10 Popular Ancient Chinese Garments

qing dynasty imperial clothing details gold embroided dragon

In ancient China, clothing worn by emperors, noblemen, and officials used colors and patterns to signify rank. (Image: via Dreamstime.com © Waihs)

In China, ancient Chinese garments were more than just a means to cover people’s bodies. They deemed clothing as an embodiment of culture and prestige symbols. Clothing in ancient China reflected the social status of the wearer. So there was a huge difference between the attire worn by the wealthy and peasants. In general, peasants carried hemp backpacks that were both comfortable and durable in nature. On the contrary, the wealthy lot wore clothing made of materials like silk with elaborate designs.

The Chinese were very particular about wearing clothing representing the social status of the wearer. So if the peasantry wore silk clothing, they were punished. They were also very particular about wearing clothing with apt hues. For instance, the Chinese emperors wore only yellow attire. During the reign of the Shu Dynasty, poor people could only wear black and blue clothes. It was after the Mongol invasion of China that cotton was introduced in the country. From the Yuan Dynasty, Chinese people started wearing cotton clothes. 

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Small detail of larger painting shows stall owners and children with lanterns enjoying Yuanxiao Festival in the Forbidden City.
Tunics were used extensively during the reign of the Xia Dynasty. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

While Chinese fashion changed with time, ancient Chinese clothing was not varied in nature. Listed here are the top traditional and ancient types of Chinese clothing:

1. Tunics

These were used extensively during the reign of the Xia Dynasty. Chinese people wore tunics resembling short- and long-sleeved robes. Women wore long tunics and men wore shorter versions. During winter, they did put on an outer jacket for warmth.

2. Hanfu

This was the widely used Han Chinese clothing that was seen in the Xia Dynasty. It was a traditional outfit that was also known as Huafu or Hanzhuang. This unisex outfit was made by stitching multiple pieces of clothing. Its origins can be found in the Book of Han. Designed with ease of usage and wearing comfort in mind, the Hanfu had a waistband and a crossing collar.

3. Pien-fu

This was an ancient Chinese ceremonial attire that had two pieces. One was a skirt and the other is a long tunic. This unique dress was made in varying hues and each color had a specific connotation. Red symbolized summer, while green indicated wealth, for example. The pine — a hat with a cylindrical shape — was worn with this attire. 

4. Sheni

This ancient Chinese dress was a version of the pien-fu. In it, a skirt and tunic were stitched together. In ancient China, Sheni was used extensively by government officials, and the scholars also liked it. 

5. Adornment and jewelry

The Chinese used jewelry to flaunt their social status. Just like clothing, they adhered to certain norms for wearing ornaments. Chinese men wore belt hooks or buckles, while the women used combs and hairpins. Interestingly, the Chinese preferred silver over gold. They used blue gems and blue kingfisher feathers too. As for stones, the ancient Chinese liked jade over other options. Neither women nor men in ancient China wore earrings. Dragon-themed amulets were quite popular. 

6. Changpao

Another ancient Chinese dress, the changpao, was a single suit covering a large section of the body. This was made by blending the designs of multiple Chinese outfits. A loose-fitting attire, it was worn mostly by Chinese men. Its horseshoe design helped protect the hands from the winter’s cold. Men typically rolled up the sleeves for hunting or doing chores. 

7. Shenyi

A traditional Chinese outfit for men, the shenyi was meant for ceremonies and official events. It was worn during the reign of the Ming and Song dynasties. During the Shang Dynasty, it was used as court attire. Later, during the Tang Dynasty, it lost its popularity. It was made with bleached fabric.

8. Panling lanshan

During the Ming Dynasty, this ancient Chinese dress was used mostly by students and scholars. 

9. Headpieces

In ancient China, men wore hats, while women used hairpieces. Men started wearing hats after they turned 20, which indicated the arrival of adulthood. The poor were forbidden from wearing hats. 

10. Dragon robe

The Chinese emperors wore Dragon robes daily. These had round collars and buttons were on the right side. Apart from dragons, this attire also had designs of animals, such as tigers and eagles. 

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