No matter where you turn those Bardot-lined peepers, fashion designers, shops, and chains around the globe have long been taking a leaf out of the extensive fashion pages written by China’s ethnic minorities.
“Without silver or flowers a girl won’t be a girl,” ye old Miao minority saying goes. Silver is an important part of their culture, found to this day mostly in Guizhou province but also across Yunnan, Guangxi, Hunan, and Hainan Island.
All political affirmations and connotations aside (no “he said, she said” snafus today; keeping things fashionably chaste), China’s various traditional minority dress codes have had an extensive influence on clothing hangers (inter)nationwide, comprising the full scale from hard-to-handle fabrics to exuberant embroidery to fantastical earrings.
Traditionally, their textiles, techniques, and accessories are used to preserve some of the histories of the minorities who never used a written language to document their story. Today…
They are a source of artisanally treasured inspiration.
Uyghur to Miao
Located in China’s utmost western region, Xinjiang Autonomous Region (新疆省) with its greenscreen grasslands, icy blue mountain lakes, wide-stretching deserts and rapidly developing large cities (the view from a top floor in its capital of Urumqi gets more impressive by the year), harbors 47 minority groups. Largest one?
The Turkic Uyghur (boasting a 2020 headcount of 10 million), who outdo anyone when it comes to processing their artisanal silk and leather goods. With the ancient Silk Road running through their veins, their Xinjiang home-base formed a melting pot of Greek, Roman, Indian, and Islam culture, leading to a wide cultural diversity that found its way into the local wardrobes.
The most distinctive Uyghur feature would have to be the daily-worn cap, referring to age, position occupation, and ethnic origin. Temper, in all fairness, possesses a weakness for the large handwoven Atlas silk squares emblazoned with wildly colorful flowery motives produced in the area. “Atlas” is in fact a traditionally handwoven pattern (on silk). Worn by Uyghur men and women, the fabric embodies their wisdom and history; establishing a connection to their vibrant past and hopes for a bright future.
From graphic prints, it’s only a small leap to embroidery, brocades, and batik, yet more characteristics found across the tradition-prescribed clothing. Especially renowned for their sewing skills are the Miao (9.4 million of ’em currently), located in China’s southwestern Guizhou Province (we’re bouncing from place to province, as usual). Often depicting the natural landscape surrounding them, their most commonly depicted motives include flowers, birds, and other fauna.
From aprons to dresses to baby carriers to shoes and towering headwear, the Miao processing techniques are the primi (primae?) inter pares, with colors often being on the more earthy-honed side. On the brighter side of the color palette, we might find the Yunnan province motives; minor detail.
Should you be on the lookout for a more contemporary twist on these “knits”; then, for example, literally embrace your body with the Pillowbook lingerie brand. Founder and designer Irene Lu often incorporates intricate embroidery in her undergarments. Just a little tip for the saucier snookums out there.
Silky Paws to Silver Linings
Speaking of Yunnan province (the bright home to 25 minority groups)… As we swiftly sweep through China’s southern areas, we stumble upon another firm favorite: the silver gems. Cap adornments, XL drop earrings or brooches, and bracelets; the entire shiny shebang is present among the many minorities settled there since the 19th century. While in the majority of China’s population — again, the Han — the favorite materials for ornaments are jade, gold, silk, and ivory, for ethnic minorities silver is the main protagonist.
Silver signifies beauty, affluence, and is a talisman against evil spirits; the bigger, fancier, and more ornate the better.
With the location’s earliest silver accessories dating back to the Song dynasty (907-1279), these craftsmen know their molding and carving, often inlaying the basic pieces with precious stones, including agate, jasper, and turquoise.
Miao women, for example, wear extremely ornate silver headdresses, collars, breastplates, chains, aprons, and back pendants that often hang down to the waist, as well as bracelets, earrings, hairpins, and bells on special occasions like festivals, such as weddings and folkloric dances. The crown-like headdresses are so tall and elaborate they resemble chandeliers. Curved silver horns sometimes top the headdresses, whose raised patterns can depict dragons playing with a pearl.
A woman’s silver ensemble can weigh more than 20kg — yep, Temper does metric.
Designs are intricately embossed into flower, butterfly, animal, and spiral shapes, with delicate filigree. From the time a Miao woman is a child, she has silver jewelry she inherits from her family. By the time she weds, her collection grows as her family buys more ornaments.
With an array of 56 ethnic groups covering the vast mainland of China – the largest of whom are the Han (汉族) with approximately 1.2 billion descendants (say, 92 percent of the overall population) as of 2020 — one can infuse any outfit with a mad minority bump in a straight stitch second.
Tempted to get your slinky paws on any of the aforementioned? Let us present you with a few modern-takers on China’s traditional styles.
Bringing Tradition to Contempo Temptation
Temper shines a quick white-hot light on a handful of favorite contempo takers on tradition.
Enter Angel Chang of Atelier ANGEL CHANG, a rising star of innovative fashion design with the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award and Cartier Women’s Initiative Award under her belt for such advancements like self-heating linings and color-changing prints. An urban New Yorker, Chang had little to do with traditional Chinese craft until she discovered that the hand-woven fabrics of the Chinese Miao and Dong minorities were on the verge of disappearing, and rushed to preserve the craft through her collections.
Arriving in China’s Guizhou province in 2009, Chang began to work closely with the weavers and embroiderers of several local mountain villages, producing entirely hand-woven and hand-embroidered traditional fabrics. The entire process, from cotton planting to fabric dying, used no electricity and no artificial elements – the fabric was dyed using native wild plants.
As Chang tells Temper, “For my collections, I use natural plant dyes foraged from the surrounding mountain forests or grown on farmland. These plants must be picked fresh and used immediately. This means that we can only collect and process them when they are available in nature – a pale yellow flower in May, black tree bark in August. My production calendar is consequently scheduled around those seasonal limitations,”
INSULAiRE is a menswear label based between Paris and Beijing, originally established by Chinese designer and Esmod le grand Paris graduate Zhikai Yang who was born and raised in southernmost China’s island province of Hainan. Re-interpreting tradition by drawing from the ever-encapsulating Chinese heritage, the brand produces wearable garments that speak to the innovative and fresh interpretations of cross-cultures and globalized design.
INSULAiRE presents a profound understanding of craftsmanship, weaving in artisanal craftsmanship throughout the brand’s collections. From Li Minority (黎族 in Chinese) handwoven fabrics to Dong Minority (侗族 in Chinese)
natural dyeing techniques such as the indigo and mud ones. Re-using the aforementioned little-known traditional handcraft endows both the process and its result with new meaning.
Shanghai-based klee klee deals in easy well-designed clothes with fresh silhouettes and bold shots of colors, for women, men, and kids, plus accessories and interior products. The main collections in neutrals and brights are often punctuated with vivid rainbows and artisanal textiles made during collaborations with China’s ethnic minorities such as the Dulong community (Yunnan province) — within the Naze Naze project framework.
On the one hand celebrating the ageless beauty of traditional weaving techniques, the label still manages to exude a sense of timelessness with modern designs.
Beijing fashion bastion Kathrin von Rechenberg promotes “a national treasure” kinda Chinese fabric, gambiered Canton gauze or xiang yun sha (香云纱|xiāng yún shā or “fragrant cloud yarn”) — a fabric unique to the nation’s Guangdong province. Its trade once criticized as a breeding ground for capitalism and its traditional methods of manufacturing now nearly lost, not all hope for artisan fashion has been abandoned…
Available in black and brown depending on the technology of the times, this fabric once welcomed only by China’s upper classes wanting to reflect luster and lucre, to this day remains a luxury that is hard to come by. Xiang yun sha in 2008 was included on China’s “National Intangible Cultural Heritage List” and recognized by the public as a traditional culture and fashion product.
This silky fabric — the birth of which could not do without the sunshine and soil south of the Nanling Mountain range, the intensive labor of skillful workers assisted by facilitating natural conditions — is first dyed with the extract from the dyeing yam, a plant unique to the area, and then processed with mud rich in minerals dug up from the riverbeds. Finally, then, the fabric is dried in the sun. #TemperTeachings
China’s minorities’ different decorations are only one styling aspect of what sets them apart from one another; their artisanal ways of production — from weaving to dyeing — showcase a respect for Mother Earth and binds them together into one powerful modern-day fashion inspiration.