Modern Chinese Clothing

By looking back at Chinese clothing of the 20th century, we can see the formation of styles such as qipao, Cheongsam, Sun Yatsén uniform, shirt ..., a witness to the course of time.

From End of Monarchy to 1949

Western Clothes come to the East - Cutting Plaits and Releasing Feet

On 1 January 1912 the Revolution of 1911 took place, and the Nanjing interim government was established. On 12 February, the last emperor in China's history was forced to give up the throne. This marked the end of the feudal system that had ruled China for more than 2,000 years.

In the 1920s, the most dominant fashion in China was cutting the long plaits, called queues that men wore down their backs. The Han, China's largest ethnic group, emphasized "protecting the body, hair and skin from parents," so both men and women grew their hair. Men began to tie up their hair and wear hats at the age of 20 and women began to tie up their hair at the age of 15.

Hair was fixed with a hairpin during the "hairpin ceremony," which signaled an individual's entry into adulthood and eligibility for marriage. During the Qing Dynasty, Manchu men shaved their hair across the front of the head and plaited the hair at the back. The rulers of the Qing Dynasty insisted that Han men wear their hair in this way, and this was strongly opposed. The suppression of the Han hair-wearing style caused bloodshed. After the founding of the Republic of China, Chinese men finally got rid of their "pigtails," although this did not happen voluntarily, and was resented by many Manchu and Han people.

After China's feudal dynasty was overthrown, the "mazigai" hairstyle - formed by cutting off long plaits but keeping hair long - was fashionable. This hairstyle, similar to the swept-back hairstyle, was called "tassels" by some old people in Beijing because, like the old styles of hair, traces of hair remained at the front, with short loose hair at the back. The mazigai style remained popular for a long time in the early days of the Republic of China. Some wealthy and old people kept this hairstyle for the rest of their lives.

Another change in fashion brought about by the overthrow of imperial China was that Han women no longer had to bind their feet. Women who already had bound feet unwrapped them, and their feet were called "half released feet," satirized as "sweet potato feet" because they were misshaped. Manchu women and women of other ethnic groups did not bind their feet in the first place, so their feet were called "natural feet".

It is said that during the reign of Last Ruler Li (937-978) of the Southern Tang Dynasty, during the Five Dynasties period, a favored concubine named Yaoniang was slim and beautiful. She could bind her feet into a crescent shape and dance on the lotus throne and, in doing so, she influenced an entire generation's aesthetic view. In the Song and Ming dynasties after the Southern Tang Dynasty, daughters in families of the middle and higher classes bound their feet with cloth bands several years after birth to make the foot shape pointed and 3-4 cun long. Such feet were called "three-cut lily feet," 10 centimeters or longer. Girls with unbound feet could not get married when they grew up. Matchmakers and men attached more importance to whether a girl's feet were small and well-shaped than to whether her face was pretty. Binding feet at the age of four or five meant enduring great pain and physical restriction. This definition of women's beauty was achieved at a high price but it bestowed high social status.

In the late Qing Dynasty, more forward-thinking men strongly advocated an end to the binding of feet. This view was finally endorsed after the Revolution of 1911 and then became popular. Girls went to school with natural feet, and women with bound feet released them. Cultured families adopted women's unbound feet as the symbol of a new age. Thus, a thousand-year-old bad habit ended. After feet binding came to an end, Chinese women gradually improved their political and economic status.

In modern Chinese society, the cutting of men's plaits, and the releasing of women's feet are viewed as changes that liberated the Chinese people, like the inspiring roar of a wakened lion.

Coexistence of Chinese and Western style Clothes

After the 1920s China was like a clothing exposition - all kinds of clothes were worn, including clothes of the Qing Dynasty (which ended in 1912), clothes of the Republic of China (which was founded in 1912), and European, American, and Japanese clothes. Read more


Cheongsam means "banner men's robe." The "banner" was part of the Manchu internal military system. The Red Banner, the Yellow Banner, the Blue Banner, the White Banner, the Bordered Red Banner, the Bordered Yellow Banner, the Bordered Blue Banner and the Bordered White Banner represented the eight armies. Han people used to call Manchu people "banner men" in general. The long gown often worn by Manchu women was also called the "banner robe." Manchu men's and women's gowns were all loose and thick. Because of the need to protect against the cold climate of China's northeast and also to clothe horse riders, the common robe shape had a straight waist, a hem with two or four slits and a large front. After the Manchu became the rulers of the central plains, most women's robes had no slits, and their sleeves and hems were very wide. Read more

Chinese Dress from 1949 to the End of the 20th Century

•  Workers' Clothes and Farmers' Clothes

•  Military Dress

•  Bell-bottoms and Sunglasses

•  Jeans and Denim

•  Popular Fashion at the end of 20th century

•  Preserving the Han Style of Clothing

Chinese Clothing in 21st Century

In the 21st century Chinese people, particularly the young, closely follow global fashion trends - anyone born after 1990 travels virtually, via their computer, so can be aware of fashion anywhere in the world at any time of the day or night.

Some fashions have been influenced by political, social, or environmental movements outside of the world of clothes. Some clothes aim to be environment-friendly by restricting the use of harmful dyes. Some clothes, such as skirts, reflect a renewed interest in nature by featuring small flower patterns. Some clothes have a retro feel as people look to revive old styles in a modern age.

Popular fashion trends can be influenced by unexpectedly things. For example, a photo of a beggar wearing a cotton-padded overcoat and a very long scarf went viral on the Internet - people named the beggar "Brother Sharp," meaning he looked cool. As a result of this, beggar's clothes became all the rage, perhaps, in part, because they catered to the desire of young people to be rebellious by acting contrary to the marketing aims of commercial clothing companies.

Other styles have come to China from all over the world, e.g. in 2010 harem pants became popular, as did the "wasp waist skirt" - a skirt with a tight waist that emphasized a woman's figure. These international trends brought new sewing and construction techniques with them, which in turn fed new knowledge into the Chinese domestic clothing industry.

In the summer of 2011, soft clothing materials suddenly became popular. Both "real silk" mixed with other fibers and clothing materials made of chemical fibers were soft and light. Lace was loved from the summer to the autumn and winter of this year, and is still in favor now. Lace clothes can still be found in mass market and haute couture clothing shops.

For several years, women have been wearing clothes made of fabrics sporting leopard spots, tiger stripes or python-skin patterns. These fake animal-skin patterns have been worn alongside ultra-feminine make-up to give off contradictory, very modern, messages.

In 2011 and 2012 everyone was wearing military uniforms, but this time it was not like the 1960s, when everybody wanted to imitate the People's Liberation Army - military uniforms were deep green in color, like European and American army uniforms, and there were also camouflage clothes in non-military colors. Second time around, military uniforms were not plain and rigid, but playful. These uniforms were obviously imitations of real army clothes and they typified the modern Chinese attitude to authority, which is more relaxed than at any other time in Chinese history.

Chinese clothing trends changed constantly in the 21st century, but there was one common factor that united all of them - they never looked back.