Clothing of Early Asian Cultures | Encyclopedia.com (2022)

Up until very recently, people in the Western world had a very limited understanding of the kinds of clothing worn in Asia. Our pictures of Asian clothing relied on stereotypes of Japanese people wearing kimono, or long robes with wide sleeves, and Chinese people wearing Mao suits, the simply cut, dull-colored outfits favored by the Communist Party. In fact, the peoples of Asia have a clothing tradition every bit as rich and varied as that of the cultures of the West. Understanding of Asian clothing traditions remains rather limited, however, for a number of reasons. Differences in language and culture have made studying Asian cultures difficult for Western historians. China has been closed to Western historians for political reasons for much of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and because of the nation's poverty it has not devoted a great deal of money to its own archeological research. Japanese costume is much better known, thanks to that nation's wealth and great respect for tradition and research. Until early in the twenty-first century, however, the history of fashion was considered unimportant and didn't attract the attention of capable scholars. Today, thanks to growing research and to the translation of Asian works, the basics of the clothing traditions of two major Asian culturesChina and Japanare better understood.

Ancient Chinese dress

Organized societies emerged in China as early as 5000 b.c.e., or about the same time as they did in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. By about 1875 b.c.e. these societies grew complex enough to organize large areas of land and people into the first of the Chinese dynasties, organized societies ruled by members of a particular family. These dynasties controlled China,though not without interruption, until 1911 c.e. Beginning with the earliest Xia dynasty (18751550 b.c.e.), we can see some of the basic forms of Chinese dress. The majority of the people wore a simple outfit consisting of a tunic or jacket called a san and a pair of loose trousers called a ku. Depending upon the time of year, the tunic might be short, ending at the waist, or much longer, reaching to just above the ankle. The earliest known examples of such an outfit show the use of the characteristic Chinese collar, usually known as the mandarin collar, which stood up from a round neck opening, with a small gap in the front.

The customary garment of the upper classes in ancient China, which included the emperor and his family, a court of nobles, and a wide range of officials, was the robe, a long-sleeved, loose-fitting garment that fastened in the front. The exact cut and style of these robes changed significantly over the course of Chinese history. At times the sleeves were narrow; at other times quite loose and billowing. Sometimes the robes were belted, while at other times they hung loose about the waist. These robes were fastened either down the middle or across the right side of the chest, but never across the left. Fastenings that crossed the left side of the chest were considered barbaric. Most often these robes were made of silk, but some emperors made a show of wearing robes made of other materials, often to demonstrate their frugality or to make a political statement. By the time of the Qing dynasty (16441911 c.e.), the highly ornamented dragon robe had become the signature garment of the ruling class.

In the earliest years of China, poorer people used hemp to make their clothing. Hemp was a fiber made from a tall Asian herb and is similar to linen. Beginning in the Song dynasty (9601279 c.e.), cotton replaced hemp as the primary material used for the garments of common people. Cotton could be dyed more easily and was easier to grow. Padding was added to clothes for cold seasons, but the garments did not change a great deal from season to season. The material preferred by members of the upper classes was silk. Spun by silk worms that lived in mulberry trees, silk was a rich, soft fabric that was treasured for its sheen and its comfort. It could take many different color dyes. One fabric that was traditionally shunned by the Chinese was wool. From the earliest times wool was considered a "barbarian" fabric used only by non-Chinese. The association of wool with hated foreigners was so strong that it lasted until the twentieth century.

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Chinese costume has always been characterized by a deep respect for conventions and for the symbolism of certain colors and decorations. The clothing worn by the emperor was considered especially important. According to Valerie Steel and John S. Major, authors of China Chic: East Meets West, clothing "was an instrument of the magical aura of power through which the emperor ruled the world; in addition it served to distinguish the civilized from the barbarous, the male from the female, the rich from the poor, the proper from the improper." From as early as the third century b.c.e. written documents indicate that the emperor wore certain colors of clothing at certain times of the yearyellow for the summer, for examplein order to lead the changing of the seasons. Strict rules insured that clothing showed clear distinctions between the different ranks of society, and it was considered a serious offense for poor people to wear showy or decorative clothes.

China and modern dress

China maintained its traditional practices in clothing for an unusually long time, right up to the twentieth century. Then, beginning in 1911, China's clothing styles changed very dramatically. A revolution led by Sun Yat-sen (18661925) toppled the emperor, Pu Yi, and finally allowed Western dress to enter China. (Western dress had been either forbidden or frowned upon during the nineteenth century.) Many Chinese people adopted Western fashions. The cheongsam dress for women was a combination of Western and Chinese styles, and it became very popular. By 1949, however, a violent civil war brought a Communist government to China. (Communism is a system of government in which the state controls the economy and all property and wealth are shared equally by the people.) Under Communist rule, Western dress was again shunned. The new government, which controls China to this day, favored a basic garment called a Mao suit (named after the Communist leaderMao Tse-tung [18931976]), with plain trousers and a tunic with a mandarin collar and two pockets on the chest. People of all classes throughout China wore the Mao suit, and its drab uniformity showed the world that there were no class differences between people. As China modernized in the last twenty years of the twentieth century, some Western dress began to appear, but for many the Mao suit remained the common garment for daily wear.

Japan

Although we know that people lived on the islands that make up the modern nation of Japan from as early as 13,000 b.c.e., our first real knowledge of Japanese culture comes from the period when Chinese influences began to be felt, in about the sixth century c.e. Japan borrowed many Chinese customs, including rule by emperors, growing rice, the Buddhist religion, and many clothing traditions, including the wearing of robes for the wealthy and trousers and simple tunics for the poor. During the Heian period (7941185 c.e.), however, the Japanese began to create distinct versions of clothing. While poorer classes continued to wear fairly simple clothing, including loose trousers and a simple linen shirt for men and a loose skirt for women, members of the upper classes and nobility began to develop very distinct clothing traditions.

The basic Japanese garments were the kosode, a short-sleeved shirt that opened in front, and the hakama, or long trousers. The kosode eventually evolved into the garment most associated with Japan, the kimono. The kimono, whose name means "thing to wear," is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese robe and is worn by both men and women. It is a long garment tied at the waist with an obi, or sash. The kimono has many variations according to the circumstance in which it is worn. Many other garments form part of the traditional Japanese dress, such as the haori, the ho, the kataginu, and the kinu. A common characteristic ofJapanese dress is the careful attention to detail in the way the garment is cut and the beauty of the fabric.

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One of the most important influences on Japanese fashion came from the samurai, a class of elite warriors who helped secure the power of the rulers of Japan's various states. The samurai were a distinct social class, and they developed rules and traditions for clothing that were very complex and linked to ceremonial occasions. Another class of mostly female entertainers, known as geisha, also had a great influence on Japanese dress.

The Japanese were first exposed to Western dress in 1542, when British and Portuguese traders visited the nation, but they did not embrace Western dress until the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century most Japanese people adopted Western dress, such as trousers and suits for men and skirts and blouses for women, for their everyday wear, but traditional dress remained a very important part of their culture, worn for important events like weddings and funerals.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Cook, Harry. Samurai: The Story of a Warrior Tradition. New York: Sterling, 1993.

Feltwell, John. The Story of Silk. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

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Kennedy, Alan. Japanese Costume: History and Tradition. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

Pickels, Dwayne E. Ancient Warriors. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 1999.

Sichel, Marion. Japan. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

"Silk." Insects and Human Society. http://www.ento.vt.edu/ihs/distance/lectures/silk/index.shtml (accessed on July 29, 2003).

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Steele, Valerie, and John S. Major. China Chic: East Meets West. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

West, C.E., and F.W. Seal. Samurai Archives. http://samurai-archives.com/index.html (accessed on July 29, 2003).

Wilson, Verity. Chinese Dress. London, England: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1986.

Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopedia of World Costume. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.

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Cheongsam
Dragon Robes
Hakama
Haori
Ho
Kataginu
Kimono
Silk
Kinu
Kosode
Mandarin Shirt
Geisha
Obi

Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages

FAQs

Clothing of Early Asian Cultures | Encyclopedia.com? ›

In the earliest years of China, poorer people used hemp to make their clothing. Hemp was a fiber made from a tall Asian herb and is similar to linen. Beginning in the Song dynasty (960–1279 c.e.), cotton replaced hemp as the primary material used for the garments of common people.

What is the traditional clothing in Asia? ›

Traditional outfits that can be seen in China and Hong Kong today include the qipao or cheongsam for women and the hanfu, which can be worn by either men or women. The qipao/cheongsam is the dress popularly associated with Chinese clothing. It can be either long or short and has the high clasped collar.

What are Asian outfits called? ›

Terminology. As English loanwords, both "cheongsam" and "qipao" describe the same type of body-hugging dress worn by Chinese women, and the words could be used interchangeably.

What kind of clothing did people wear in ancient China? ›

People in ancient China wore tunics. Women wore long tunics, sometimes with a second tunic over the first. Some worn pants under their tunics. The men worn shorter tunics over pants.

What was the first Asian culture? ›

The Asian societies that began in modern-day China are among the oldest known human societies on earth. Though they were at least as developed and sophisticated as early civilizations in Mesopotamia (centered in present-day Iraq) and Egypt, these Asian societies have received far less study and attention in the West.

What did ancient Asians wear? ›

The majority of the people wore a simple outfit consisting of a tunic or jacket called a san and a pair of loose trousers called a ku. Depending upon the time of year, the tunic might be short, ending at the waist, or much longer, reaching to just above the ankle.

How do people dress in Central Asia? ›

In Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, the tunic and loose trousers ensemble forms part of traditional costume. Men will wear turbans or hats with their tunics and sirwals whilst women will wear scarves or hats.

What is a Chinese kimono called? ›

Hanfu has influenced the traditional clothing of many neighbouring cultures, including the Korean hanbok, the Japanese kimono, the Okinawan ryusou, and the Vietnamese áo giao lĩnh.
...
Hanfu
Simplified Chinese汉服
Traditional Chinese漢服
Literal meaning"Han Chinese's attire"
4 more rows

What did the poor wear in ancient China? ›

The poor people, or peasants, wore clothing made of hemp. This was a rough material made from plant fibers. It was durable and good for working in the fields. Generally clothes made of hemp were loose fitting pants and shirts.

What was traditional Chinese clothing made of? ›

Materials used are usually silk, cotton and linen. Cheongsam is the most popular Chinese attire in the world today.

Are kimonos Japanese or Chinese? ›

Kimono is Japanese traditional & unique dress showing the Japanese sense of fashion. Let's explore the origin of kimono. Japanese kimono (in other words, ”gofuku”) derived from the garments worn in China during the Wu dynasty.

What is Asia most known for? ›

Nonetheless, Asia, the most populous of the continents, contains some three-fifths of the world's people. Asia is the birthplace of all the world's major religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism—and of many minor ones.

When was Asia named? ›

The word Asia originated from the Ancient Greek word Ἀσία, first attributed to Herodotus (about 440 BCE) in reference to Anatolia or to the Persian Empire, in contrast to Greece and Egypt. It originally was just a name for the east bank of the Aegean Sea, an area known to the Hittites as Assuwa.

Is Asia a girl's name? ›

Asia Origin and Meaning

The name Asia is girl's name . This still attractive place name was one of the first to gain popularity, though it now probably owes some of its favor to the similar Aisha. Asia ranked as high as Number 195 on the US baby names popularity list in 1997.

How do you spell a girl's name Asia? ›

Asia
  1. Gender: Female.
  2. Origin: Greek.
  3. Meaning: Resurrection.

What does Asia mean for a girl? ›

American Baby Names Meaning:

In American Baby Names the meaning of the name Asia is: Lively; The rising sun. The name of the continent used as a given name. According to the Koran the Pharaoh's wife Asia raised the infant Moses.

What is the traditional clothing in Philippines? ›

The national costume of the Philippines, the baro't saya, is an elegant hybrid of Filipino and Spanish clothing styles. The term itself comes from the Tagalong words "barot at saya" or "blouse and skirt," still the basic components of the ensemble.

What is the traditional clothing in Japan? ›

The traditional dress of Japan is the kimono. Kimonos, which are generally made of silk, have large sleeves and reach from the shoulders all the way down to the heels. They are tied with a wide belt called an obi.

What is Malaysian traditional clothes? ›

The current traditional dress for women in Malaysia is called Baju Kurung. It can be considered the most popular traditional clothing. The traditional Baju Kurung is a long-sleeved, knee-length (or sometimes shorter) blouse, paired with a long skirt that is called kain.

What do South Asia people wear? ›

A Sari is a traditional South Asian garment that can range from five to nine yards! It's usually wrapped around the waist with the excess material draped over the shoulder. Typically, two long decorative borders run the length of the sari. Underneath the sari, a petticoat is worn and on top is a tight fitting blouse.

What is barong and saya? ›

“Baro't Saya” translates to “blouse and skirt,” the two main pieces that make up the traditional ensemble. It's composed of four parts. The baro't saya is made of four parts. The Baro is a blouse made of lightweight material. The Saya is a skirt that falls anywhere below the knee or to the feet.

What is the traditional costume of Korea? ›

Korea's Traditional Costume, Hanbok

Hanbok is the traditional attire of the Korean people. Nowadays, it is only worn on special occasions or anniversaries. It is a formal wear and many Koreans keep a hanbok for such occasions.

What is the dress of Igorot? ›

Igorot costume is very simple. The men wear long strips of handwoven loin cloth called “wanes”. The woman wear a kind of wrap-around skirt called “lufid”. This attire is used by the tribes in Mountain Province of The Cordillera ranges, called Igorots.

What did ancient Japanese wear? ›

Kimono as we know them today came into the form during the Heian period (794-1185). From ancient times, and all the way through the Nara period (710-794), Japanese people typically wore either ensembles consisting of separate upper and lower garments (trousers or skirts), or one-piece garments.

What did Japanese wear before kimono? ›

In the Heian era (794-1185), court nobles wore linen “Yukata” which were draped loosely after taking a bath. The Yukata was later also worn by Japanese warriors and by the Edo era (1600-1868), it was widely worn by the public when public baths became a popular recreation in Japan.

What do old Japanese people wear? ›

Traditional Japanese clothing, or wafuku, often consists of intricate robes called kimonos worn with a sash called an obi and sandals, either zōri or geta.

What is the traditional clothing of Indonesia? ›

The kebaya is the national costume of women from Indonesia, although it is more accurately endemic to the Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese peoples. It is sometimes made from sheer material such as silk, thin cotton or semi-transparent nylon or polyester, adorned with brocade or floral pattern embroidery.

What is the traditional clothing of Singapore? ›

Baju Kurung is a traditional Singapore costume as well as the national dress of Malaysia, though the people of Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand have adapted with it well. It is also the national dress of Singapore. This traditional costume became fashionable in the late 19th century by Sultan Abu Bakar of Johar.

What is clothing culture? ›

Clothing can reflect beliefs of individuals and groups. Religious groups often adopt a certain style of clothing. Beliefs about magic and luck have been held by people of many cultures. Their clothing reflects these beliefs. For example, some people wear a “lucky hat” to go finish.

Why do Asians dress modestly? ›

“Modesty culture,” which puts the onus of modesty on women more so than men, is imposed on females from the Indian subcontinent from a young age, and clothing that covers the skin is seen somewhat as a shield that protects you from the rumour-mongering community of aunties who, with a few sharp words, could ruin your ...

What is ethnic wear? ›

Ans – Ethnic wear is the traditional Indian ensembles worn by the people in India. Saris, kurtas, shararas, salwar kameez sets, lehenga sets, palazzos, Anarkali kurtas etc, are all considered ethnic wear.

What is Indian clothing called? ›

A saree or sari is a female garment in the Indian subcontinent. A sari is a strip of unstitched cloth, ranging from four to nine meters in length, that is draped over the body in various styles.

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