Wednesday, May 28, 2008

When did Chinese Women Start to Wear Trousers?


My grandmother looked a little like the lady in the picture. She wore the same kind of clothes. However, as my grandmother had straightened her feet and let them grow, she did not have those three-inch brocade shoes.

We were young and full of questions.

One question we asked grandmother was "When did Chinese women start to wear trousers?" Of course at that time we were asking only in the literal sense. (When we grew older, we understood from family tales that our grandmother wore the trousers /pants, metaphorically as well as literally)

Grandmother said, "As far as I remember, we Chinese women have always worn trousers. Only the very educated would wear Western clothes , that is, blouse and skirt. So you understand why I don't wear dresses. I am not educated." Although my grandmother never went to school, as she was "bought" by our grand uncle Lau Kah Tii in Fuzhou , China, as a child bride, she was smart enough to listen to school children reading aloud. She could memorise the lessons read out. And furthermore, she had a wonderful memory of all the Foochow verses and phrases, proverbs and sayings often quoted by people. We used to be very entertained by her during the TV-less days and asked for "encore" all the time. She was in a way very educated to all of us.

She was a good tailor like my grandfather, Lau Kah Chui. She would lay out the material and properly measure the material, and then had everything cut very properly and neatly. Then she would hand stitch her trousers and blouse. One would never know that her clothes were handsewn. Her stitches would never break and each seam would stay neatly in place. Her cutting was so emaculate that some modern designers would be envious.

We were very curious about trousers then because we children had nice European dresses with frills and ribbons and nice materials like viole. We were so impressed by her brocade that we set out on the discovery of how the trousers came about in China.

While most of my aunts occasionally wear modern well cut trousers, only one did wear samfoo and cheongsam until she passed away. She was our Second Aunt, wife of our second uncle, Siew King. Other aunts who have been living overseas naturally wear dresses with great style. Two of our aunts who live in Hong Kong are exceptionally beautiful and youthful. They wear modern Chinese styled samfoo, or a great samfoo top with embroidered skirt for parties.

However there were not many books to give us the answers during our younger days.

But for modern day children, if you are interested, below is an excellent article from Wikipedia

A painting of Emperor Zhenzong of Song, showing the long robes and official headgear of the emperor. This type of headgear, along with the headgear of officials and merchants, was made of black-colored silk.There were many types of clothing and different clothing trends in the Song period, yet clothes in China were always modeled after the seasons and as outward symbols of one's social class.

Coal used for heating one's home was scarce and often expensive, so people often wore clothing with extra silk-floss and fur-lined coats in the winter. The clothing material preferred by the rich was silk, and for special occasions they had silk robes with gold brocade. The clothing material used by the poor was often hempen cloth, but cotton clothes were also used, the latter being most widely available in the south. The types of clothes worn by peasants and commoners were largely uniform in appearance (with color standard of black and white), and so was the case for the upper class and elite. In fact, wealthy and leading members of society followed accepted guidelines and ritual requirements for clothing. In the upper class, each stratified grade in the social hierarchy was distinguished by the color and specific ornamentation of robes, the shape and type of headgear, and even the style of girdle worn. This rigid order was especially so during the beginning of the dynasty. However, the lines of hierarchy slowly began to blur as the color purple, once reserved solely for the attire of third rank officials or higher, began to diffuse amongst all ranks of officials who bore the color indiscriminately. Along with lower grade civil officials in the government protesting the rigid regulations for attire, the wealthy members of the merchant class also contributed to the disintegration of rules for ceremonial attire worn only by certain members of society. Yet there were still visible distinctions between civil officials and the class of rich merchants and business owners; the officials were distinguished by their long robes reaching to the ground, while merchants often wore a blouse that came down below the waist with trousers. Pants and trousers were introduced to China during the Warring States in the 4th century BC, and were not exclusive to merchants; every soldier wore trousers as part of his uniform, while trousers were also worn by the common people. Although most men were cleanshaven, soldiers, military officers, and professional boxing champions preferred side-whiskers and goatee beards, as they were a sign of virility.

A painting of court ladies and one man on horseback, dressed in upper class outing apparel, a 12th century painting by Li Gonglin, as well as a remake of an 8th century original by Tang artist Zhang Xuan.The attire of Song women was distinguished from men's clothing by being fastened on the left, not on the right.

Women wore long dresses or blouses that came down almost to the knee. They also wore skirts and jackets with short or long sleeves. When strolling about outside and along the road, women of wealthy means chose to wear square purple scarves around their shoulders. Ladies also wore hairpins and combs in their hair, while princesses, imperial concubines, and the wives of officials and wealthy merchants wore head ornaments of gold and silver that were shaped in the form of phoenixes and flowers.

People in the Song Dynasty never left their homes barefoot, and always had some sort of headgear on.Shops in the city specialized in certain types of hats and headgear, including caps with pointed tails, as well as belts and waistwraps.Only Buddhist monks shaved their heads and strolled about with no headgear or hat of any sort to cover their heads. For footwear, people could purchase leather shoes called 'oiled footwear', wooden sandals, hempen sandals, and the more expensive satin slippers.

In many ways we were thankful that Grandmother was wise enough to allow her feet to grow into normal size (not too big actually) and she could walk normally. This was indeed a big blessing because she had to do so much in her life for her children and grandchildren. But in retrospect, we were glad that her children and her grandchildren later blessed her with good materials for her blouses and trousers. She was always very appreciative of such feminine gifts.

2 memories:

Free Bird said...


I remember the reason why some Chinese officials had pointed tails from the side of their hats..

So they can't lean over to whisper..

I've always assumed that Trousers were some sort of status indicators by the chinese.

I read somewhere that, only the mistress of the house wore cheongsams, and the maids, servants wore the pants.

Just a little something to chuckle about..
"Smart women wear the pants"
I remember this phrase from a woman who was pretty much of a feminist.

Sarawakiana said...

Yes, from historical records and books on social life of the Chinese, the different social classes wore different clothes as an indication of their social status.

Trousers were worn by the working class during the Qing Dynasty. the Cheongsam came from the manchu people,which the Chinese fashioned into one of the most famous costumes in the world.

Think Chinese women, think Cheongsam. It is just so beautiful and elegant.


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