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  • Writer's pictureYiyu Chen

Dress Code Of The Tang Dynasty

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

Let's assume something magical happens – a meteor hits you and, unharmed, you are transported to China during the reign of the Tang Dynasty (A.D.618—A.D.907). Miraculously, your over-the-top popular and strange modern clothes come along too.


The Tang Dynasty was one of the most powerful dynasties in China, achieving great success in culture, politics, economics, and diplomacy. During the Tang Dynasty, China was rich and strong. Through the overland Silk Road, which ran from the capital Chang' an to the Mediterranean coast, kings, ambassadors, and merchants of many countries journeyed to Chang’ an, where they integrated culturally and economically. Chang’ an became the premier city of the world and the beacon of ancient Chinese culture.


Luckily, on your trip through time, you receive unexpected start-up capital from a rich man. What type of clothes do you need to procure to integrate into this society without being looked at strangely? Let's take a look at it.


Male clothing

Like today, people in the Tang Dynasty needed to wear different clothes for different occasions, and the distinction between those occasions was much more detailed. For example, officials in the Tang Dynasty had different and complicated clothing requirements when worshipping heaven and earth, when meeting with the emperor at court, and when officials were in office. These garments were seen as symbols of state etiquette and required by law, so they had to be observed. Each costume, not just one piece of clothing, consisted of at least four parts: the head costume, the body costume, the foot costume, and the pendant. All had their own standardized set of layers.


Of course, as a commoner, you may not have many opportunities to participate in large events. Let's first learn what common people wore at that time.


袍páo & 衫shān

"Pao" refers to a long gown with a lining and a sandwich that can be wadded with cotton in winter. "Shan" is a single coat with the same style but only one layer. Both were the most represented outerwear in the Tang Dynasty. Its style is a round collar, narrow sleeves, right overlapping, and the length is generally between the calf and foot. There are buttons or ties on the collar and front placket for fixing. The formal ”Pao“ and ”Shan“ do not have a slit. The body part has three pieces of vertical fabric, two of which act as the front and back pieces, and a whole piece of fabric of the same color is used under the knees to form a circle around the body. This horizontal fabric on the hem is called"襕" lán. Since the robe is a combination of the upper garment and the lower garment, "Lan" became a symbol expressing the lower garment, indicating compliance with Chinese rituals. In Tang Dynasty murals and terracotta figurines, there are many images of civil and military officials wearing the "Lan Pao" or "Lan Shan." There is also another type of robe known as the "Quekua Shan" (缺胯衫). "Quekua" means there are slits on both sides of "Shan," but the rest of it is the same as a normal shirt. It is convenient for people to move around, so it is often used in daily life.

Tang Dynasty Painting “Bunian Tu,” from Yan Liben. This painting is now in the Chinese National Palace Museum. To learn more about it, please click here.


袄ǎo

The "Ao" generally refers to the jacket without the "Lan," which is shorter in length than the "Pao” and “Shan" we just mentioned but looks similar. It could be filled with cotton and was usually worn within the "Pao” and “Shan" as winter clothing. For ease of movement, the Tang Dynasty “Ao” generally had various slits. The common ones were slits on both sides, in addition to slits on the back body. The "Ao" opens at the back of the body and continued to be used for subsequent dynasties, but the overlapping area of the slits expanded. While facilitating movement, it was further enhanced for cold protection and cover.


半臂bàn bì (Half Arm)

Tang people usually wore a “Ban Bi," which can be translated straightforwardly as "half-arm," within their "Pao" and "Shan." Half-arm is a short-sleeved or sleeveless blouse with a cross collar and a "Lan" under the waist. Unlike the "Lan Shan," the "Lan" of the half-arm is usually of a different color than the main body, and it looks like a short skirt from the waist down to the knee. In addition to silk, the half arms are sometimes made of more ornate rigid fabrics. Wearing a half arm within "Pao" and "Shan" makes men's shoulders and back look more upright and sturdier.

Tang Dynasty half-arm, Japanese name Hanpi, now in the collection of the Shosoin Treasure House, Japan. To learn more about it, please click here.


汗衫hàn shān (Sweatshirt)

The innermost layer of the top is the "sweatshirt," which is named because it absorbs sweat when worn close to the body. Sweatshirts have been worn since ancient times. No matter how much the outer garment changes, the sweatshirt will be worn inside. The style of the sweatshirt is very similar to that of the Ao, but since it was a garment worn close to the body, the fabric of the sweatshirt was mostly white and light silk and only had one layer. The length of a sweatshirt should be comparable to or slightly shorter than an "Ao." The actual length is around 80 to 90 centimeters, and the sleeve length is often shorter.


Lower Garment

The pants worn by the Tang people were divided into two types: "袴kù" and "裈kūn", which are not the same as the "pants" of today. Ku were outer pants worn outside without a crotch and could be single or double-layered. Kun were single-layered pants worn inside a hakama, with a closed crotch.


Hierarchy:

In summary, the complete hierarchy of everyday men's clothing in the Tang Dynasty, from the inside out, was the inner layer of clothes: sweatshirt and Kun, the middle layer of clothes: half-arm (or Ao) and Ku, and the outer layer of clothes: Pao (or Shan) and Putou. The main differences between the garments of different seasons are the lightness and thickness of the fabric, single or double layers, whether the double layer clothes are filled with Mianhua, and whether there is a middle layer garment. There is no difference in style, and it does not change because of the weather.


This is the case of standard regular clothes. In less formal occasions, you can also forgo outer robes, but wear the Ao instead of a close sweatshirt outside. As for the general workers, farmers, and other classes who need to walk and work in the open air for a long time, their outfit is more casual. Their work clothes may only include a sweatshirt and Kun.

Tang Dynasty male dressing order diagram, from Yan Wang. If you want to learn more information, please click this link.


Do you think it is too complicated and confusing? Don't be afraid; dressing in ancient times was not much different from now. As long as the concept of identity and occasion is considered, the dress code of the Tang Dynasty is very similar to the dress code of today.


Here is a simple analogy table.

汗衫(Sweatshirt) = Shirt

Ao/半臂(half-arm) = Sweater/ Vest

Pao/Shan = Coat

Ku = Pant/Jean

Kun = Short/Underpants

Then now we pair them to the correct occasion.

Just as in today's suits, the inner layer can be worn alone, and the outer and middle coats do not necessarily have to be worn in their entirety. However, if there is an outer coat, there must be a lining coat, and the order must not be disordered.


Now, doesn't everything seem so much easier? Just correspond with the modern dress code one by one, and you will know how you should dress in Tang Dynasty. As an ordinary male who did not need to attend major ceremonial occasions, you could spend a winter and spring in the Tang Dynasty in peace by having the knowledge above.


Female Clothing

Common women at that time did not really need to attend different formal occasions. Female clothing was simpler in structure compared to Male clothing. At the same time, the high silk-making skills and open folk style of Tang Dynasty China also made the selection of clothing very diverse. If you are a fashion-conscious woman, you will love to match your own set of clothes there.

Schematic diagram of women from different periods of the Tang Dynasty. This image is sourced from Yan Wang. To view this image, visit here.


衫子shān zǐ

Women in the Tang Dynasty wore long-sleeved tops with narrow sleeves and short bodies, which should be called "Shan Zi," according to the Tang custom. In the Tang Dynasty, women's "Shan Zi" was very short in length. It doesn't even cover the waist when worn alone. And that time, the shirts could be called "half clothes" because of the short body. The early Tang and Glorious Tang "Shan Zi" had narrow sleeves, while the middle and late Tang "Shan Zi" were slightly looser but were still generally narrow sleeve style. There are many kinds of collar styles, including straight collar and lapel, round collar and lapel, round cross collar, and so on, which changed with the popularity. What is striking is that the collar of the shirt in the Tang Dynasty was often opened very low, and the image of a chest half-exposed was extremely common. As a common daily-wear top, the material of the shirt is very rich, with light and soft Ling (twill damask), Luo (gauze), Juan (silk tabby), and Duan (satin). The color of shirts seems no limit. It could be purple, scarlet, red, green, yellow or white. The sleeves of the shirt end with a different color material or gorgeous brocade embroidery edging. "Shan Zi" generally refers to a single-layer shirt, and in winter, when it is cold, it is changed to a jacket, which is then called "袍子Pao Zi".


裙子qún zǐ

"Qun Zi" means skirts. There were various styles of skirts in the Tang Dynasty, and they changed with popularity. The inter-color skirt, which was popular in the early Tang, is a skirt with vertical stripes sewn together with two different colors of fabric. It has a wide variety of color choices, but most people chose to make one of the two colors red. There is also another type of monochrome skirt made of multiple pieces of the same color fabric pieced together, and some of them have thin shoulder straps. According to several women's skirts excavated in Xinjiang from the early Tang Dynasty to Kaiyuan, this kind of skirt has different types of six-piece fabric, eight-piece fabric, and twelve-piece fabric. The skirt colors are red, green, purple, yellow, and green, and there are various decorations printed and painted on them.


帔子pèi zǐ

Women would also wear a long scarf over their clothes, usually called "Pei Zi" in the Tang context. The Pei Zi is worn over the shoulders and wrapped around the back of the hand and is usually made of thin sarong with many decorative techniques, such as printing, embroidery, painting, and so on. There are also thicker styles for warmth in cold weather. When standing, the Pei Zi drops naturally, and when walking, it floats and stretches. It is so artistic and charming that later generations often imagine the legendary fairies wearing Pei Zi.


Women wearing men's clothing was also a popular fashion in the Tang Dynasty and an important feature of women's clothing. Both before and after the Tang Dynasty, women wearing men's clothing was considered heresy by the rulers. But the open Tang Dynasty gave women more power to choose their clothing. And women wearing men's clothing could be popular in the Tang Dynasty for two main reasons. One is the increase in the frequency of women's participation in social activities, and the common way to travel was on horseback. Traditional women's clothing is not suitable or convenient for horseback riding, and women chose to wear simple men's clothing because of the demand for riding. Second, they were influenced by foreign dress culture. Chang ‘an was the commercial center of the empire, where merchants from all over the world gathered, and its dress culture also influenced the fashion of the Tang dynasty to a certain extent.

A woman in men's clothing. This image is drawn by Yan Wang. Image archaeology work is done by Yang Mei Jian Wu. To view this picture, please visit this link.


The Shan, Qun, Pei three pieces constitute the most basic daily clothing for women in the Tang Dynasty. Of course, you can also refer to the men's section above to match a set for yourself.


Overall, if you understand all clothing items and follow the rules above, you will fit in well with the people of the Tang Dynasty and not break any etiquette norms. Enjoy your life there!

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