China is home to the invention of silk and has a long standing tradition of producing fine materials for clothing. Not all clothing in ancient or contemporary China is made of silk, however. In fact, silk was only available to the wealthy classes for much of China's history. Until the introduction of cotton during the Ming Dynasty, from the 14th to the 17th century, the poorer classes wore rough clothing made from hemp and other fibres.
The material used to make clothing in ancient China was used as a way to distinguish between the classes. The lower classes could not afford the nicer materials of the wealthy upper classes, and generally made their clothing out of ramie and hemp. Both materials are made from plants that thrive in China and tend to have a rough texture when worn. The upper classes, on the other hand, wore clothing made predominately of silk. The use of silk as a material originated in China during this time, as thread harvested from caterpillars was spun into this fine, soft material.
Styles of Clothing
In ancient China, the tunic was a particularly popular item of clothing. Called hanfu, both men and women could be seen wearing tunics made of the different materials. Women's tunics were long, extending all the way down to their feet and often cinched with a belt or rope. Men's tunics were shorter, usually only extending down to their knees. During the winter, both men and women would wear padded jackets for warmth. In the winter, men would also incorporate trousers or ankle-length skirts into their wardrobe to keep warm and protect their legs against the cold winter conditions.
Use of Cotton
After Mongolia invaded China prior to the Ming Dynasty, destroying many of the trees that housed the caterpillars used to make silk, cotton gained widespread use throughout China. Particularly among the lower classes, cotton became a more popular material for clothing than the ramie and hemp previously used. Cotton is much softer than hemp and ramie and was comparable in price. Though cotton clothing was predominately worn during the summer months, it was layered to provide warmth during the winter.
Contemporary Chinese clothing is now made of many of the same materials as contemporary clothing found in other countries. Much of the traditional Chinese clothing manufactured now is made of cotton and silk, but generally contemporary Chinese clothing also contains synthetic fibres woven in with the cotton and silk, such as nylon and polyester. Silk and cotton have also been developed and embellished to include silk brocade, made with intricate patterns and designs, and silk velour. Additionally, linen is now commonly used in contemporary Chinese clothing, especially during the summer months because it is light and breathable.