Tang-Song fashion saw a shift from flamboyance to modesty

By REN ZHIYU / 07-04-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: A detail of “Court Ladies” by the Southern Song artist Liu Songnian

The era spanning from the Sui (581–618) to the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) was a glorious period in the history of Chinese clothing. Elements of clothing from the Han people, northern nomads, the Western Regions, and Central Asia intermingled, making diversity the main feature of the time.

Magnificent Tang style

During the Sui and Tang (618–907) periods, the unification of the nation saw the primary integration of Han and Xianbei styles into clothing, resulting in two main categories of dress. One category, derived from Han-style clothing reformed after the Northern Wei, was generally used as ceremonial and court attire. The other, adapted from Xianbei round-collar robes, served as daily attire. In most instances, Sui and Tang court officials adopted the latter for daily attire, presenting a distinctive ensemble composed of “fu-tou” headwear [typically made of a piece of black fabric wrapped around a frame to form a cap, with two long, trailing pieces hanging down the back or tied into decorative knots], and round-collar robes paired with black leather boots made of six pieces of leather. Women’s clothing during the Sui Dynasty featured narrow-sleeved tops and high-waisted long skirts. In the Tang Dynasty, women typically wore skirts, tops, and “pei” scarves. The “pei” scarf, a long gauze shoulder cape, was worn draped over the back, wrapped around the chest, and then hung over the arms. The hanging segment would either hang directly on the arms, be held in front of the chest, or fixed directly to the clothing.

Fashions and tastes in the Tang Dynasty can be described as flamboyant, bold, and cosmopolitan, reflecting the cultural and economic prosperity of the era. During this golden age, Buddhism flourished, culture thrived, and the integration of nomadic and Han peoples introduced a martial and bold style, adding to the vibrancy of the social atmosphere. The climate of openness to diverse ideas, cultures, and expressions was prominently reflected in women’s clothing. Tang women favored “extraordinarily large buns and voluminous clothing,” with sleeve widths reaching over four chi [approximately 1.33 meters]. They admired a healthy and plump figure, as seen in many Tang portraits. In Tang artist Zhou Fang’s “Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair With Flowers,” several noblewomen have elaborate hairstyles, with high, voluminous buns adorned with flowers, ribbons, and hairpins. Their skirts are tied high at the chest [a type of “ru-qun” dress], with a decorative brocade belt tied high on the waist. Beneath the see-through embroidered gauze outer garment and flowing pei scarves, their arms and backs are vaguely discernible.

Among China’s imperial dynasties, it is generally believed that women of the Tang Dynasty enjoyed the most open and free lifestyle. They rode horses in the streets, wore men’s clothing, and even ascended the throne. The dresses of Tang Dynasty women featured styles that could expose their upper chests, reflecting a trend towards highlighting the natural beauty of the body. Additionally, they preferred luxurious colors like red, yellow, and purple, and used gold and silver thread embroidery to decorate silk clothing. From the Sui to the Five Dynasties (907–960), high buns were fashionable, with removable false hairpieces being popular. Elaborate makeup was also common.

Modest Song aesthetics

Emperor Taizu of Song founded the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and, drawing from his experiences in gaining the throne, actively diminished the power of military generals while prioritizing the role of civil officials in government. This era set a precedent for emphasizing the role of educated scholars and civil officials in administration, adhering to Confucian principles that favored selection based on knowledge, virtue, and abilities rather than hereditary privilege or military prowess. Consequently, the martial spirit was diluted throughout society. By the Song era, Buddhism had gradually been sinicized, forming an ideological system where Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism intermingled, with Confucianism as the core. Under the influence of this system, Song literati developed self-restraint, conservative behavior norms, and a strong rationalist aesthetic emerged. This likely contributed to the Song clothing style, which valued simplicity, modesty, elegance, and gentleness, a preference for slim figures and light colors.

Moreover, the perpetual threat from powerful enemies during the Song periods also had a profound influence on the aesthetic of the time, imbuing Song art with a blend of melancholy and aesthetic appreciation. The Song literati culture’s high esteem of natural beauty, simplicity, and authenticity inspired the Japanese aesthetic concept “wabi-sabi” to some extent.

The Song revised the crown and costume system of previous dynasties, with the emperor wearing “chao-fu” court attire on major occasions. The lower-rank court suit, known as the “gong-fu” uniform, served as the formal attire for officials, distinguishing them from commoners. This uniform followed the traditions of the Sui and Tang, consisting of “fu-tou” hats, long robes, leather belts, and boots. The headgear of the Song court uniform consisted of a black hat with two wing-like flaps. Supported by inserted iron and copper wires, the thin flaps were stiff and straight, and could extend up to almost a meter each. According to folklore, Emperor Taizu of the Song Dynasty was credited with extending the flaps of court officials’ headgear, which was aimed at reducing the ability of officials to whisper or communicate secretly during court sessions.

Unlike the loose clothing styles of the late Tang and Five Dynasties, Song women’s clothing was slender and form-fitting. The upper garments included jackets, pei scarves, and the “ban-bi” waistcoat with half-length sleeves, while the lower garments primarily consisted of skirts. Song women also wore straight-collar, front-opening beizi coats [large loose outer coats with loose and long sleeves], some reaching the knees, others trailing to the ground. Additionally, the embellishments of pei scarves in this period were determined according to the social rank of their wearers. As a component part of the formal attire for palace concubines and noblewomen, known as “xia-pei,” it had to be made with specified materials and patterns. The exaggerated hair buns lost popularity and Song women preferred various decorative hats. For example, empresses usually wore ceremonial crowns (phoenix coronets or nine-dragon hairpin crowns) on grand occasions, with pearl crowns for noblewomen, while commoners wore shan-kou hats, which featured a semi-circular or crescent-shaped ornament resembling profile of a mountain pass.