A Tale of Two (Linen) Skirts

Two linen skirts, both comparable in dignity.

I have two Tang Dynasty skirts made of linen. One is pretty pastel pink-and-purple. The other is kick-you-in-the-face orange.

The pink skirt is a split skirt, meaning that it is two panels pleated to bands with ties that are seamed at the sides, with a gap at the top so that it can be wrapped around the wearer’s waist and tied.

My pink skirt, looking kind of orange and in need of an ironing before I wear it again.

The orange skirt is a single-panel wrap skirt. It’s still a panel pleated to a band, but it is one long panel – long enough to wrap around the wearer 1.5 times, with ties at each end. It’s worn very similarly to a modern wrap skirt.

So. Much. Orange.

Here’s a (cued) video showing how to wear both kinds of skirt. (I can’t speak to the two-toned tie method’s period accuracy, since I haven’t seen ties in paintings that look like they are two colors, but it sure looks cool!)

Before I launch into the specifics regarding these two styles of skirt when they are made of linen, let’s talk about wrap and split skirts during the Tang Dynasty. The extant skirt we have from the Song Dynasty 1 and the doll-sized skirts from the Tang Dynasty 2 all appear to be of the single-panel wrap variety; however, we have some pictorial evidence of split skirts.

Detail of A Palace Concert, potentially showing evidence for the two-panel style skirt 3

Two ladies on the right side of the table in A Palace Concert appear to have split skirts, perhaps with a secondary skirt worn beneath. The lower lady, wearing a pale pink printed shirt and a pale skirt with a green tie. Deciphering what we are seeing here is a little rough, not only due to the degradation of the painting. It is possible that the split in the paler fabric of the skirt is instead the hanging piece of the lady’s skirt tie, but given the position at her underarm and the way the skirt folds move around it makes me question that theory.

Like the lady below her, the flute-player’s pale skirt is divided at the side to reveal a triangle of red fabric with some sort of design. She is also wearing a red pibo, but the shawl clearly flows down her back and across her chest as opposed to under her arm. Even if it was tucked inside her skirt’s waistband, which we occasionally see in other images, the fact that we can see it would still stand as evidence of a two-panel skirt.

In addition to A Palace Concert, ladies on the north wall of Mogao Cave 107 are wearing two skirts, the top-most of which has a very deep split.


Detail of mural on the north wall of Cave 107, showing split-style skirts, as well as skirts with horizontal stripes.4

So to the question of which is more period, there might be a distinction to be made between the two styles of skirts based on region or a narrower time period, given the fluctuation of fashion during the Tang Dynasty, but I haven’t yet dug that far to find/make that distinction. Cave 107 is dated to late Tang (827-859), while the A Palace Concert is anonymous, making it more difficult to date.

I (usually) wear linen skirts at events where I am chasing small children, because small children don’t understand that sticky applesauce or banana hands on Mama’s silk is a bad idea. But I learned something about linen skirts when I wore the orange one at Known World Costume and Fiber Arts in Georgia this summer – single panel wrap linen skirts with linen ties do not want to stay up.

This is possibly and very likely due to the weight of the linen and the way the linen-on-linen ties act. Silk is stronger, and has a bit of tooth compared to linen that helps it grip. My very first Tang Dynasty skirt had bias cut silk ribbon ties, but they weren’t heavy enough and were too slick to do the job, so my subsequent skirts had either poly-satin ribbon ties (which is fine in a pinch) or ties I made myself out of fabric tubes or folded and stitched silk.

The pink, two-panel split skirt has never slipped the same way that the orange one did. I think it’s because the weight of the skirt is split between two sets of ties. Also – in my experience, if you want to embrace the cleavage-y aspect of Tang Dynasty clothing, go with silk. My linen skirts do better if they sit at the top of your chest, so that your breasts can help support the fabric, as opposed to across the middle.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing, tree and outdoor
Me, wearing the red silk skirt with the Sartor silk band that Mistress Una made for me.

The width of the ties make a difference too. I’ve noticed that my big band skirt that my Laurel, Mistress Una, made for me, tends to sag a bit at the sides. I think that if I replace the poly-satin ribbon ties with wider, silk ties (at least as wide as the band itself), I can fix this issue. As it is, the narrower ties are secured at the top of the band, meaning that the bottom of the band sags.

If you compare the photo above to the photo below, where I am wearing a skirt with a thinner waistband, the silk ties are in better proportion to the waistband, and do a much better job at… well, their job. (These are both two-panel skirts, by the way).

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, stripes, child and outdoor
Me in my stripey split panel silk skirt.

The next few events on my docket are sans children, so I think I’ll tackle the Sartor skirt first in terms of fixing stuff. Then I can figure out how to best turn a the orange wrap skirt into a split skirt, so that I can wear it around a toddler without fear of malfunction.

  1.  Zhou, X.; Gao, C. (1987). 5000 years of Chinese costumes. Hong Kong: The Commercial Press. p. 123.
  2. Chen, B. Y. (2013). Dressing for the times: Fashion in Tang Dynasty China (618-907). (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Academic Commons. (doi: 10.7916/D8KK9B6D). p. 92.
  3. “唐人宮樂圖 (A Palace Concert).” (618-907). National Palace Museum. Retreived from https://theme.npm.edu.tw/selection/Article.aspx?sNo=04000957&lang=2.
  4. “Mogao Grottoes Cave 107.” Digital Dunhuang. Retrieved from: https://www.e-dunhuang.com/cave/10.0001/0001.0001.0107.
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3 thoughts on “A Tale of Two (Linen) Skirts”

  1. A Palace Concert likely hails from between Kaiyuan 12-Kaiyuan 17(72A 4D-729 AD). The ladies are not quite as voluptuous as the Tianbo ladies, the sleeves are getting wider and the clothing less “fitted”-but again, not quite as voluminous or boldly patterned as they became later on. Most importantly, the hair at the back of their heads are drawn up fairly tightly, unlike the large “bulge” of hair you see on Tianbo ladies.

    1. I finally had a moment to come back to this. If A Palace Concert is indeed showing split skirts, then combined with the later period Mogao Cave mural, that covers an almost 150 year period. Whoa!

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