This page was first published in April 2014, and is in need of some updates. We all learn new things in the span of five years! <3
Construction notes can be found here, and also linked with anchors at the various sections of this page.
China’s Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) is considered a high point in Chinese history. Women’s clothing of this period went on to influence Japanese and Korean dress, as well as our modern concept of traditional Chinese clothing. The country was open to the outside world, tolerant and appreciative of different cultures (Mei 2011, p. 25). This era of abundance and a more relaxed social atmosphere provided the opportunity for cultural development, wherein which China’s arts such as poetry, painting, music, and dance thrived (Mei 2011, p. 26). The conservative dress code of earlier periods became more relaxed, and women were allowed to expose their arms and back, as well as wear the clothing of other cultures or even men’s riding garb (Mei 2011, p. 26).
Here’s a quick video talking about the various fabric options for Tang Dynasty women’s clothing available at Dharma Trading Company.
Silk was the most difficult and expensive fabric to manufacture during the Tang Dynasty, but sericulture had been part of Chinese industry for centuries. Some of the oldest artifacts related to Chinese sericulture go back to about 5000 BCE (Vainker, 2004, p. 22). The Bureau of Weaving and Dyeing in the Tang Dynasty capital, Changan, classified textiles into ten types, eight of which were silks defined by their weave (Benn, 2002, p. 99). Woven silks in the Tang Dynasty included gauzes (sha), crepes (gu), lenos (luo), damasks (qi), single-colored twill (ling), brocades (jin), tapestry (kesi), and multicolored pile cloths (Vainker, 2004, p. 85). Tang Dynasty names for various silks were based on where they were woven, design pattern, function, or color, and the sampling included here is a broad listing of the principal types.
Silk comes in various weights, measured in mommes. Habotai silk is a great catch-all, but you can also get gauze and twill from Dharma Trading Company. For habotai silk, go for heavier weights for garments. Dharma sells a 16mm habotai in 45” width, which would work well for a shirt (I can get a shirt out of 2 yards of 45”). I wouldn’t go any lighter than 10mm for a piece of clothing. 8mm for a pibo/pizi (ribbon/cape) would be okay, since those are described as being lightweight (Shaorong, 2004, p. 32-33). The skirt I made was out of 45” wide 12mm twill, but I would prefer a wider width – I will be experimenting with a 70” wide 10mm for this project. Skirts were also arguably layered, as seen in the Zhou Fang painting Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses, so any translucent issues which may occur with a lighter weight silk skirt would be mitigated.
A bit of fun info about Chinese silk during the Tang Dynasty – in the early seventh century, Emperor Gaozu worked to refill the emptied coffers and granaries by reinstating the “equal fields” system. This system was a way to ensure a steady flow of annual taxes. The emperor technically owned all the land, so the state parceled it out to peasant males ages seventeen to fifty-nine in equal shares. Each adult male received about thirteen and one third acres, and in return, they paid annual taxes. Each adult male was required to send 2-3% of his annual grain harvest for each adult male in the family, either twenty feet of silk or twenty-five feet of linen woven by the women. They also had to spend twenty days doing compulsory labor to the government and two months doing special duty for the local government. Gaozo answered the large-scale counterfeiting that had occurred at the end of the Sui Dynasty by having new coppers minted which had uniform shapes, weights, and metal content. These coins were small and round with a square hole in the center so that they could be strung on cords. The next highest unit of currency was a string of 1,000 coppers, so large transactions were handled with silk, silver, or gold (Benn, 2002).
Woolens, made from animal fibers, were likely the easiest to manufacture of all the textiles in China during the Tang Dynasty, given that its production had the fewest steps. Commoners used woolens for their clothing (Benn, 2002, p. 98).
Felt was used for boots and hats (Benn, 2002, p. 97).
Linen and Raime
The Chinese during the Tang Dynasty used many bast fibers to make clothing, such as hemp, ramie, and kudzu. Benn (2002) only mentions “linen” as a sort of catch-all for fabric made from bast fibers. Fabric made from these plants is a complicated and time consuming process. Hemp grew in northern regions of China and was also used to produce cooking oil and fuel for lighting. Hemp fabric was coarse and used primarily for mourning clothes, bandages, sheets, and shrouds, as well as the garments of the lowest classes (p. 98). Ramie, a southern plant, had a greater yield than hemp, and the resulting fabric had a “brilliant luster like silk” and was quick to dry in high humidity (p. 99). It also was lightweight, cool, and absorbed sweat (p. 99).
We are very used to linen when making garments in the SCA. But is linen a good substitute for ramie? Ravenfea.com (2010) did a comparison study in which they found that ramie is prone to wrinkling, will breakdown if creased sharply, and holds dye well. Ramie dyed with saturated colors is prone to crocking. Ramie is also naturally resistant to bacteria and mold. The ramie that Ravenfea compared with linen had a higher thread count, which resulted in a fabric which felt higher-quality. Ramie possessed all the same qualities as linen, so passed, in Ravenfea’s opinion, as a good substitute. The converse should apply as well.
Cotton was known to China during the Tang Dynasty, but it was only used as an item of commerce. It came to China from India and Pakistan along the Silk Road. Since cotton was expensive and inferior to silk, it wasn’t until the thirteenth century that it became a fabric used for clothing (Benn, 2002, p. 98).
There are many descriptions of women’s dress in Tang Dynasty poems, including a large range of colors (Hua, M., 2011, p. 32). Colors, designs, and even textures were more varied than in previous dynasties (Zhou & Gao 1987, p. 77). Garnet or pomegranate colored skirts were the most popular, but purple, yellow, and green were also very common (Shaorong 2004, p. 5). As larger pieces of clothing, such as skirts, were usually a plain or figured weave, they were often printed with a design (Vainker 2004, p. 98). This is evident in the Zhou painting, as half of the ladies are wearing an outer skirt of a solid color. The outer and inner skirts with designs feature large, repeated floral roundels which could easily be the result of block or jiaxie printing. Jiaxie printing involves folding the fabric and then clamping it between two carved wooden boards which are mirror images of each other and which have holes that allow dye to reach the fabric (Vainker 2004, p. 84). Block printing was used in China as early as the 2nd century BCE, as evident by a bronze stamp found in the tomb of the King of Nanyue in Guangzhou, which was used to print gauze (Vainker 2004, p. 52). In the Tang Dynasty, printing fabric with stamps became much more refined, allowing dyers to print multicolored designs with the use of multiple stamps (Benn 2002, p. 100). There are several extant pleated skirts with printed decoration which match skirts depicted in paintings and sculpture, but the latter tend to soften the pleats (Vainker 2004, p. 106). Fabric dyes were derived from and plant, animal, and mineral sources, and were capable of producing a wide range of colors; over forty categories of fabric color are listed in Tang Dynasty records (Vainker 2004, p. 84). The Song of Yanying in May includes an account of the popular pomegranate-colored skirt, describing how when the trees were in bloom, every household with a young girl was buying the flowers in order to dye fabric (Mei 2011, p. 29).
Commoners wore pants similar to modern pajama pants – loose and baggy – paired with round-collared tunics with front openings. Commoner’s tunics could not fall below the thigh, and fabrics had to be white hemp. They wore slippers made of hemp thread, rushes, or straw, or sandals with straps (Benn, 2002, p. 100). The everyday clothing of aristocrats and government officials wore clothing similar to commoners, only they did not have fabric or length restrictions. Formal dress for aristocrats and government officials consisted of a set of two silk robes, similar to modern bathrobes. The left lapel of each folded over the right, the outer being smaller to expose the collar and sleeves of the inner robe. Robes were lined in the winter and unlined in the summer, and secured at the waist with a sash or belt. The sleeves were large, sometimes hanging from the wrist to below the knee. The hems of the tunic covered the feet so that only the toes of the shoes were exposed (Benn, 2002, p. 102-103).
Researching undergarments from ancient and medieval China is difficult, as they were considered “obscene clothing” – the literal translation of 亵衣 (xie ye) (Wu, 2010, p. 100). Names for particular garments changed, but the basic structure stayed relatively the same. Prior to the Tang Dynasty, undergarments considered of bands of fabric tied at the neck and around the back, with the focus on covering the front of the body – there was no “back piece” (Johns, 2011) (Shaorong, 2004, p. 45). While undergarments suffered a stigma publicly, the detailed embroidery and decorative craftsmanship that went into some show them to be a very private, personal means of expression. They also can reflect the culture and ideology of each dynasty through style and decoration (Wu, 2010, p. 101).
In the Tang Dynasty, Confucianism was augmented with elements of Taoism and Buddhism. Tang culture was much more relaxed, and fuller-figured women were idealized. The Tang waistline rose right under the bustline and higher, and the undergarments evolved to lose their ties and use buttons to fasten at the front. This garment was called the 诃子 (hezi), and legend says it was invented by 杨贵妃 (Imperial Consort Yang), Emperor Xuanzong’s highest ranking consort and one of the Four Beauties of China. Yang was having an affair with General An Lu Shan, and when he scratched her bosom, she covered it with a piece of embroidered cloth so that the Emperor would not notice it and become suspicious (Ling, 2012). Though I have yet to find an extant hezi, all of my sources agree that it did not have laces, and if a closure is mentioned, it is buttons in the front (Ministry of Culture, 2003). Wu (2010, p. 103-104) notes that the buttons and/or ties were not necessary on a hezi. As Tang fashion evolved further and the skirts were again tied below the bustline, I believe the exposed hezi was constructed differently, as there are no buttons visible in the extant art. The hezi was made from stiff, strong, slightly elastic fabric (Ling, 2012) (Wu, 2010, p. 103-104) (Ministry of Culture, 2003). It is possible that the elasticity of the fabric allowed the hezi to be taken on and off without the need for a closure.
Undergarments in the Qing Dynasty were made of gauze in the summer and either doubled silk damask or cotton lined silk in the winter (Shaorong, 2004, p. 45). Though nearly a thousand years separates the Tang from the Qing, it makes sense that the any undergarment would be made with considerations of climate and deterioration.
The primary upper garment for women in the Sui and early Tang dynasty was the “small-sleeve short jacket and long skirt with waist fastened up under the armpit” (Zhou & Gao, 1987, p. 77). Over the course of the Tang Dynasty, the sleeves grew in size and the collar opened up to reveal more of the chest (Shaorong, 2004, p. 27). The shirt is fairly straight-forward, being very similar to a T-Tunic, but without under-arm gussets or gores. There are no extant shirts from the Tang Dynasty, so we are limited to period depictions including reliefs, murals, paintings, and tomb figurines.
Like the skirt, the shirt can be considered a foundation garment. It changed over time, moving from inside the skirt to outside, changing fabrics, and having a variety of accessories paired with it.
The skirt, or qun served as the primary lower garment for women in the Tang Dynasty. This silk skirt can be a solid color or printed with single or multicolored designs. It is made of two panels of fabric sewn together and tied at the breast to create voluminous silhouette. The primary feature of the skirt is a series of knife pleats, which give the skirt its fullness. In the Zhou Fang painting, Lady with Servants or Lady with Fan, the skirt is worn above the breast. This style is also seen in the Zhang Xuan painting Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk. It is my belief that the women in Zhou Fang’s painting, Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses, are wearing skirts with a wider band as opposed to exposing their upper undergarment, which became a fashion in the late 9th century (Ling 2012). It is also clear that at least one of these ladies is wearing two skirts, or a layered skirt. The pomegranate-colored skirt, which was popular in the Tang Dynasty, is also heavily featured in Zhou’s Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses.
Skirts in the Eastern Han Dynasty (ca 25-229 CE) was comprised of two pieces tied around the front and the back. The construction of skirts evolved into one piece, but still tied onto the body. Accordion pleated skirts (Shaorong 2004, p. 31) later became the fashion, and Sui and Tang Dynasty pleats were made wider in the pursuit of the more voluminous figure (p. 44). In the Tang Dynasty, the skirt moved from being tied at the natural waist to the bust as far as directly under the armpits, again in an attempt to create the desired silhouette (Shaorong 2004, p. 31). The Bejing Opera’s pleated skirt pattern uses knife pleats which go in opposite directions from the middle of the band to which they are sewn (Bonds 2008, p. 303). The skirt is described as being in one piece that is tied onto the body. Based on both period images and modern images that have come out of the rise in hanfu (clothing of the Han people) popularity in China, I believe that the skirt is made of two panels with side seams that reach most of the way up to the band. The skirt is split down about four inches to allow it to be wrapped around the body – first the back, then the front. The back is tied with a shorter, ribbon-like tie. The front is then tied on by crossing its longer ribbons in the back, then twisting them at the front to allow them to hang at the side of the breasts rather than at the center of the chest. This accounts for the ties not always being visible in paintings such as Zhou’s, as well as Zhang Xuan’s Court Ladies Preparing Silk – they become obscured by the ribbon (pibo). It is also reflected in modern recreations of this style of skirt (H. C. [user25056]. 2014, May 3).
Ban hi (半臂)
The ban hi (半臂) means “half-covered arm” (Zhou & Gao 1987, p. 77). A similar style, the ban bi (背心 ) is a “pull-over” style that has a wider collar (p. 88). These garments were popular in the earlier half of the dynasty (Ling 2012), was worn outside of the shirt, and functioned like a vest (Mei 2011, p. 32). Like the ru, the ban hi had a front opening that tied with a ribbon (Zhou & Gao 1987, p. 88).
The ban hi was first worn by “maids of honour” but the fashioned trickeld down to commoners (Zhou & Gao 1987, p. 77). Strict families did not allow their women to wear the ban hi at all, and it’s popularity declined as a result (p. 77). Zhou and Gao (1987) claim that the ban hi was replaced by the pibo and pizi, but there are tomb figurines and mural paintings depicting women wearing both the ban hi and and a pizi.
Pizi and Pibo
In most of the period depictions of Tang Dynasty dress, women are seen with some sort of fabric twined around their arms and across their backs. Depending on the size, this is the pizi or pibo, meaning the cape or ribbon.
The pizi was wider than it was long and most often draped over one shoulder. It can been seen on many of the tomb figurines (Mei 2011, p. 32). If you look carefully at some of them, it would appear that the cape has been tucked in the band of the skirt, perhaps for stability. According to legend, Imperial Concubine Yang Yuhan’s cape blew away onto someone’s hat during a banquet, so the cape would have been light and thin (Mei 2011, p. 32-33). Zhou and Gao (1987) describe the cape as being made of thin, printed gauze, and over two yards long (p. 88). Mei (2011) postulates that winter capes would have been made of wool in order to be more utilitarian (p. 33).
The ribbon is just that – a ribbon of silk fabric worn in much the same manner as the cape (Mei 2011, p. 33). However, since it is much thinner, it is purely decorative. These may have been embroidered or woven as opposed to printed, given that they weren’t very wide (Vainker 2004, p. 87).
Dharma Trading Company’s 8mm Habotai silk scarves are a good option for pizis and pibos, but you can always cut and hem your own. Use a long measuring tape to be sure, but for me, 90” is a good length. Anything between 14 and 36 inches wide will work for width, so if you’re doing a pizi/cape, you can go with either the 35×108 veil, or the 22×90 scarf at Dharma.
Da Xui Shan (女式大袖衫)
The Da Xiu Shan (女式大袖衫) or large-sleeved gown (Figure 1), evolved out of the Tang Dynasty’s primary upper garment, the shirt, or ru (襦). The shirt was worn under the skirt, as seen in Figures 2 and 3. The diaphanous large-sleeved gown was a result women’s fashion moving progressively away from earlier Confucian ideals (Shaorong 2004, p. 27). The shirt belted at the waistline (Ling 2012), and the remnant of this can be seen in Zhou Fang’s depiction of the large-sleeved gown, where the gown is tied near the bottom. The large-sleeved gown is made of gauze and worn without any undergarment (Zhou & Gao 1987, p. 94). The large-sleeved gown is also seen in silk paintings in the Mogao Caves and pottery figurines unearthed from two Tang Dynasty era tombs (Zhou & Gao 1987, 94).
Benn, C. (2010). Daily life in traditional China: The Tang Dynasty. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Bonds, A. B. (2008). Beijing opera costumes: The visual communication of character and culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii.
H. C. [user25056]. (2014, May 3.) How to wear a traditional Chinese garment called ‘Quixiong Ruqun’ [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGSylLPJ42o
Johns, J. (4 June 2011). China’s disappearing clothing. We Drive East. Retrieved from https://wedriveeast.wordpress.com/2011/06/04/chinas-disappearing-clothing/
Ling, S. (14 Dec 2012). More on the Hezi (Undergarment). Dressed up dreams. Retrieved from http://dressed-up-dreams.blogspot.com/2012/12/more-on-hezi-undergarment.html
Ling, S. (22 Nov 2012). (An extremely long post on) Tang costume history. Dressed up dreams. Retrieved from http://dressed-up-dreams.blogspot.com/2012/11/an-extremely-long-post-on-tang-costume.html
Mei, H. (2011). Chinese clothing. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ministry of Culture, People’s Republic of China. (2003). Secrets of Women’s Underwear in Ancient China. ChinaCulture.org. Retrieved from http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_artqa/2006-08/04/content_84371_4.htm
Ravenfea (18 Jun 2010). Ramie fabric – the new (old) linen? Ravenfea: Maker of various fabric things. Retrieved from http://raevenfea.com/learning/ramie-fabric-the-new-old-linen/
Shaorong, Y. (2004). Traditional Chinese clothing: Costumes, adornments and culture. San Francisco: Long River Press.
Vainker, S. (2004). Chinese silk: A cultural history. Newark, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Wu, X. (2010). China’s disappearing clothing. Shandong, China: Shandong Publishing Group.
Zhou, X. & Gao, C. (1987). 5000 Years of Chinese costume. Tsui-Yee Tang (Ed.) Hong Kong: China Books and Periodicals.