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Traditional Asian Clothing - October 2011 Newsletter

There is an old Chinese saying that goes:  “People need clothes; Buddha needs gold.”  Enigmatic when first approached, this old saying is a pragmatic observation that what we wear says a lot about who we are, where we come from, and the culture that we are a part of.  
In past newsletters, we have covered the wide variety of Asian food from unique traditional dishes to street snacks. 

In this month’s newsletter, we will take a look at the traditional clothing of different Asian countries and culture.  Like the dazzling myriad of Asian dishes, clothes can tell one a lot about a culture.  Beyond being a practical way of providing outer protection, clothes reveal the definition of beauty and aesthetics. Clothes do not simply give one a glimpse of a lifestyle; it is, in itself, a way of life.  

Chinese Traditional Clothing

 Throughout the history of China, fashion trends have come and gone and evolved with the rise and fall of very dynasty.  Often clothes did not simply function as a fashion statement; it gave a solid clue to one’s station in life.  What one wore told others what one’s place was in society.  The Emperor had his own distinct robes—often yellow (an auspicious color seen as comparable to gold), his officials had their garb, as did the guards, the eunuchs, the palace maid, and the various concubines.  

Often, the nobility wore robes made from silk. Silk has always been seen as a fine fabric.  The emperor, the royal family, the nobilities and some officials would have worn silken robes.  For the emperor, the embroidered motif of dragons (a symbol of the emperor as the son of heaven) would have been found on his royal garb.  Elaborate headwear also spoke of one’s station in life.  Officials had their official headwear.  So elaborate were the headgears that they showed not only one’s role in society, it reflected their rank. The various ranks of official, each had a unique headwear that would tell others which rank of an official he is.  

In the Qing dynasty, Official head wears were differentiated by the color, shape, and number of pearls on the hat.  A first grade official wore a hat with one translucent red ball, a second grade official: a solid red ball, a third grade official: a translucent blue ball, a fourth grade official:  a solid blue ball, a fifth grade official:  a translucent white ball, and a sixth grade official:  a solid white ball.  What a person’s station in life is, his rank is immediately revealed based on what he/she wears.  The style, cut, color, material of one’s clothing told someone else who they were and their place in a larger scheme of things.  

More familiar to most people today, the Cheongsam, or qipao, with its tight fitting aesthetic originated in Shanghai in the 1920s.  Cheongsam is recognizable for their raised collar, slender shape and close fitting style.  The cheongsam reflected a more liberal sensibility that began to form in the 1920s.  Cheongsam dresses were fitting and women were able to show off their feminine figure. A high cut accompanied the close fitting style and is a drastic and unique take off from the traditional version of cheongsam that was more conservative and loose fitting.

Interestingly, the cheongsam is seen today as a traditional form of Chinese clothing.  Take a walk down any Chinatown street, and you will find stores selling a wide variety of Cheongsams.  It has become an icon of traditional Chinese wear. It is ironical to note that the modern version of cheongsam that was a liberal and modern reaction during the liberal 20s against the traditional clothing, is today considered traditional Chinese wear by many today.

Japanese Traditional Clothing

The first thing that comes to most people’s minds when talking about Traditional Japanese clothing is the kimono.  The word Kimono can be literally translated into “Ki” wear and “Mono” thing.  Kimono means “Thing to wear”.  Kimonos are worn by women, men and children in Japan.  As early as the 5th century A.D., the Chinese style of clothing known as “Han fu”, Han wear, began to be adopted in Japan.  The overlapping collar found in kimonos was adopted from traditional Chinese wear.  

There are many parts to a kimono.  It is an ankle length robe with attached collar and long and wide sleeves.  Kimonos are tied together with a sash known as Obi.  Kimonos are typically worn on special occasions and festivals, at weddings, graduations, and during tea ceremonies.  

Traditionally, kimonos are made from silk.  The print on the silk textile that makes up a kimono can vary greatly, from abstract repeating patterns to free form designs.  There are also different kinds of kimono for summer and casual everyday wear.  These are known as Yukata.  In general, Yukatas are made from lighter materials such as cotton and are meant to be worn in summer during festivals and are a common sight at firework displays.  

Kimonos for men are generally simpler in design, usually in a solid color.  The most common shades are black, dark blues, greens and brown.  Kimonos for men are generally made up of five pieces of clothing item unlike the more complicated version for women.  
It may be surprising for many that a typical kimono set can easily exceed $10,000 USD.  Some kimonos may even cost up to $20,000 USD.

Korean Traditional Clothing

Known as Han-bok in South Korea or Choson-ot in North Korea, traditional Korean clothing like that of traditional Chinese and Japanese clothing can be elaborate and also signified the wearer’s social status.  
Typically, Korean traditional wear includes an upper garment, a form of blouse known as Jeogori.  For women, they are typically short and are paired with a long flowing skirt known as chima. 

They usually reach the ground in length and are comparable in style to the ball gowns in the Western world where the skirt body balloons outwards.   Today, this form of dressing is worn only on special occasions and they can be formal or semi-formal depending on style.  

For men, the Jeogori, or upper garment are longer and extend to the waist.  They can be elaborately designed and brightly colored, or simply designed with plain colors.  Like other East Asian cultures, the color, style and material of the clothing reveals the wearer’s social status.  Officials had official wear, as did the affluent, the royalty and the commoners.

Commoners in the past usually worn plain colored clothing, often made from common fabrics such as cotton, while the affluent and nobility dressed in clothes made from silk with vibrantly dyed colors and intricate designs.

In the past, the designs found on the hems of traditional robes denoted the rank of a person.  For example, the motif of dragon is reserved for the empress, only she can wear clothing with that motif.  Phoenix is a design reserved for the queen, while other princesses and concubines wear clothing with floral designs embroidered on the hem.  For court officials, motif of crane and clouds were worn.  

Other Traditional Asian Clothing

Every culture and country boasts of its own unique fashion and aesthetic sensibility that stems from their food, their music, their lifestyle and their clothes.  Even within these three East Asian countries a wide variety exists between different time period and among different regions.  It can take a life-time to study the traditional clothing of a country, or even just a region within a country.

The Asian continent includes a myriad of different artistic influences.  As we move further West into Southeast Asian and West Asia, even wider arrays of fashion and traditional clothing can be found.  Countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and India each have their own unique flavor of traditional wear.  

We hope that through this month’s newsletter, you have gained an insight into Asian traditional clothing and may it be an introduction for you to further explore the exciting and dazzling world of traditional Asian wear!


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