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Ancient apparel is China’s newest fashion trend

The Hanfu Movement brings 17th century styles to modern life


When most Westerners think of traditional Chinese clothing, qipao dresses (旗袍, qípáo) and tangzhuang jackets (唐装, tángzhuāng) instantly spring to mind. However, these clothes are actually Manchurian, and they’ve only gained popularity in the last hundred years. Today, the clothes worn in China are overwhelmingly Western in origin. A small but growing movement wants that to change.

The Hanfu Movement (汉服运动, hànfú yùndòng) arose from Han people’s desire to express their culture through fashion. Han people are the largest ethnic group in China; 90 percent of Chinese self-identify as Han. As the largest group, their culture is frequently equated to mainstream culture. Hanfu, or “Han people’s clothing” asserts their unique cultural identity, and rejects Western fashion as the default.

Wang Letian famously wore Hanfu in 2003, sparking discussion and interest in the movement.

Wang Letian famously wore Hanfu in 2003, sparking discussion and interest in the movement.

The Hanfu Movement began in 2003, when a photo of a man wearing Tang Dynasty clothing in a public square went viral. More than just a fashion statement, wearing Hanfu celebrates traditional culture. Many adherents to the movement hope that Hanfu gains acceptance as formal wear, or simply has wider recognition like the Japanese kimono or Korean hanbok. The most ardent want Hanfu to become an accepted style of everyday clothing alongside Western dress.

Defining Hanfu can be difficult.  Han people are not only diverse, but their styles have changed over time. Most members of the Hanfu Movement consider Hanfu to be clothes in the style of the Ming Dynasty (the most recent dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, was Manchurian and not Han.) Others also include the clothes of the Song and Tang Dynasties.  Fortunately, TWOC has written extensively about different types of Han clothing.

Questions about authenticity permeate the movement at all levels – if Hanfu is machine-sewn and made of cotton-polyester fabric, how “traditionally Chinese” can it truly be?

Many Chinese people feel that the style can never be more than a costume. For people of European descent, imagine a movement to start wearing clothes puffy pants and wigs from the 17th century. Hanfu’s popularity always soars when a new imperial drama or time-travelling drama is released – probably not a coincidence.

If you’re Chinese, would you ever wear Hanfu as casual wear? Is the movement doomed to obscurity, or can Chinese fashion find inspiration from a less-Westernized past?


Images courtesy of WikiMedia by Yishuimingtan (X)

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