐装 táng zhuāng
The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) changed the style of clothing in imperial China since the emperor and government officials were not Han ethnicity but Manchurian. The iconic piece of clothing for men at that time was a short silk jacket that buttoned down the front. Originally designed for horse riders, it eventually became a fashionable male clothing item. It's still worn today as formal attire for special occasions by people who want to make a reference to traditional Chinese culture or show pride in their nationality, especially celebrities and government or business leaders.
At the same time that men started wearing tighter and shorter jackets, women started wearing form-fitting silk dresses down to their ankles rather than the floor. This dress is called the qipao or cheongsam in Cantonese and is still worn by Chinese women today for formal occasions. It has always been associated with luxury and wealth.
中山装 zhōngshān zhuāng
This simple linen or cotton jacket became the symbol of post-imperial China due to its simple construction and material. It became an iconic symbol worn by both Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong and, eventually, as the mandatory uniform of The People's Republic of China in the 1950-60s. Now it is worn for many different occasions and in a variety of fabrics but most often linen or cotton.
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