Stories about Ethnic Clothes

China is home to many ethnic groups, each with their own myths and legends surrounding the origins of clothing traditions.

The "phoenix crown" worn by brides is a small pointed hat made of a bamboo tube wrapped in yellow cloth decorated with silver plaits, silver bells and red cloth bands. Four red cloth bands hang behind the head to the waist, and a line of small silver figurines hang in front from the forehead to cover the face, making the bride both pretty and mysterious. During festivals, She people put on "phoenix suits" to commemorate their ancestors and to petition their blessings and protection - this is a way of worshiping ancestors through clothes. Ancestor worship of this kind sometimes involves the whole outfit, sometimes just one small detail of the outfit.

It is said that the earliest ancestor of She people was King Panhu. Panhu was allowed to marry the third princess of the tribal chief as a reward for fighting the chiefs enemies. On the day of King Panhu's marriage, the bride's mother gave her a very precious phoenix crown and a phoenix dress inlaid with jewels. After getting married, the third princess gave birth to three boys and one girl and the couple lived happily. When her daughter got married, a beautiful and noble phoenix magically flew from a mountain (later called the Phoenix Mountain, in modern-day Guangdong Province) with a colorful phoenix suit in its beak. From this time onwards, the phoenix suit has been the most beautiful and splendid dress any She woman will ever own.

Today's phoenix suits are embroidered with bright red, pink or yellowish patterns. More exquisite ones are embroidered with gold and silver threads, representing gorgeous phoenix feathers. The phoenix crown on the head represents the noble phoenix's head. It is said that phoenixes are good at music and are musicians in heaven, so the phoenix suit is covered in silver ornaments that tinkle like twittering phoenixes.

Yi girls (from Honghe and other places in Yunnan) all own a cockscomb hat, which also has a story connected to it. It is said that two lovers held torches high while fighting devils in order to save a village that was plunged into darkness but, despite their efforts, the woman was caught by the devils and the man was killed. Later, the girl escaped, thanks to her own wit, and made the cocks crow, which summoned her dead boyfriend and expelled the devils. The girl brought her boyfriend back to life, and all villagers were freed from darkness. People thought that cocks were capable of bringing luck, light, peace and happiness to the world. To memorize the fact that the cocks saved their lives, the Yi made cockscomb hats and put them on girls' heads. The Hani and Bai people of Yunnan also wear cockscomb hats of a similar shape and style.

There is also a story concerning the origin of Kyrgyz hats. In ancient times, a brave and wise king realized that because the uniform and hats of his army were not the same, the troops looked disorderly and could not be recognized easily. So he gathered all of his armies and ordered that a uniform hat be designed for soldiers within 40 days - the hat should be like a shining star, a colorful flower, a mountain peak covered with ice and snow and a grass-covered mountain slope, capable of keeping out rain, wind and sand. After 39 days, no hat had been designed that the king approved of. On the 40th day, a minister's clever and pretty daughter designed a decorative white felt hat that the king liked. He ordered that all soldiers and civilians wear this design of hat, and the Kyrgyz still wear this type of hat to this day.

Yi people living in the Greater and Lesser Liangshan Mountains in Sichuan and Yunnan also wear unique clothes with a long history. The Yi people invest leather armor with great significance because they believe that it can protect families and individuals. It is said that the Yi people's ancestors made armor with rhinoceros hide and elephant hide. Modern-day Yi armor is made of ox hide. Raw ox hide is coated with lacquer and decorated with colored lacquer patterns depicting dragons and pythons surrounded by arrows, with clouds along the edges as further decoration. The meaning of these images is as follows: dragons and pythons are sent by the gods to the world to help the person wearing the armor to defeat their enemies, to shield them from spears and swords, to keep them safe, and to guarantee victory. The Yi classify armor into male armor and female armor. Male armor is mainly red, and female armor is mainly black. The art of the Yi is also mostly black and red, with some yellow. Black represents dignity and solemnity, red symbolizes courage and passion, and yellow stands for beauty and brightness. The Yi people believe in dignity, respect fire, and espouse a martial spirit - all of these things are epitomized by their leather armor.

Dai women like embroidering peacocks on their clothes to commemorate their ancestors, and they also believe that peacocks bring luck. A long Dai poem depicts the story of a beautiful and kindhearted peacock princess. One day, she flew into a lake for a bath. A prince who loved her stole her peacock dress, hoping that he could make her stay. They fell in love, got married and were happy together. However, the peacock king did not approve of their marriage and, after he heard of what had happened, he sent an army to fight the prince. The prince commanded his troops to fight the peacock king's army. However, the prince's father listened to slanderous talk and decided to kill the peacock princess. The princess requested that she be allowed to dance in her peacock dress before being put to death - she was allowed to do this and she seized the opportunity it presented her with, and flew away. The prince prayed to the holy dragon for help, and was reunited with the princess after traveling across mountains, rivers and seas. To commemorate this happy couple, Dai people wear peacock dresses or embroider peacock patterns on clothes during every festival.

Yao men living in Guangxi wear white trousers - they are not completely white but are sewn with between five and seven vertical red cloth or thread decorations on the knees, that are in turn decorated with small patterns of different shapes. This practice of sewing red cloth decorations on white trousers also originated from a moving story about ancestral worship. A long time ago, the Yao ancestors lived and worked in peace and contentment. Suddenly, a devil came and told the people to give him all their grain and girls, and to follow his orders. A handsome and brave boy in the tribe led men and women of all ages to fight the devil, and the boy pursued the devil into the mountains. When people caught up with the boy, they found him dead, together with the devil, still clasping the devil's hair in his hands. His clothes were stained with blood from the wounds cut by the devil's huge claws. To commemorate this hero, the Yao embroider or sew red vertical patterns onto white trousers, symbolizing the boy's bloodstains.

The Deang people live in China's southwestern border areas. The most prominent characteristic of Deang clothes is that they have dozens of "vine hoops" around women's waists. It is said that the Deang people's ancestors came out of gourds. Men and women looked the same and women flew in the sky. Then gods made men look different and helped the men to capture the women and put loops of vines around their waists to prevent them from flying.

The waist decorations of Yi women are very special - they are not beautiful and soft, but very rough. Yi women's traditional big black waist loops are usually made of elm bark. When the ancient Yi people fought their enemies, women went to war with the men and were brave and skillful. They often wore iron waist loops for protection in combat. Later Yi women did not go to war but still used black waist loops as decorations, amulets and mascots.

Ethnic folk legends were often formed on the basis of real events, and later gained even greater vitality through re-telling over centuries. Legends are a part of culture, and legends about clothes can be particularly revealing.