East Asia: History of Dress

Traditional Japanese snow boots

East Asia includes the present countries of China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam (the latter also can be considered part of Southeast Asia), along with adjacent areas of Inner Asia that have historically sometimes been part of the Chinese empire and often have been heavily culturally influenced by China. These regions include Manchuria (now the three northeastern provinces of China); Mongolia (including the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China and the independent Republic of Mongolia); East Turkestan (now the Chinese province of Xinjiang); and Tibet (now the Tibet Autonomous Region of Chhia, plus adjacent areas of the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan).

China was historically the dominant presence in East Asia, by virtue of size, population, and wealth; China regarded itself as the center of the world, the fountainhead of culture, and a beacon of civilization to surrounding peoples. Surrounding peoples did not necessarily share that assessment, but they could not avoid, and often did not wish to avoid, the influence of Chinese culture. The importance of silk in the history of East Asian dress is both evidence and metaphor for China's cultural domination of the region.

Silk, produced in parts of China since at least the third millennium B.C.E., was the favored textile material of China's elite thereafter (commoners wore hempen cloth in ancient times, cotton increasingly after about 1200 C.E.). Both the technology of silk production and the cultural preference for wearing silk were exported from China to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam in the early centuries C.E. Silk cloth (but not, except by accident or industrial espionage, silk technology) was exported regularly and in large quantities from China to Central and Western Asia along the Silk Route beginning in the first century B.C.E.

The cultural frontier is a very old one. Around 1000 B.C.E., near the Tarim Basin in East Turkestan (now Xinjiang Province, China), the easternmost representatives of the Celtic people were weaving woolen twill cloth in plaid patterns indistinguishable from those made by Celts in Europe at the same time. A thousand miles to the east, the kings of China's Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-781 B.C.E.), in their capital city near present-day Xi'an, clothed themselves in richly patterned silks woven in royal workshops. The border between the Chinese culture and the Inner Asian culture areas may thus be thought of as the border between silk and wool, with Chinese silk serving to create trade connections between the two cultures.


The basic garment of China, for both sexes, was a robe-like or tunic-like wrapped garment. Elites wore robes, preferably of silk, that were wrapped around the body and tied closed with a waist sash. Such robes were either long enough to require no lower garments or somewhat shorter (e.g. thigh length) and worn over trousers or a skirt. Trousers and skirts were not closely tied to gender and were worn by both men and women. Both sexes considered it socially essential to wear their hair bound up in a topknot or other dressed style, and covered with a head cloth or hat of some kind. Elite women favored highly colorful patterned silk cloth for their clothing. Fashion in women's clothing went through an era of rapid change during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when a wealthy and cosmopolitan imperial culture stimulated consumption and emulation, and novelty was supplied by cultural influences, via the Silk Route, of Persian and Turkic peoples.

Traditional 19th century Chinese couple
Chinese couple, circa 1880

Elite men's clothing in ancient times was also often quite colorful, but men's clothing tended to become more somber and plain-colored in later periods. This trend toward plainer clothing was offset, however, by the development, from the late Song Dynasty (twelfth century) onward, of the "dragon robe" for use as court dress.

Commoners generally wore short robes or jackets over trousers or leggings; women sometimes wore skirts, and men sometimes wore only a loincloth as a lower garment, particularly when doing heavy agricultural work. Cavalry became an important part of the Chinese military from the late first millennium B.C.E. onward, and cavalrymen typically wore short wrapped jackets or short robes over trousers.

The dragon robes of late imperial China conveyed, through color and design details, precise information about the rank of those who wore them. Similar information for lower-ranking officials was conveyed through Mandarin squares, embroidered cloth badges that showed a wearer's civil service rank and were worn on the front and back of official robes.

Chinese dress changed radically after the end of the imperial period in 1911. A new form of men's clothing, called the Sun Yat-sen suit, developed on the basis of European military uniforms and won widespread acceptance; this suit had a jacket with a high, stiff "mandarin" collar, four pockets, and a buttoned front, with trousers in matching cloth. A new women's dress, called the qipao or cheongsam, evolved in Shanghai and other Chinese cities in the 1920s and 1930s; it was based on a restyling of the Manchu long gown of China's last imperial era, the ethnically Manchu Qing Dynasty. After the Communist revolution of 1949, the Sun Yat-sen suit evolved into the ubiquitous blue cotton Mao suit worn by both sexes; the qipao fell into disfavor in Communist China. It has since had a modest revival as formal wear. In general, however, traditional dress has disappeared in China, except among China's ethnic minorities, some of whom retain traditional or quasi-traditional dress styles as markers of ethnic identity.

Many "national minority" groups exist in China, the majority of them concentrated in the southern and southwestern provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou, and Yunnan. Important minority groups include the Zhuang, Miao, Yao, and Dai, among many others. Some are ethnolinguistically akin to Austronesian-speaking populations of Southeast Asia, such as the Shan of Burma (Myanmar) and the Hmong of Vietnam and Laos. The dress of these minority peoples varies widely, but often (as in the case of the Miao) features black-dyed cotton tunics worn with skirts or trousers and ornamented with colorful embroidery and sewn-on silver coins or beads. Women of the Dai minority wear fitted blouses with wrapped skirts similar to the lungyi (sarongs) commonly worn by Burmese women.


modern woman in ao dai
Modern woman in ao dai

Historically, Vietnam can be divided into three regions: from north to south, Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China. The northern and central regions were strongly influenced by Chinese culture while vigorously resisting Chinese conquest or political domination over the course of many centuries. Elite dress for both sexes was based on Chinese models, with males of the ruling class wearing plain long robes for ordinary wear and dragon robes or robes with Mandarin squares for official use. Women's dress strongly reflected Chinese women's fashionable attire. Working people of both sexes wore dark, wrapped jackets with skirts for women or short trousers for either sex-the "black pajamas" of Vietnam peasants that became an iconic image for Americans during the Vietnam War.

Culturally, southern Vietnam-Cochin China-was more closely related to Southeast Asia, and especially Cambodia, than to China. That was reflected in local dress, which featured wrapped skirts (sarongs) for both men and women, with wrapped upper garments for women and light, shirtlike jackets (or no upper garment) for men.

Under French colonial rule, from the 1860s to the 1950s, some elite men wore variant or hybrid forms of European dress, and some women of the same classes wore fashionable Western dress. Partly in response to this Westernization of Vietnamese dress, a new women's ensemble, the ao dai, evolved in the early twentieth century. It features a blouse worn above loose silk trousers, the whole outfit topped with a long, loose tunic open to the hip at each side. Though a recent innovation, the ao dai was accepted as a "traditional" and national dress by the mid-twentieth century and had retained that role.


Korean national dress for both men and women is known as hanbok, which simply means "Korean robe." The traditional men's ensemble, which is related to clothing of Manchuria and the steppe lands beyond but has no close connections to Chinese men's clothing, consists of a wrapped short jacket worn over voluminously baggy trousers tucked into black felt boots, the whole outfit topped with a stiff silk gauze coat in some light color, such as pale green or pale blue. A stiff black horsehair or straw hat completes the outfit.

The woman's hanbok, in contrast, is probably derived from a Tang Dynasty women's fashion for high-waisted dresses worn with a short jacket (or from a later Chinese revival of that Tang style). It consists of a skirt or very wide trousers worn with a long-sleeved wrapped top tied with a ribbon just below the bustline, the whole outfit covered with a silk gauze overskirt. The woman's hanbok has undergone numerous changes in style over the course of time. A simplified version has been revived in Korea as a form of national dress that is considered beautiful, patriotic, and feminine.


Japan began to be influenced strongly by continental culture from Korea, and from China via Korea, by the end of the third century C.E., and increasingly with the introduction of Buddhism in the mid-sixth century. Soon domestically produced silk fabric competed with imported Chinese and Korean textiles, though the latter retained high prestige value. In the aristocratic culture of the Nara (710-785) and Heian (795-1185) periods, fashion was thoroughly assimilated to Japanese cultural norms and was expressed in details such as color, cut, and decorative motifs in clothing that retained always the basic theme of the wrapped long robe. Men wore long robes of patterned silk or, for riding and other activities, shorter wrapped jackets over wide, baggy trousers of matching or contrasting material. Women of that era wore multiple layers of wrapped robes, cut so as to reveal each layer beneath the last; the tasteful blending of colors of such layered ensembles was an admired feminine accomplishment.

During the era of rule by a warrior aristocracy (samurai) that began in 1185 and lasted for nearly 700 years, clothing for both men and women evolved toward the T-shaped wrapped garment known as the kimono, in which elements of taste were expressed more in textile elements than by the cut or style of the garment itself. Fashion and style found expression in dyed, woven, or embroidered fabrics of sumptuous quality and fantastic variety; the wearing of an embroidered family crest at the nape of the neck by families with the right to do so; the choice of fabric and tying technique of the wide obi sash used to fasten a woman's kimono, and so on. Kimonos were displaced for most purposes by ordinary western-style clothing in the post-World War II period, and afterward were largely worn only as formal wear and on special occasions.

Clothing of working-class Japanese in premodern times was made of hempen cloth or, from about the sixteenth century onward, of cotton, usually indigo-dyed using techniques that are now much admired by connoisseurs of folk textiles. Traditional working-class garb survives in some rural Japanese communities as a somewhat self-conscious expression of conservative values.

Inner Asia

traditional mongol
Mongol in traditional deel

The three northeastern provinces of China that formerly made up Manchuria, barely retain a separate ethnic tradition, and there are only a few thousand remaining native speakers of Manchu. Traditional clothing has largely disappeared.

Mongolia, in contrast, retains a vigorous national culture, both in the independent Republic of Mongolia and in the ethnically Mongol region of the Chinese Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region. The national dress of Mongolia for both sexes, called the deel, is a wrapped robe, preferably of colorfully patterned silk (imported from China), closed with a long sash at the waist, worn over trousers for riding, and sometimes worn with a silk sleeveless vest. For cold-weather wear the deel is padded with cotton or silk floss and sometimes lined with fur. In all seasons it is worn with heavy leather boots. Mongol women traditionally wore extremely elaborate headdresses set with silver ornaments, in styles that were identified with particular tribes and clans. Men, too, wore hats distinctive of clan affiliation, and the hat played a singular role as the repository of male honor; to knock off or even to touch a man's hat without permission was to invite violent retaliation.

An unusual and distinctive item of Mongolian dress is the costume worn by men for wrestling-one of the "three manly sports" (along with riding and archery) of Mongol tradition. It consists of very tight short shorts, ordinary heavy Mongolian leather boots, and a tight-fitting, vestlike top that covers the shoulders, upper back, and upper arms, but leaves the chest bare.

In East Turkestan (now Xinjiang Province, China), the non-Chinese indigenous population consists largely of Uighurs and Kazakhs, both Turkic peoples ethnically akin to other Turkic peoples of Central Asia. Traditional dress varied widely among specific groups but tended toward wrapped, coatlike outer garments worn over a shirt and trousers, for men; and blouses, voluminous skirts, and long vests for women. Many men of the region wear the small, round, embroidered caps found widely among Central Asian peoples. Today, because the Islamic belief of these groups is seen as a bulwark against Chinese cultural hegemony, there is an increasing trend among Uighur and Kazakh women to wear international Islamic hijab clothing, which consists of a shapeless outer garment and head-scarf.

Tibet, now the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China, retains a strong indigenous dress tradition. The basic garment for both sexes is the chupa, a narrowly cut, long, side-closing wrapped garment bound at the waist with a sash. Men often wear a sheepskin coat over the chupa, leaving the right arm out of its sleeve and the right side of the coat pulled down off the shoulder-this is supposedly to facilitate knife-or sword-fighting should the need arise. An alternative women's ensemble consists of a loose, long-sleeved blouse, a dress, often of plain black cotton, with a sleeveless jumper top and a skirt that wraps in back and ties at the waist with cords, giving a trim line to the garment. It is worn with an apron sewn from several strips of multicolored, horizontally-striped cloth-a badge of married status for women. As in many cultures with a tradition of pastoral nomadism, Tibetan women often wear a wealth of jewelry, favoring in particular silver ornaments set with turquoise, coral, and lapis lazuli.

See also Central Asia: History of Dress; South Asia: History of Dress; China: History of Dress; Hijab; Japanese Traditional Dress and Adornment; Kimono; Korean Dress and Adornment; Qipao.


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Kennedy, Alan. Japanese Costume: History and Tradition. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

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East Asia: History of Dress