When we look at today’s modern styles of women’s traditional clothing in China and South Korea, we can see that there aren’t many similarities between the two dresses. The Chinese qipao is a body-hugging, one-piece dress that is usually made out of silk and embroidered with pearls and other decorations. It comes in a variety of colors, but the most popular color is red. The qipao is usually worn during formal events and special occasions, such as parties and weddings. However, it is also worn as a uniform in some restaurants, airlines, and hotels. The qipao originated from the last imperial dynasty of China, the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty. The Korean hanbok is a two-piece, long, loose fitting, silk dress that originated from the Joseon Dynasty, which was the last dynasty of Korea. It is also worn during formal events and special occasions, like weddings, Lunar New Year, and Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving).
Although these two look very different today, the traditional Korean clothing looked similar to the traditional Chinese clothing during the Tang Dynasty. At this point in history, the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) had very close ties to the Unified Silla Dynasty (present day North and South Korea), so much that well-known philosophical ideologies in China, such as Confucianism and Buddhism, became the fundamental foundation of the elite, architecture, arts, and clothing. Chang An, the capital of the Tang Dynasty, influenced the clothing style of the aristocratic people, bureaucracy, and king of the Unified Silla Dynasty.
Chang An Clothing
The variety, quantity, and quality of textiles during the Tang Dynasty reached an unprecedented height following advancements in the development of textiles, silk reeling, and cloth dyeing techniques from the Sui Dynasty. Fashion became vogue and a variety of dress styles were created. There were three types of cloth that were used to create clothing during the Tang Dynasty: wool, linen, and silk. Out of the three, silk was the most difficult and expensive to manufacture. Silk played an important role in the Tang Dynasty because it signified social status. The color of the silk further signified the level of social class in the bureaucracy. During the Tang Dynasty, only the imperial family and noble class were allowed to wear silk.
There were 10 types of textiles that were recognized by the Bureau of Weaving and Dyeing in Chang An. Two of the types were linen and woolens, and the rest were different types of silk: chiffons, damasks, satins, etc. Aristocratic women of the Tang Dynasty wore two-piece outfits made of the different types of silk that were complemented by elaborate hairstyles, makeup, and accessories. The point of each outfit was to emphasize the individual’s beauty based on their social background.
The style of dress changed throughout the Chang An period, but a few elements stayed the same. Silk was predominantly used to make clothing for the aristocratic women, and aristocrats in general. The dresses were composed of two parts and the skirt was long, loose, and flowing. Silks came in many different colors during this time and some of the more popular colors were red, purple, yellow, and green. Hairpins, accessories, and makeup were used to amplify beauty. Nature and animal motifs and specific colors were worn symbolically. Most importantly, everyone in the Tang Dynasty was impacted by and dressed according to Confucian ideologies. Confucian ideals was deeply rooted into clothing because it taught people how to present themselves to society.
From the three figures above, we can see that the Chang An women valued symmetry, balance, and composition in their clothing styles. Geometric patterns, animals, birds, boas, and floral patterns were widely adopted in dress and adornments. Hairpins were usually made out of gold, silver, or ivory and were decorated with precious jewels, jade, and pearls. Kingfisher feathers were also very popular.
During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, a strict color grading clothing system was created and was known as the pin se fu 品色服. It was based on the Analects of Confucius, which emphasized the importance of clothing. Confucius believed that each social class should dress differently based on color, material, style, pattern, and ornament in order to create a harmonious society. Confucius supported the regulation of color in clothing because he believed that this was needed for people to stay within their social positions. When people dressed according to their social status, it served as etiquette in social situations by helping people communicate and cooperate with each other. In this sense, the act of intensionally wearing and not wearing certain clothing was a ritual that everyone participated in to promote social harmony.
The color yellow was only worn by the emperor because it was thought that the emperor was at the center of the five directions. The center of the five directions was associated with the element earth and the color yellow. Emperor Taizong proposed that this color could only be worn by emperors because yellow is like the color of the sun. The logic behind this was that there cannot be two suns in the sky, so there cannot be two emperors in a nation. After this emperor, the following emperors wore yellow costumes and no one else was allowed to wear yellow. The emperor’s clothing also had dragons on it, which was a symbol of his imperial power and strength. Anyone caught wearing clothing with dragons on it or having anything embellished with an image of a dragon was killed.
Like the dragon and the color yellow, the belt with 24 plaques of white jade was used by only the emperor because of how rare the white jade was. Nobles used belts with 15 plaques of pale green jades. Besides a yellow robe, the emperor had 14 other costumes that he wore depending on the event and what he was doing. Those robes were usually a combination of gold, red, and black. Red represented fire, good fortune and joy. Black represented water and heaven. These three colors are in balance with each other with respect to water and fire and heaven and earth.
The noble class of the Tang dynasty was distinguished based on the color of their silk robes. Officials in the upper 3 levels wore purple robes. Officials above the fifth level wore red robes. The 6th and 7th level officials wore green robes. Finally, the 8th and 9th level officials wore cyan robes. Strict regulation of clothing in all levels of the bureaucracy was done intentionally with the hopes of creating a harmonious society based on Confucius thinking.
Unified Silla Dynasty Clothing
From the image above, it’s obvious that the bottom, very left dress is a dress from the Unified Silla Dynasty because of how similar it looks to a Tang Dynasty dress. The Silla Dynasty and Tang Dynasty formed an alliance and defeated the other 2 Korean dynasties that it co-existed with and became the Unified Silla Dynasty. Through these wars, the Unified Silla Dynasty and Tang Dynasty were able to form stronger ties. This allowed the Chang An culture to influence the Unified Silla Dynasty.
The dress above represents what a Unified Silla Kingdom aristocratic women would have worn. Inspired by artifacts found in ancient tombs in Gyeongju City, Lee Kyung Sun created this dress after studying paintings from the Tang Dynasty. The city where the ancient tombs are located is important because it was the capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom and the Unified Silla Dynasty for a total of nearly 1000 years. This means that this copy of the original clothing is authentic and can be used as a credible source to show how the Tang Dynasty influenced the clothing styles in the Unified Silla Dynasty.
Lee Kyung Sun probably was inspired by this painting in particular. Although it was made in the Song Dynasty by Emperor Huizong, it is an exact copy and only copy of the original silk painting by the famous Tang Dynasty artist, Zhang Xuan, who is also known for the silk painting Spring Outing of the Tang Court (can be found in the lecture slides).
Like dresses from the Tang Dynasty, the Unified Silla Dynasty dress has geometric patterns, a long, loose skirt, wide sleeves, and a gauze shawl. It is a two-piece outfit and is tied around the chest to hold the skirt up.
Based on the table, there are many similarities between the Chang An style and Unified Silla style. Aristocratic dresses from both dynasties predominantly used silk while commoners wore clothing made out of wool and hemp. Both used geometric patterns, animal patterns, and plant patterns like flowers. They both used a great variety of colors, especially the five primary colors and five compound colors based on the yin and yang thought. The theory behind the primary colors and five compound colors based on the yin and yang thought originated from China, but the fact that people in the Unified Silla Dynasty also used this theory to design their clothing shows how close the ties between the two dynasties were and how influential Chang An was.
Like the emperors of the Tang Dynasty, the kings of the Unified Silla Dynasty also wore yellow/gold robes with dragon emblems on them for the same reasons. The five colors, five directions, five elements, and balance between yin and yang were also important in the Unified Silla Dynasty. Besides the yellow robes, the kings of the Unified Silla Dynasty also had different robes to wear depending on the situation or event.
The dress code of the Tang Dynasty officials that has deep Confucius roots influenced the Unified Silla Dynasty court. In this scene, the different levels of officials are lined up toward the sides of Queen Seondeok’s discussion room. The highest levels are wearing purple, next levels are wearing garnet-red, the levels after are wearing green (they are not in line, more off to the side), and the final levels are wearing cyan. Surely, every prop item, including furniture, costumes, and such, are not going to be exact replicas of the real items. However, the most important point to take away from this image is that the the system of social hierarchy using color based on Confucianism is real and the product of Tang influence. These colors are the same colors in the Tang Dynasty court. From this, it is evident that the Chang An culture directly influenced the clothing of the Unified Silla Dynasty.
Color in both the Tang Dynasty and Unified Silla Dynasty was important because it represented different elements, directions, and characteristics. Different combinations of the primary colors resulted in compound colors that had the characteristics of both of the primary colors it was made of. In the figure, “Obangsaek” is a Korean word that means primary colors and “Ogansaek” means compound colors. Officials of different levels wore a specific compound color and the emperor wore the primary colors.
Historical Drama Comparison: Empress Wu Zetian and Queen Seondeok
Historical dramas is a popular genre in both China and Korea. The production staff in both countries try their best to use props and costumes that are consistent with the historical texts. Empress We Zetian was the first empress of the Tang Dynasty and Queen Seondeok was the first queen of the Unified Silla Dynasty. The styles of their clothing are very similar. The colors are consistent, both use belts, both have wide sleeves, and both wear long, silk dresses. The background in both images is decorated with dragons, representing the emperor and the most auspicious animal of the zodiac. The similarities are undoubtedly not by coincidence. It is the influence of the Chang An culture on the Unified Silla Dynasty that produced these results.