Author：Verbena C. W
Ever considered going to the mall wearing a billowing tunic dress and hosiery straight out of the European Middle Ages? How about strapping on a suit of armor, grabbing a sharp sword and heading for the office? Right now in China there are groups of people doing this very thing—going about their daily lives dressed in the garb of Ancient China, from the Han Dynasty on up. You’ll see them in the crowded confines of McDonald’s, H&M, The Apple Store and even out on the street: trailing long flowing clothing and attracting the attention of passersby.
It all started in 2003 when several fellows got together, established a studio, and began painstakingly sewing outfits modeled on the traditional Chinese style. Their work may have been rough, but after they were seen wearing it in public the trend quickly caught fire, and the so-called “Traditional Chinese Clothing Revitalization Movement” began.
While we’re on the topic of traditional Chinese clothing, perhaps we should first say a few words about the qipao (pronounced ‘cheepow’ and also known as the cheongsam or mandarin gown). The sight of women out and about dressed in qipaos has long since lost its novelty in China; and in Louis Vuitton and Chanel’s just announced collections of Eastern fashion, traces of the qipao could be seen in many of the designs. Ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and In the Mood for Love hit the big screen in the Western hemisphere, the qipao changed from being simply the attire of China’s final feudal dynasty—the Qing—to being the representative garment for all of Eastern culture.
It was also about this time that the Western movie and fashion worlds seemed to contract a veritable “qipao fever.” Valentino Garavani and other big-name designers began producing clothing inspired by the Chinese qipao, and these new designs went on to win great acclaim at various fashion shows. At the Cannes Film Festival in May of last year, Nicole Kidman, Bridget Fonda and other female stars were seen walking the red carpet in tailor-made qipaos. And it is said that it wasn’t until Steven Spielberg saw Kate Capshaw, his future wife, wearing a qipao in a scene from his Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, that he decided that one day he would marry her.
By this point, however, Chinese people already consider the qipao to be modern attire. Stroll along the Huangpu River in Shanghai and you’ll see qipao-wearing women everywhere. As a result, now even more antiquated garb—from the Tang Dynasty, for example, or the Han Dynasty—has become the newest in-thing among trendsetting lovers of Chinese culture.
Eighty-three dynasties have ruled the Chinese people, themselves composed of a multitude of different ethnic groups; consequently, the costumes of Ancient China come in all manner of shapes and styles. As one might expect, this is also often one of the most headache-inducing parts of being a Chinese historical novelist or TV show scriptwriter: place a Tang Dynasty drinking vessel in a Song Dynasty drama and legions of amateur nitpickers will have a field day ridiculing the show to their friends online. But despite all the eras to choose from, enthusiasts have made the Tang, Han and Qing Dynasties (the qipao being the representative garb from the third) the focus of this ancient-meets-modern revival.
Following on the heels of the short-lived Qin Dynasty (China’s first), the Han Dynasty was China’s initial taste of being a relatively stable, economically-strong feudal state. The later Tang Dynasty was China at its most prosperous and powerful, while the Qing Dynasty was also its last–a period of decline that ushered China into the future. Tang Dynasty garb is bold and progressive, revealing a woman’s curves. Qing Dynasty clothing, on the other hand, is much more conservative; even the neck must be covered up. And Han Dynasty dress is somewhere in the middle. (Note that in modern versions of the qipao popular in the East, the wearer’s thigh is often revealed through a long slit in the side. As for the qipaos favored by American and European designers, the modifications are much bolder.)
But love and respect for traditional Chinese culture—and the desire to make these feelings known through one’s attire—are not revivalists’ only reason for dressing like it was 1899; the uniquely elegant designs of the outfits themselves surely have something to do with it as well. So the skirts may drag upon the ground, so they may be overloaded with layer upon layer of trivial detail–no matter, for when someone shows up to the office dressed in a getup like this, the effect is naturally solemn, refined, and lovely to behold.
Another explanation revivalists give for their behavior is that in South Korea and Japan, traditional garb and adornments are not merely a common sight at fancy holiday celebrations, they are also very much a part of day-to-day wear. A reporter once asked a revivalist whether she ever worried about what others would think when she wore her traditional costumes to work. No, she replied, wearing them actually fills me with great confidence.
As revivalists’ activities have become better known, their passion for wearing ancient clothing in public has, in turn, become something of a trend. In a blatant attempt to capitalize on the movement, a number of hugely expensive historical “palace dramas” have begun airing on Chinese TV stations. Lavishly produced down to the most infinitesimal details of their aristocratic characters’ clothing and housewares, these new productions spare no cost. And once filming has finished, the period costumes and props used by their stars become prizes given away to lucky viewers or else auctioned off online. Naturally, replicas of the real thing are also widely available on Taobao, the Chinese eBay.
Hip anachronism has even invaded the world of Chinese high fashion, where top designers are expanding upon the classical models to increasingly beautiful results. And as more and more clothing studios specializing in crafting ancient garb crop up, costs for constructing the outfits have fallen rapidly. Five years ago, you couldn’t order a suit of Han Dynasty clothing for less than 1,000 Renminbi—and five or six thousand if it was especially well-made. Today, however, plenty of perfectly good period outfits are available on Taobao for only 100 Renminbi.