Chinese Fashion

Chinese robes and accessories


Social position and tradition was very important in ancient Chinese culture. An individual's position in society was often indicated by the types of clothing worn, or the symbols embroidered on their garments. For the wealthy, fabrics were endlessly luxurious and comfortable ... except for the peculiar tradition of Chinese footbinding. Whether native to the East or to the West, women have suffered for the price of beauty.

Clothing was embroidered in ancient times with symbols indicating one's social position, especially those designed for imperial court robes. Embroidery designs later became purely ornamental, decorating traditional silk robes and accessories with plants, fruit, birds, flowers, and other forms of nature. Traditional robes were relatively plain in structure, loose and comfortable in comparison with the corseted designs of many Western fashions over the years.

However, the Chinese tradition of footbinding for the upper classes caused permanent damage to a woman's feet - all for the sake of beauty, pride, and husband hunting. If feet were not bound, a girl would become a "large-footed barbarian" and cause shame to her family.

Between the ages of three and seven, girls' feet were tightly wrapped to begin the process of bending down the foot in order to break the bones of the instep. By the time of her wedding at the age of fourteen, a bride's fashionably-sized foot measured only three inches long. The convex top of the foot sloped to the large toe, still facing upward, but the other four toes had been imbedded underneath into the sole of the foot. Common complications included ulceration, paralysis, even gangrene and the loss of toes.

Footbinding may have started as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-906) when dancers of the imperial harem could hover like lotuses suspended above the surface of a pool. Soon, "the Golden Lotus" or "lily feet" custom had spread from the imperial court to society in general, creating pure agony for generations of Chinese women. The practice was banned in 1902, though it continued well into the 1920s.

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blue dragon robe
Dragon Robe - imperial dragon robe of woven silk, 19th century.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of the Blanden Memorial Art Museum, Fort Dodge, Iowa



black silk robe
Robe - Silk robe, women's adult size, pre-World War II.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of Margaret Wolf, Washington, Iowa



shoes for bound feet
shoes for bound feet
diagram of bound foot
Shoes for bound feet - silk with machine-stitched decoration, approximately 3" in length, c.1890s.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of the Blanden Memorial Art Museum, Fort Dodge IA
Shoes for bound feet - approximately 3" in length.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford CA
Diagram - shows a normal-sized female foot, overlaid with a red drawing showing the results of footbinding.
--From an internet site on Chinese footbinding.


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