People in China generally wore tunics (like long t-shirts). Women wore long tunics down to the ground, with belts, and men wore shorter ones down to their knees. Sometimes they wore jackets over their tunics. In the winter, when it was cold, people wore padded jackets over their tunics, and sometimes pants under them. In early China, poor people made their clothes of hemp or ramie, which is a plant like nettles. Rich people wore silk, and, like the women in this picture, they often wore more than one tunic, in layers.
Most people in China, both men and women, wore their hair long. People said that you got your hair from your parents and so it was disrespectful to cut it.
In the Song Dynasty, about 1100 AD, a fashion started at the emperor’s court for women to bind their feet. Women thought that to be beautiful they needed little tiny feet, only about three inches long. They got these tiny feet by wrapping tight bandages around the feet of little girls, about five or six years old.
The bandages were so tight they broke the girls’ toes and bent them underneath their feet and then they had to walk on them like that. The girls spent most of their time crying for two or three years and then the feet stopped hurting so much. Women with bound feet couldn’t walk very well at all, and when they had to work in the fields often they would crawl. Some of the earliest versions of the story of Cinderella come from Song Dynasty China. In these versions, the point of the story is that the Prince loves Cinderella because she has the smallest feet of any girl in the kingdom, so the slipper will only fit her.
But bound feet weren’t really all about beauty. Many families chose to bind girls’ feet because bound feet forced young girls to sit still all day, and then they would spin and weave more cloth for the family to sell. Making cloth was a way families could get money for food and rent, so foot-binding was popular for that reason too.
A video about foot-binding
Then in the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongols brought cotton to China. At first people didn’t want to grow cotton, maybe because the people running the silk industry wanted to keep people buying silk. But the Mongol invasions in the 1200s destroyed a lot of the mulberry trees that were needed to make silk. The Mongol emperors, like Kublai Khan, turned to cotton to fill the gap. In 1289 AD they ordered the opening of special training centers to teach farmers how to grow cotton. And in 1296 they ordered that farmers who grew cotton could pay lower taxes. Soon everyone liked cotton better than ramie or hemp. Cotton was warmer, and softer, and stronger, and cheaper. You could make it thin for summer, or you could make thick padded clothes out of it that were warm for winter.
Learn by doing: check out some hemp clothing in a store
Later Chinese Clothing
China and Japan (Cultures and Costumes), by Paula Hammond (2003). For teens.
Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities & Recipes, by Nina Simonds and others (Children’s Museum of Boston, 2002).
Chinese Clothing: An Illustrated Guide, by Valery Garrett (1994). Expensive, but there’s a lot of pictures. Some of it deals with a time period later than this site.
5000 Years of Chinese Costumes, by Zhou Xun and Gao Chunming (1987). This is for theater costumers and historians, and really goes into detail, with great pictures – but it’s not cheap. Get it through your library.
Bound, by Donna Jo Napoli (2004). A novel for young adults about footbinding in medieval China.