Chinese Urban Clothing from 1644 to Present:

A Historical Study


Dong Shen

California State University, Sacramento






Author address:


Dong Shen, Ph.D.

Department of Family and Consumer Sciences

6000 J Street

California State University - Sacramento,

Sacramento, CA 95819-6053

Phone:  (916) 278-5326



            China is one of the oldest countries in the world with a 5,000-year history.   Tracing back about 360 years, China has gone through Ch’ing Dynasty, Republic China, People’s Republic of China with Maoist, and post-Mao period (Shaw, 1991).  Each period has its own characteristics in terms of social system, economic development, and diplomatic strategies.  As a result, the culture in each period varied dramatically.  As part of culture, people’s clothing has shown different characteristics as well (Zhou & Gao, 1987). 

            Many researchers have presented and described the features of Chinese clothing in each period (Garrett, 1987 and 1994; Vollmer, 1977, 1980, and 1983; White, 1994).  However, many of them were limited in a pure description of traditional Chinese clothing at a specific historical moment.  Consequently, two limitations exist in this field.  One is isolating every period of time rather than studying Chinese clothing from a systematically perspective.  Then the influences of the previous period on the following stage are often overlooked.  The other is that since some work has only focused on description of Chinese clothing, the reasons why clothing features were changed in each period are missing.

         Using the available historical photographs, this paper aims to fill in these two gaps with the following objectives.  First, the paper is designed to introduce the characteristics of clothing and discuss the development of clothing during the last 360 years, which can be divided into 4 phases: 1) 1644-1911, Ch’ing Dynasty; 2) 1912-1948, Republic China; 3) 1949-1977, Mao period; and 4) 1978-present, post-Mao period.  Second, it tries to explain the changes of clothing in every period from economic, political, historic, and diplomatic perspectives.





            China is one of the oldest countries in the world with a 5,000-year history.   Tracing back 300 years, China has gone through Ch’ing Dynasty, Republic China, People’s Republic of China with Maoist, and post-Mao period (Shaw, 1991).  Each period showed many differences in social system, economic development, and diplomatic strategies.  As a result, the culture in each period varied.  As part of their culture, clothing and costume differed within each period as well (Zhou & Gao, 1987).  Researchers, such as Garrett (1987, 1994), Vollmer (1977, 1980, 1983), and White (1994), have studied the characteristics of the clothing and costume in each of the four periods.  However, the majority of them were limited in the pure description of clothing in each period, which has showed two limitations in this field.  One is to isolate every period rather than to study Chinese clothing from a systematical and longitudinal perspective.  In other words, the influences of the previous period on the following period are overlooked.  The other limitation is that some work has only focused on description of Chinese clothing, but the reasons why clothing in that period showed some unique features are overlooked as well.

         Using the available historical photographs, this paper aims to fill in these two gaps with the following objectives.  First, this paper is designed to study the characteristics of clothing and discuss the development of clothing during the last 300 years, which can be divided into 4 periods: 1) 1644-1911, Ch’ing Dynasty; 2) 1912-1948, Republic China; 3) 1949-1977, Mao period; 4) 1978-present, post-Mao period.  Second, it tries to explain the characteristics and changes of clothing in each of the four periods from economic, political, and diplomatic perspectives in a longitudinal way.

Historical Review

Period One: 1644-1911

            This period, called Ch’ing Dynasty, was the last imperial dynasty in Chinese history (Michael, 1986).  Within the 300 years, Ch’ing regime tried hard to protect not only from internal rebellion but from foreign invasion (Shinn & Worden, 1988).  As a result, national policies and social culture had to be adjusted to fit this situation. 

Internal rebellion mainly came from Han people who were the former controllers before Hanchus (Michael, 1986).  In order to control Han people, the Ch’ing rulers implemented many policies to prevent the absorption of Manchus into Han and Han into Manchus (Eberhaed, 1969).  Intermarriage between the two groups was forbidden; Han were forbidden from immigrating into the Manchus homeland, and Manchus were forbidden to engage in trade or manual labor (Shinn & Worden, 1988).  Manchus forbade Han to take up farming or any of the crafts so as to maintain their military profession (Michael, 1986).  Because the majority of higher officials were the Manchus, the differences between these two groups, in some degree, were the differences among social classes.  Therefore, there were very strict social differences in Ch’ing Dynasty, which could be well proved by clothing at that time.

            Compared to internal rebellion, more threat came from the western power arrival (Shinn & Worden, 1988).  Before Ch’ing, little trade had been done between China and other countries because China had been a self-providing and self-satisfaction country for thousands of years (Eberhard, 1969).  During Ch’ing, with the increasing demands of Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain in European and American markets, more foreign businessmen came to China.  However, China wanted little from the West.  This trade relationship caused an unfavorable trade unbalance to Europe and America (Shinn & Worden, 1988).  In order to remedy the situation, British began to import opium to Chinese market.  Then the Ch’ing government began to defend the opium imports (Shaw, 1991).  So during Ch’ing, although the door of China was not totally closed to foreign countries, western information was not welcome because of the injury of opium to Chinese.  Therefore, during Ch’ing Dynasty, few changes had been taken place because of Western culture.  That is one of the reasons why western clothing did not greatly influence Ch’ing clothing at that time.  Lasting more than 300 hundred years, Ch’ing Dynasty, as a typical feudalistic period, strongly admired Chinese tradition and culture, kept self-satisfaction and self-support, devalued Western system and technology, and refused to accept Western culture. 

Period Two: 1912-1948

            The second period started at the Republican Revolution in 1911. With the acceptance of democratic thoughts, Chinese were called for overthrowing the Ch’ing government controlled by the Manchus, fighting for a popularly elected republican form of government, and pursuing a much better live (Shinn & Robert, 1988).  Ch’ing government was pushed down in 1911 which means the end of Chinese feudalism control and the beginning of industrial stage. 

With the cheaper products streaming from abroad into China, the prices of Chinese foodstuffs had to be decreased.  For example, Chinese silk had to meet the competition of Japanese silk, which brought more and more difficulties for Chinese to sell silk (Eberhard, 1969).  At this time, China had recognized that adopting Western technical and industrial progress was necessary in order to continue to exist as an independent state (Eberhard, 1969).  Meanwhile, Western capitalistic system was gradually accepted in China as well.  In order to obtain more knowledge from Western countries, many Chinese went abroad.  After they returned to China, Western ideas, information, and knowledge were brought back into China (Shaw, 1991).  As a result, during this period, democratic ideas began to enter China from foreign countries.  In major cities, factories, banks, companies emerged quickly.  Building railroads and highway, improving public healthy facilities, reforming the currency system, developing education, modernizing the legal systems and augmenting industrial and agricultural production were implemented gradually (Michael, 1986).  Although between 1911 and 1949, Civil War and Anti-Japanese War brought a lot of damages to China, many positive changes still happened as a whole.  Affected by Western countries, great changes had taken place in China including culture, society system, and ideology.  Therefore, clothing was influenced as well.            

Period Three: 1949-1977

            On October 1, 1949, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China marked the beginning of socialism.  As a socialist country, China was refused to be accepted by many foreign countries at that time, especially western countries.  The connection to outside world was even further reduced because of the Korean War (Hu, 1960).  At the same time when western countries tried to isolate China, China herself tried to close the door avoiding influence from outside as well.  The capitalism was forbidden as the communist party began to purify the ideology of the country.  Culture and ideology from abroad were regarded as the causes of the corruption, and the people who were affected by them were criticizes as materialists (Phillips, 1996).  Another reason for this isolating policy came from the century of shame and humiliation as semi-colonial status controlled by western countries after the Opium War (Green, 1988).  The humiliated history made Chinese government avoid involving with western countries. 

In order to differentiate from western countries and keep their own ideology, China accepted  Marxist-Leninist and developed Maoist, which had widely and deeply influenced the whole Chinese society (Green, 1988).  According to Maoist, class struggle was the first task for the whole society rather than production.  People were encouraged to look for class enemies and fight with class enemies.  Educated by Maoist, Chinese admired spiritual life instead of material life and respected group unity rather than individualism (Phillips, 1996).  With Chinese typical ideology and history, Chinese culture and arts obtained their own characteristics which fit Marxist-Leninist and Maoist.  Naturally, clothing at that time was adjusted to the tendency as well.

Period Four: 1978-present

The fourth period started in 1978 with an emergence of the open-door policy.  After Deng Xiaoping took over the power in 1978, China began to experience a gradual but fundamental reform of economic system.  Class struggle, the basic principle of Chinese Communist Party, had been replaced by the Four Modernization, which were industrial modernization, agricultural modernization, militarily modernization, and scientific and technological modernization.  The replacement indicated that China had realized the importance of restoring efficient economy and improving people’s lives.  Economic attainment became the measure of success not only for the communist party but for the whole country management (Shinn & Worden, 1988).  The dominating ideology of the country changed as well.  Marxist ideology, which had been thought as “absolute truth” and reigned supreme in the country, was asked to reinterpret and updated.  Consequently, values and ideas constructed based on Marxism was re-evaluated, and democratic ideas were affirmed.  Free life-style and pursuing for beauty were no longer seen as hedonism, and to get rich was not a capitalist sin that had been criticized by communists before.  Resulting from economic reforms, industry and agriculture had been improved rapidly during later 70s and earlier 80s.  People’s living standard was greatly increased (Gottschang, 1988).

Open-door policy enabled foreign enterprises step into China as well.  Although the basic communist system still existed, market economy had been introduced.  Simultaneously, as political and ideological reforms occurred, western values and culture were not refused by Chinese.  As a matter of fact, many ideas in Western culture were gradually accepted by Chinese people, particularly in major and advanced cities (Savada & Dolan, 1988).  Tremendous success also occurred on China’s diplomatic aspect.  China began or resumed diplomatic relationships with many countries, especially the western countries (Shinn & Worden, 1988).  As a result, diplomatic success further accelerated China’s cultural exchanges and economic trades with foreign countries (Michael, 1986).

Influenced by the economic, political, ideological, and diplomatic changes, Chinese clothing, as a part of Chinese culture, has also experienced dramatic changes during the last 300 years.  


            This study examined and analyzed the characteristics and changes of clothing in the last 300 years by using historical photographs.  The photographs used in this study came from historical documents and historical literature of the traditional Chinese clothing.  In order to decrease bias, all the documents and literature are recorded or written by western scholars.  The selection of the photographs met the following criteria: 1) all the photographs were dated between the Ch’ing Dynasty and the present, 2) the figures in the photographs are average people instead of important political or diplomatic figures, 3) there are at least a group of people in each photograph so that the common feature of people’s clothing could be presented, and 4) the photographs were taken in natural settings so that the clothing are daily wear. 

            Several problems arose from the utilization of the photographs.  First, although the photographs were checked based on whether they were taken in natural setting, a couple of them still cannot be guaranteed, so for these photographs the clothing wore by the figures could be borrowed or rented from the photograph studios.  Second, the photographs were not directly selected from museums, archives, or historical agencies.  So there is a limitation on photographs selection.  And the bias of the western scholars may involve in the photographs presented in the documents and the literature.

Analysis and Results

Period One: 1644-1911

Ch’ing Dynasty was established by the Manchus, so the majority of officials and governors were Manchus people (Eberhard, 1969).   The Manchus had been a nomadic tribe from the northern region, so their clothing style had been developed with nomadic characteristics (Garrett, 1987).  In contrast, most Han people had lived around central China for generations, their clothing still kept major characteristics of Han clothing.   The differences between Manchus clothing and Han clothing were obvious in earlier Ch’ing because of the cultural differences and the government policy which was separating Manchus from Han, but gradually the two types of clothing had mixed in later Ch’ing Dynasty.  At the same time, traditional Han clothing was also influenced by Manchus garments because some nomadic features were added. 

Although people in authority, no matter whether they were Han or Manchus, were asked to wear chao fu, which was an official dress with Manchu features in formal occasions such as government business, celebrations, and festivals, the most typical and popular men’s clothing were chang shan and ma gua, which could be seen as the combination of Manchu men’s wear and Han men’s wear (see Figure 1). 

Insert Figure 1 here.

Chang shan was popular dress for middle and lower class, and was also allowed by officials in informal occasions.  Evolved from Ming Dynasty robes, the length of chang shan was from neck to near ankle with the open and fastening loops and toggles near the right side. The features of chang shan such as small binding collar, side fastening, and length reaching ankle could be traced back to Ming dynasty. Normally, chang shan was made of silk or cotton, which depended on the wearer’s social class and economic status. The colors of chang shan were often gray, blue, black, or other dull solid colors.  Because chang shan was developed from Ming robes, which was long, wide and loose, most body parts were covered and the body shape could hardly be seen.

Ma gua was worn over chang shan, a hip-length jacket with long and wide sleeves, or sleeveless for informal occasions (Garrett, 1994).  Ma gua was right side-fastening with five loops and brass buttons.  It also had a small stand collar and slits at side seams.  Because ma gua often had fur edges and were fur-lined, they had obvious nomadic features brought from Manchus.

There were strict regulations for different social classes to wear clothing in Ch’ing Dynasty.  Different official ranks have specific colors, fabrics, print patterns, and styles (Garrett, 1994).  For example, yellow could only be worn by emperors, and dragon could only be used on emperors’ clothing (Cammann, 1952; Dickinson, 1990).  Only government officials and upper class were allowed to wear silk with bright colors and pictures such as birds, mong (a traditionally legend animal in ancient China), or natural scenes.  Clothing for low class was  made of cotton, and had plain and solid colors without any printed pictures.

            Regarding women’s clothing during this period, ao and gun were very typical (see Figure 2).  Ao was an upper garment worn by Ch’ing women, which was always cut very large, reaching to the calf with wide sleeves.  One reason for the baggy clothing is that it was considered indecent to show the shape of women’s body according to Chinese tradition (Garrett, 1987).  The other reason is that bulky garments, like those worn by men, were a sign of wealth and dignity (Garrett, 1994).  Although ao was cut like a man’s, it still had a lot of differences based on plenty of decoration.   The decorations included self-patterned silk damask with wide plain and/or embroidered bands at sleeves, neck, hem, and curved opening, and fastening with toggles on the right. 

Insert Figure 2 here.

The clothing worn with ao was a skirt, called gun.  Due to the same reasons, Gun was also cut very big and long.  Gun could also be very colorful and decorative.  So it could be seen that the basic characters of Ch’ing women clothing are colorful, full of decoration, bulky, wide and long with strong Chinese tradition.  Besides, just like men’s clothing, a lot of restrictions existed for women’s clothing as well.  For example, white was only worn by widows, while black was worn by older women (Garrett, 1994). 

Based on the discussion of Ch’ing clothing, although there are differences between men and women clothing, several characteristics could still be summarized.  First, both men’s clothing, chang shan and ma gua, and women’s clothing, ao and gun, were wide, long, and baggy in order to covered most part of wearer’s body from neck to ankle.  Especially for women, exposing parts of body or emphasizing body shape was considered indecent at that time.  Second, both men’s wear and women’s wear in Ch’ing had strong traditional Chinese characteristic without any influence from abroad.  Finally, few changes could be freely used in clothing; that is, everyone had some specific model to follow in term of his or her clothing, including colors, symbols, patterns, and styles.

The reasons why Ch’ing clothing exhibiting the above mentioned characteristics could be further understood from economic, political, and diplomatic perspectives.  First, as it was mentioned earlier, Ch’ing Dynasty was a typical feudal empire evolved from Ming Dynasty.  Although the forms of government around the monarch or emperor had changed through the long period, the basic characteristics of feudal dynasties remained unchanged (Phillips, 1996).  The major characteristic was that China was a traditional agricultural country with self-providing and self-satisfaction.  There was almost no industry in China except for a few primary handmade products.  As an agricultural country, the productivity was extremely low.  So at that time, most fabrics were handmade cotton which was very rough and of low quality.  As a traditional agricultural country, silkworm breeding was well developed even though silk was still more expensive than cotton, so silk was used as the fabric for the clothing wore by officials and other upper class people.  Second, China was a central control empire with strict social estate system.  The entire society was rigidly stratified into low, middle, and upper classes.  Clothing was employed to symbolize people’s class status.  Dresses with certain pictures such as dragon, mong, and birds could only be worn by upper class.  The ordinary people were allowed to wear clothing with solid color or very simple prints.  Third, China had been a self-closed country through all periods including Ch’ing.  In Ch’ing Dynasty, China was still ridiculously regarded as the “center of the world”.  This philosophy had seriously influenced the economic and diplomatic development of China, and caused China lag behind the western countries on economy.  Reflected on culture, foreign values and cultures were devalued and refused, while traditional Chinese culture was inappropriately exaggerated.  As for clothing, both men and women’s clothing had strong traditional features.  The western style dresses at that time had been seen as ridiculous and harmful to Chinese tradition, thus they were totally refused.  Finally, in traditional Chinese ideology, both men and women’s body were assumed as reminding people of sex and was thought as immoral.  So clothing was made to cover people’s bodies as much as possible, even their body shapes were forbidden to be exhibited by clothing.  This helped to explain why men and women’s dresses were very long and baggy at that time.

Period Two: 1912-1948

In 1912, Ch’ing Dynasty came in reality to its end, and the Republic was established by Sun Yat-sen, who believed that China must adopt Western technical and industrial progress in order to continue to exist as an independent state (Eberhard, 1969).  With the implement of the Three Principle and the influence of Western capitalistic system, Western culture gradually penetrated into China (Association of Research Libraries, 1982).  Among the many changes caused by Western culture, changes on clothing were tremendous. 

Men’s wear had experienced dramatically changes after Ch’ing Dynasty was taken over by Republic China.  From the establishment of the Republic in 1912, government officials and people in public were asked to wear Western-style dress (Garrett, 1994).  Regulations of people’s wear were published by the government, even drawings were used to illustrate how people should dress (Garrett, 1994).   One of the most revolutionary changes of men’s dress was the emerging of Zhong Shan suit, which was first worn by Dr. Sun Yat-sen (see Figure 3). 

Insert Figure 3 here.

Similar to Western suits, Zhong Shan suit was composed of two pieces: jacket and trousers.  The trousers in Zhong Shan suit were almost same as the trousers in Western suits, while the jacket was different.  At that time, Chinese men could not accept the collar style used by Western suits.  So developing from ma gua, the jacket in Zhong Shan suit was hip-length jacket with the center-front always closely buttoned to the neck by seven brass buttons and four patch pockets allocated on chest and lower right and left sides.  From Figure 3, the remains of ma gua could be told from the jacket.  Zhong Shan suit has distinctly mixed characteristics of traditional Chinese culture and western culture.  During this period, Chinese men were encouraged to wear Zhong Shan suit in big cities and the wearers would be regarded as advanced patriots.  In additional to Zhong Shan suit, Western style suits were also accepted in some big cities and ports, such as Shanghai and Guangzhou.  From then on, Chinese men had begun to recognize the convenience and utilization of western style clothing, so those western style clothing became a fashion at that time.

On the other hand, traditional Chinese dresses including chang shan and ma gua were still wore by many people, especially in occasions such as traditional festivals, worshipping.   ancestors, and traditional weddings.  When Jiang kaiseng took over the power of Republic China and the capital was moved to Nanjing from Beijing, a movement called “new spirit of life” was arisen all over the country with the goal of resuming traditional Chinese culture (Phillips, 1996).  As a result, chang shan and ma gua became formal wear for men for several years (Garrett, 1994).  Also influenced by Western culture, the binding and narrow collar, which was traditionally used by chang shan had been replaced by a standing style.  Besides, ma gua was not of solid colors any more and had different colorful pictures even embroidery as decoration.

The demise of Manchus rules and the formation of the republic in 1912 also brought wide-sweeping reforms for women, including women’s clothing.  Influenced by Western culture, many urban women were against feet-binding.  Rather, they began to put on high-heel leather shoes introduced from abroad.  As for dress, since many women enter formal public place from home and receive education, especially those in the treaty ports, they began to adopt Western fashions and wear Western dress in public eye (Garrett, 1994).  Influenced by Western dress, Chinese women’s clothing gradually changed.  An outfit was introduced to replace the cumbersome robes worn in the past, which was consisted of a long top reaching to below the hips, that was the former ao, and worn over an ankle-length skirt, pleated or plain, that was the former gun (Garrett, 1987).  It was seen as “modern dress” and reflected the greater freedom enjoyed by women. Then the ao became much slimmer and more fitted which could outline female body shape, and sleeves were either tight to the wrist or, in summer, short or non-existent (Garrett, 1987).  The length of skirts was just below the knee, coinciding with the shorter length skirts worn in the West (Garrett, 1994). 

 One of the most typical examples is the emerging of qi pao.  During the 1940s, with the gradually accepting of Western culture, Chinese women began to follow western women to show body shape by wearing clothing.  qi pao was long to the ankle and, for younger women, more fashion-conscious women, it was more slim-fitting, the sleeves shortened to small cap sleeves, or a sleeveless version (see Figure 4).  It could be found that Chinese women dare to expose their arms and part of legs by wearing qi pao.  Also qi pao could perfectly outline women’s body line.  Both of the changes were influenced by Western clothing.  However, the remains of traditional Chinese clothing could also be seen from qi pao.  The collar was outlined at top and bottom edges with piping which matched that at the hem and sleeves, and decorative frog buttons were placed on the collar (Garrett, 1994).  These characteristics were similar to ao worn by Ch’ing women.  Having evolved across several stages, qi pao finally became women daily wearing instead of ao and gun, which had dominated women’s wear for hundreds of years. 

Insert Figure 4 here.

Compared to ao and gun, women’s clothing in Ch’ing dynasty, qi pao, as the representative of women’s clothing in this stage, was more natural, modern, and feminist.  Influenced by Western culture, Chinese women had more chances to show up in public eye and obtain education.  They wanted to be more independent, freely, and attractive.  So women’s clothing at that time was greatly influenced by Western clothing. 

In sum, the most important character of Chinese clothing during that second phrase is the partial acceptance of western clothing style and the combination of Chinese traditional clothing and the western style.  These changes of clothing could be better understood based on the understanding of situation at that time.  The door of the country was first opened after the Republic China was established, and the economic, political, and diplomatic policies changed dramatically.  Having been defended in the Opium War, Chinese, especially intellectuals like Sun Yat-sen, came to realize that a feudal, closed, and undeveloped China would loss the possibilities to improve people’s living standard, develop its industry, and catch up with western countries in terms of economic and political powers.  Obtaining experience from the western countries such as England and Japan, Sun Yat-sen, who was the president of the Republic China, developed improving people’s livings, introducing democratic thoughts from western countries, providing people with democratic rights as the basic strategies of the country.

            Changes manifested soon after the new policy was established.  Western democratic thoughts and cultures were introduced into China.  Western clothing style and the way of dressing, as a part of culture was accepted by Chinese people.  With the economic improvement, some people, especially urban residents, could afford western style dresses, and dressing in western style became popular in many ports and big cities.

            On the other hand, the traditional culture had been preserved.  In the later Ch’ing Dynasty, China was repeatedly forced to cede territory and pay indemnities by the powerful western countries, thus national self-respect was seriously harmed.  Keeping the fact in mind, Sun Yat-sen tried to resume the national pride and encourage people.  Thus Chinese traditional cultures were highly praised, although western cultures were introduced at the same time.  Reflected on clothing, many characteristics of traditional Chinese dresses of both men and women were maintained, with a few changes due to the combination of eastern and western cultures.          

Period Three: 1949-1977

            As soon as entering this phrase which was the beginning of Chinese socialism, many changes had taken place in terms of politics, ideology, and social culture.  As mention above, in order to establish Chinese own ideology, the government negated all things from foreign countries, especially Western countries, and from old China, especially feudalism.  All the ideas, thoughts, events, movements, and behaviors which belonged to those two groups were totally forbidden by Chinese government.  At the same time, the government tried to establish a new social system and ideology to educate people.  For example, class struggle is the first important historical task for the whole country instead of production development.  Ideology is much more critical than materials.  Pursuing individualism is shameful and enjoying better materials is regarded as hedonism.  In this situation, some characteristics appeared in clothing. 

As to men’s wear, the most common clothing, maybe the only style of clothing at that time, was Mao uniform.  So the first characteristics of men’ clothing in this phrase is unitary.  Mao uniform was developed from Zhong Shan suit with a few changes (see Figure 5). 

Insert Figure 5 here.

Compared to Zhong Shan suit, Mao uniform was much sloppier and looser-fitting, often made of low-quality cotton.  The colors were always dull, just changed among navy blue, gray, green, or black.  The number of fastening buttons on central front was reduced to five instead of seven due to the communist’s ideology that simplicity is beauty.  Mao uniform was mass produced and worn by almost every one as formal or informal dress in every occasion because everybody wanted to dress in the same way as other people to avoid individualism, otherwise s/he would take the risk of being criticized as the “ typical capitalist” and not loyal to Mao.  Western suit, as a capitalistic product, was forbidden by Chinese government at that time.  At the same time, the traditional Chinese men’s clothing was also swept out because they were thought as the products of feudalism.  As a result, traditional men’s dresses, such as chang shan and ma gua, disappeared from people’s life as well. 

Second, the colors of men’s dresses were dark and tedious.  The ordinary colors of Mao uniform were navy blue, gray, green, or black.  This was consistent with the communist party’s ideology that plainer and simpler were better. Any decoration and colorful pattern on clothing was criticized as materialism and hedonism. 

Third, men’s dresses had obvious military characteristic. At Mao’s time, communist party and army were praised as the cornerstone of the country, so liberation army had huge political power.  Being a member of the army was admired by every Chinese young man. So wearing army uniform represented the wearer’s political status and his loyalty to Mao.  Gradually, green army uniform, which was similar to Mao uniform, became fashion. 

As to women’s clothing, the first important character is the similarity with men’s clothing. Accomplished with socialism, the government called for women liberation; in other words, Chinese women were encouraged to fight for equal right as men.  Because according to socialistic principles, all the proletariat have equal rights no matter what gender they have.  Then women were eager to show their equality by many ways including clothing.  During that period of time, women took off skirts and put on trousers that only belonged to men for hundreds of years in China.  The most popular clothing for women at that time was Mao uniform as well (see Figure 5).  Women’s clothing had almost the same styles and colors as men’s wear.  Differences between them were becoming less and less.   It was even hard to tell gender from clothing at that time. 

Dull and plain clothing could also be showed from women’s wear.         Since Chinese government educated people to pursue and admire spiritual life rather than material life, caring about clothing was regarded as a shameful thing at the time.  Besides, traditional clothing were swept aside in this phrase.  Especially during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, qi pao was outlawed as being decadent (Garrett, 1994).  Skirts were banned, colorful clothing, leather shoes were called as the expression of capitalism and banned as well.  As a result, Chinese women tried to wear dull, simple, plain clothing as much as possible.  If somebody is in bright color, she would be criticized.   Even though some women wanted to put on colorful clothing, they did not dare to do so.  So Mao uniform was also women’s wear.  This outfit had a center button-fastening jacket with a peter pan collar, two or four patch pockets and baggy trousers; it was a puritanical, distinctly unflattering mode of dress (Garrett, 1994).  Steele (1983) found that at that time in Shanghai - China’s most fashionable and cosmopolitan city - a very few younger women wore more trimly tailored jackets in floral prints or colors such as rust and plum.

In summary, during this phrase, both of the Western clothing and Chinese traditional clothing were banned by the government.  As it was commented, “the establishment of the People’s Republic of China was to have a more marked effect on national dress than any previous event in the country’s history.” (Garrett, 1994).  Chinese government succeeded to form Chinese own clothing phenomenon, which was unitary, simple, plain, uniformed, and closely related with politics and ideology.

Another thing needed to point out is that although Mao’s period had certain similarities to the other periods, such as Ch’ing, in terms of isolation of the country, Mao’s period had some particular characteristics.  For example, Mao totally denied traditional culture and criticized it as feudalism, tried to create a brand new ideology oriented from communist party line.  In order to fulfill this goal, traditional Chinese value system and aesthetic standards had to be destroyed.  So, regarding clothing, clothing in Mao period could not be found having any relationship with traditional clothing, which was very rare phenomenon in human history.                                                  

Period Four: 1978-present

In 1978, China began to implement a very critical policy which was open-door, which was a turning point in Chinese history representing tremendous changes from many social perspectives. From then on, western ideology and culture have begun to enter China and Chinese people were shocked in front of the colorfully outside world.  Among those dramatic changes happened in almost every aspect in people’s life, clothing was an important one. 

As to men’s wear (see Figure 6), the biggest change was that western style dresses were not forbidden in China any more, and they had gradually replaced Mao suit.  Today, led and influenced by government officials who wear Western suit to participate diplomatic meetings, almost every urban man has at least one Western suit.  Western suit has almost become the most common clothing for Chinese men not only in official occasions but in non-official occasions. 

Insert Figure 6 here.

The second character of men’s wear is variety expressed in style, color, fabric, and printed pattern.  Before 1978, men’s wear was only limited in dark, cold, and solid colors.  Although China is famous of silk, men’s wear was only made of cotton.  But today all kinds of fabrics could be used in men’s wear and men’s clothing is very colorful as well.  As to the style, it is hard to say which one is more popular since so many different kinds of style exist at the same time.  The best way to describe Chinese men’s wear in this phrase is that there is almost no difference between Chinese men’s clothing and Western men’s clothing.  Generally, once new trend begins in Western countries, it will flood into China soon.  Meanwhile, many brand names that are famous in Western countries are also popular in China, such as Levi, Polo, and Guess. 

One thing worried by many Chinese, especially those who work in the field of clothing, is that almost no any traditional remain exists in men’s clothing.  Not only chang shan and ma gua, but also Mao uniform have disappeared.  If somebody puts on those kinds of clothing, he will be ridiculed and thought as a jerk.  However, researchers think that Chinese 5,000-year history, especially those traditional cultures, should be kept and further developed.  Totally negating Chinese traditional culture is not appropriate.  So several Chinese clothing companies have tried to create Chinese famous brand names for keeping parts of Chinese traditional men’s clothing.

When women’s clothing is concerned (see Figure 7), one of the most important characters is variety, similar to men’s wear, but expressed more obviously.  One character which is different from men’s wear is the remains of Chinese traditional women’ clothing, such as qi pao.  For many urban women, keeping at least one piece of traditional clothing in their wardrobe is very necessary because in many formal occasions, such as wedding ceremonies, parties, and festivals, wearing Chinese traditional clothing is more popular and appreciated.  In order to develop Chinese traditional women’ clothing, many designers tries to change some parts of those clothing to better fit modern women’s live.  So the remains of traditional clothing could be seen not only in women’s formal dress, but also from daily wear.  Affected by this trend, both Western brand names, such as Ann Tailor, Lee, and Jones New York, and Chinese brand names, such as Meng Nisha, Shun Mei, and Ai Dekang, exist in Chinese women’s clothing market.  Furthermore, in some degree, Chinese traditional women’s clothing is popular in Western countries as well, which is different from men’s clothing.  One of the typical examples is qi pao

Insert Figure 7 here.

In summary, great changes have taken place in Chinese clothing from 1978.  Before, everyone had to dress in the same way.  A concern with personal appearance was perceived as an expression of “bourgeois tendencies” and extreme “individualism”.  But since 1978, people have started to feel free to wear what they want without fear of being criticized (Steele, 1983).  The word “fashion” came back to Chinese market again, and fashion magazines and fashion schools sprout out soon.  Totally different from the former image, which was called “blue ants” by western countries for many years (Steele, 1983), Chinese put on bright clothing with a great varies of styles.  Western clothing designers also began to introduce their designs to the attractive market, one of the earliest was Pierre Cardi, who held his first fashion shows in Beijing and Shanghai in March 1979 (Steele, 1983).  

            In addition, quality of people’s clothing has also improved with the development of people’s living standard.  Compared to the rough cotton of Mao suit in Mao’s period, higher quality and more expensive fabrics made of silk or wool have become affordable for most urban people.  Dresses with popular and beautiful colors and patterns fill in every store, and Chinese awareness of well-known brands has increased. 

As a whole, one of the most important changes is that no any limitation about wearing clothing exists; in other words, Chinese are encouraged to dress freely and differently.  Meanwhile, with the opening national door, Western culture and clothing have opportunity to enter China, which has provided the necessary condition for Chinese to dress freely and differently.  Also, the increasing living standard in China has provided the necessary economic condition.  Therefore, this phrase is the most optimistic time for Chinese in terms of clothing among the four phrases and it is also the best period of time for the connection between China and the Western countries in terms of clothing. 


            Based on the descriptions and the analysis above, our major conclusion is consistent with Ryan’s (1966) comment that the most evident influence on choice of clothing is derived from the particular society.  The means by which the society governs the individual’s choice of clothing varies from managing directly through laws and rigid customs to managing indirectly through example and more subtle social pressures (Ryan, 1966).  In the cultures with rigid rules concerning clothing, everybody loses flexibility and concerns with dressing code.  Before Japan was influenced by Western culture, for example, the types of sandals and even the material of the thongs of the sandals were strictly regulated, and the bindings and ornaments of the hair were likewise fixed by law (Ryan, 1966).  This is similar to Ch’ing Dynasty. Because during this phrase, strict regulations caused by strict social classes limited clothing selections.  Second, pointed out by Ryan (1966), when indirect control of individual dress by society is concerned, there is a desire on the part of every normal individual to feel that he belongs to a group and that he is accepted and has the approval of that group.  This could be proved by people’s dresses in Mao period.  Because during that period of time, everyone wanted to be regarded as a proletarian which could be embodies by clothing, Mao uniform.  Kaiser (1990) defined this phenomenon as conformity which is a change in an individual’s behavior or attitude in order to achieve consistency based on real or imagined group pressure. The rationale behind the conformity is the fear that if s/he differs from the group markedly in any respect, such as clothing, s/he will be criticized or ridiculed by the other members and perhaps even be rejected for these reasons.   As to the other two periods, Post-Mao period and the People’s Republic, the conformity theory could also be used to explain the clothing selection.  But the difference between Mao period and these two periods is that in the former stage, the whole society just had only one group, the group of proletarian, while during the other two stages, many groups freely exist, which is more natural and closer to the real fashion phenomenon. 

            In addition, general cultural difference, attitudes toward women, current events, and technical development also have influences on the choices of clothing (Ryan, 1965).  Our research not only reproves those social influences on clothing choice, but extents this statement.  Besides the factors listed above, we conclude that economic, political, and diplomatic factors also have strong impacts on people’s clothing. 





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Figure 1.  Urban Men’s Clothing during 1644-1911 (Garrett, 1994)




Figure 2.  Urban Women’s Clothing during 1644-1911 (Garrett, 1987)




Figure 3.  Urban Men’s Clothing during 1912-1948 (
An examination and civil service convention is held at the Examination Yuan in Nanking, 1934)



Figure 4.  Urban Women’s Clothing during 1912-1948 (Garrett, 1987)



Figure 5.  Urban Men’s and Women’s Clothing during 1949-1977 (Yang, 1995)



Figure 6.  Urban Men’s Clothing during 1978-present (The Nanjing new building materials Co., Ltd., 1996)



Figure 7.  Urban Women’s Clothing during 1978-present (Chen, 1996)