Fashion is transient, but identity is timeless

The relationship between old and modern eras is shown through ethnic attire in an exhibition at the China Craft and Art Museum. 

Clothes made from fish skin and skirts covered with silver ornaments are among the items on display at the “Timeless Style of Chinese Ethnic Attire” exhibition at the China Craft and Art Museum in Hangzhou.

The exhibition, with its “Tradition and Present, Old and New” theme, is organized by the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology. It has visited Beijing and the Ningxia Hui and Guangxi Zhuang autonomous regions. Hangzhou is its fourth stop.

Fashion is transient, but identity is timeless
Ti Gong

Around 360 costumes, accessories and tools from 36 ethnic minorities are on display.

Around 360 costumes, accessories and tools from 36 ethnic minorities are on display. To echo the ethnological characteristics of Zhejiang Province, some 60 traditional costumes are on show in the provincial capital.

The aim of the exhibition is to show the relationships between old and modern eras through ethnic attire, from the angles of anthropology and philosophy. It is in four sections — time, space, craft and integration.

Most minorities, unlike the Han nationality, developed without their own characters and languages. Many used symbols, motifs, patterns and colors on clothing as an effective way to hand down history, emotion and myths.

As one of China’s 55 minority groups, the Miao (苗) group’s embroidery skills are famous across the country.

Miao-style coats feature their legend of the origin of human beings. Butterflies and birds are common totems associated with life. On one coat in the exhibition, symmetrical embroidery depicts birds and butterfly coming together to incubate humans.

Due to their long history of migration, the Miao people are divided into 200 branches across the country. This costume pattern is found in Danzhai, Leishan, Rongjiang and Sanzhou of Guizhou Province.

As a splendid costume for both women and men, it is only worn at the Guzang Festival which is held every 13 years to worship Miao ancestors. This could date to the pre-Qin Dynasty (before 221 BC) , reflecting the long history of the costumes.

Dong (侗), another minority in southwest China, also boasts its own style of attire. The sun is the common motif on coats since the people considered it the supreme power that everything in nature depended on.

The sun totem appeared on copper drums at first. Later, leather drums replaced the copper version, but the totems were preserved on attire.

If there is one easy way to differentiate the minority people from Han in China, it is their heavy use of silver worn by women and children, from headdresses, necklaces, bracelets, earrings to waistbands and inlaid pieces on costume adornments.

It is believed that precious metals help ward off evil, and Dong people are no exception. Sets of intricate silver pedants embellish one of the jackets on display. Local craftsmen engraved immortals, flowers and auspicious patterns on the silver accessories. The jacket jingles and glows as the wearer moves.

The exhibition also displays a Taiya bridegroom’s suit. The Taiya are a minority living in Taiwan. In their culture, red symbolizes power and respect for sun. They use it as the main color for festive and ceremonial apparel. Meanwhile, it is decorated with diamond shapes because the pattern is the epitome of “ancestors’ eyes” in their culture.

Different latitudes and the natural environment influence the materials used in making clothes. In muggy areas, local minorities prefer linen and cotton because of their breathability, while in cold regions people often use leather to keep warm in winter.

Fashion is transient, but identity is timeless

A piece of Han-style attire from the Qing Dynasty in Zhejiang Province

Fashion is transient, but identity is timeless

Miao-style embroidery is often themed by their legends.

Fashion is transient, but identity is timeless

Fish-skin clothes of the Hezhe people

The Yi (彝) people living in the mountains of Sichuan Province often wear capes made of sheepskin. They are called ca’erwa (擦尔瓦), which literally means cape in the local language. No matter winter or summer, such capes help people endure the big temperature ranges in mountainous areas.

Another branch of Yi people live in Wenshan in Yunnan Province. Men wear layers of suits according to different ages. Usually, the younger the people are, the more layers they can wear. Clothes not only reflect a minority group’s culture, but also showcase the corresponding natural environment.

In the exhibition, Hezhe (赫哲) people’s fish-skin coats open a new window for visitors to learn about ethnic minorities’ uncommon clothes. As a minority living by Heilong River, they make a living by fishing. The skin from the local chum salmon became material to sew clothes.

The exhibition also displays Han costumes from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in Zhejiang Province. The traditional coat style for women in the area was embroidered with patterns of flowers, birds and immortals on collars, cuffs and hems.

In addition to the exhibits, the museum will host seminars and hands-on classes to teach visitors how to make costumes and accessories. Meanwhile, the traditional craft of indigo dyeing is also being presented during the exhibition. People could get the latest information and apply for these activities through their official WeChat account (hangzacm).

“Timeless Style of Chinese Ethnic Attire” exhibition

Date: Through June 16, closed on Mondays

Address: 334 Xiaohe Rd

Admission: Free

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