While Western dress such as business suits and jeans may be seen in China, much of the clothing in China today reflects a mixture of traditional designs and modern fashion design elements. Classic symbols such as deities, lions and Chinese opera masks are common, along with dragons, phoenixes, clouds and lightning. For special occasion, Chinese men and woman may wear traditional garb.
Three Main Types of Traditional Clothing
In ancient China, there were three clothing designs, all featuring a loose fit with a wide cut and roomy sleeves. The "pien-fu" was a ceremonial costume. It consisted of a tunic on top that reached the knees, and matched with a skirt or trousers that reached the ankles. The "ch'ang-p'ao" was one piece, and it extended from the shoulders down to the heels. The most popular type of clothing was the "shen-I," a combination of the pien-fu and the ch'ang-p'ao. The shen-I was made of a tunic plus a skirt or trousers, but unlike the pien-fu, the two pieces of the outfit are sewn together to make a one-piece garment similar to the ch'ang-p'ao.
To add decoration to the plain designs of the pien-fu, ch'ang-p'ao and shen-I, the ancient Chinese used sashes, embroidering on the edges, decorative bands and patterns on the shoulders. The designs are the most recognizable attributes of classic Chinese clothing.
Traditional Chinese clothing used color for symbolism. Colors represented the seasons, with green signifying spring, red signifying summer, white signifying autumn, and black signifying winter. Dark colored clothing with bright designs in tapestry was used for ceremonial clothing, while the common people conventionally wore lighter colors. Red, the color of blood, was a symbol for life and its happiness, wealth, fame and good luck.
For thousands of years, the clothing of every Chinese dynasty symbolized the social status and culture of the wearer. Each new dynasty brought its unique style of dress. Starting with the Western Zhou dynasty, differences in clothing and personal adornment symbolized class distinctions. There were special clothes for visiting palace temples, wedding ceremonies, bereavement and for the army.
Contemporary Chinese Clothing
The Chinese clothing of today is a combination of ancient classical design and contemporary ideas. At social occasions, men may wear the traditional Chinese long gown, while women may wear the "ch'i-p'ao," a fashion adapted from the Ching Dynasty for formal gatherings. Macrame is often used for ornamentation on the bodice, shoulders and openings of clothing. The bride's tiara is a modified version of a Sung Dynasty design, and the colorful embroidered sash harkens back to the style of the Hunan Province. Western clothing is becoming more common.