China Fashion Icons, the title alone screams for “the hen that crowed” aka the empress who effectively ruled the Tang Dynasty (618-907) empire. Against all-male official odds, Wu Zhao (624–705), aka Empress Wu Zetian, became the first and only woman emperor of China. Iconic, by definition.
With her exceptional intelligence, the “unexpected” politically well-versed Wu Zetian heaved with extravagant ambition. Girl ended up ruling as the “Holy and Divine Emperor” for 15 years.
Even though Wu died over 1,300 years ago, she remains a well-known figure in China’s past and the controversy surrounding her persona ebbs and flows. So, when speaking of China Fashion Icons, we reckoned it was…
High Temper time to take a look at the manners and modes of the Wu era. Meanings included.
Rewind. After the 2014-15 Hunan Television period drama The Empress of China received a tiny makeover because the powers-that-be deemed the clothing worn by the show’s actresses too skimpy, a feisty debate on the TV censorship of “plunging” – we use the term loosely — necklines spread like online wildfire. With the show, starring Fan Bingbing as Wu Zetian (, set in the Tang Dynasty, a period of poetic beauty and blooming creativity that made China one of the world’s greatest cultural centers at the time – the Middle Kingdom, what’s in a name — many wondered why it would be seen as inappropriate in today’s modern age to display a hint of cleavage – after all, so did their ancestral China Fashion Icons.
Anyhoo, zee boobiez censorship was considered a huge blow to sartorial virtuosity according to the show’s fashion aficionados.
However, while viewers were cooing over the stunning dresses before their TV-adoring eyes—prior to the entrance of the more puritan paint brush, experts on the Tang period pointed out that many of the details on dramatic display were, well, wrong. According to them, while women during the Tang weren’t shy about showing a bit of skin, it was nothing like the TV show portrayed. Duly noted.
During the Tang, the Silk Roads were at their height of influence. During Wu’s life, overland trade routes brought massive entrepreneurial opportunities with the West and other parts of Eurasia, making Chang’an, capital of the Tang Empire, the most cosmopolitan of the world’s cities. Although merchants dealt for and traded many goods, commerce involving textiles, minerals, and spices was particularly prominent. With such avenues of contact, Tang China was ready for changes in society and culture.
With Wu at the imperial helm – for a while, at least.
The Silk Status of China Fashion Icons
Socially, the position of Tang women was one somewhat superior to their predecessors. As professor of Asian History at the University of North Florida and Wu biographer Dr. N. Harry Rothschild noted in his 2017 publication Wu Zhao: Ruler of Tang Dynasty China, the fashion icon emerged “at the right time in an incredibly liberal time in China’s ‘medieval’ period.” Rather than being strictly confined to the inner chambers of dwellings, Tang women were assertive, active, and more visible; they rode horses, donned male attire — yep, yep, yep — and participated in politics. Tang princesses tended to be somewhat arrogant and often chose their own husbands. Some were even as ambitious as Wu in their quest for political power. Such a relatively liberal and open society provided ambitious women like Wu with an opportunity to flex their political muscles.
The variety, quantity, and quality of textiles during the Tang reached an unprecedented high following progress in the development of textiles, silk reeling, and cloth dyeing techniques from the Sui Dynasty (581-618). Fashion became the in vogue pursuit. There were three types of cloth that were used to create clothing during the Tang: wool, linen, and silk. Out of the three, silk was the most difficult and expensive to manufacture and thus indicated social status. The color of the silk further suggested the level of social class in the scheme of bureaucracy. During the Tang, only the imperial family and aristocats – no, that’s not a typo — were allowed to wear silk.
There were 10 types of textiles that were recognized by the Bureau of Weaving and Dyeing in Chang’an – who said fashion wasn’t political. Two of the types were linen and woolens; the rest were different types of silk: chiffons, damasks, satins, you name them. Aristocratic women of the Tang Dynasty wore two-piece outfits made of the different types of silk, further complemented by hair, makeup, and accessories.
The point of each outfit was to emphasize the individual’s beauty based on their social background.
Unhooked and unleashed
During the early days when Wu was still just one of Emperor Tang Taizong’s concubines and had not yet attained China Fashion Icon status, women’s dresses were still very similar to those seen in the previous Sui Dynasty: conservative, with high necklines. One type of hat, the mili — characters and tones as of yet unknown, shame on us, had a very long veil that covered a woman’s face and body, allowing the wearer to see the world while staying hidden.
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 from gold, silver, or ivory and were decorated with precious jewels, jade, and pearls. Kingfisher feathers were also very popular.
However, things eventually changed as the atmosphere of the overall society became more open. Some outgoing women chose to no longer wear the mili as they didn’t mind if strangers saw their faces and were even confident enough to wear clothing that was a bit more revealing.
Tang dresses actually borrowed many elements from the Middle Kingdom’s ethnic minority styles, none of which focused on revealing skin but finally resulted in shapes more reminiscent of a modern-day jacket. And as we mentioned earlier, some of the fashionable It girls of the day even wore men’s clothing. They were starting to feel unhooked, unleashed. Free to be.
On the prowl for…?
Freedom — by a certain pop icon, the late George Michael, sing along if you know the song. When Wu reigned as emperor, ideas about female empowerment spread throughout the country and reached a peak. Women felt confident and decided to wear whatever they liked and reveal their skin whenever they wanted.
Relationships, too, were freer during the Tang. Women could more easily remarry and society lacked the virgin complex that cropped up during later periods, and so sex before marriage was acceptable for many people. Some historians hold that Wu possibly influenced these attitudes about sexuality and women; as she herself enjoyed somewhat of a promiscuous reputation. As befits any true icon.
Liu Shuai from Zhuangshu & Yuewu, a folk art team dedicated to recreating the arts of yore — clothing included, told Global Times in 2015, “It was possible that for women under Wu’s rule, their destiny was no longer only decided with a dress. They started to see a promising rising social stature.” The simplicity of fashion in the Wu era arguably reflected a time of feminism with a sense of strong self-respect among women.
A further legacy of Wu was women’s participation in politics. She set a vivid example; later, Princess Taiping (her daughter) and Empress Wei (her daughter-in-law) became involved in imperial politics as well. At a time somewhat closer to our Roaring Twenties 2.0, Jiang Qing (1914–1991), wife of Mao Zedong, apparently identified with Wu. Rumor had it she may have even tried to use the example of Wu as part of a propaganda campaign to claim herself the successor to Mao, but she eventually failed. Just FYI.
Wurthering Heights — Hanfu style
Well, something like that. Much like the controversy surrounding her, one might argue that the sleeve of Wu’s era has extended well into modern-day China — albeit on a far more palpable level. How so? Through a little China Fashion Tribe called hanfu (汉服 | hànfú in Chinese).
Hanfu is defined as a type of dress from any era when the Han Chinese ruled. Styles from the Tang, Song (907-1279), and Ming (1368-644) dynasties are the most popular among the tribe; flowing robes in beautiful shades, embellished with intricate designs and embroidery.
Now, when the hanfu craze first burst into sight in 2018, many regarded the trend as a symbol of young China’s surging cultural confidence, its rise driven by a mix of rising nationalism, local brand savviness, and social hype amongst China’s Gen Zers. In 2021, not only has the trend refused to dwindle, but it is targeting the masses, ever-evolving in trendy and trending strength. From Gen Z hobby to big business.
According to a 2019 report from Guangzhou-based market research firm iiMedia, the number of self-identified hanfu enthusiasts “saw a 73 percent jump to 2 million between 2017 and 2018,” with the report’s authors “estimating the market for hanfu products would hit RMB 1.4 billion (USD 200 million) in 2019.”
Fast forward… And the number of domestic hanfu enthusiasts almost doubled, “from 3.56 million in 2019 to over 6 million in 2020. In 2019 alone, the industry made over RMB 4.52 billion yuan (USD 645 million) in sales,” according to the 2021 iiMEdia stats.
The firm’s graphs further projected that the number of hanfu enthusiasts “will hit 6.89 million in 2021, with over 70 percent of the fans being Gen Zers aged 16 to 24.” The market is expected to expand up to RMB 10.16 billion by the end of this year.
The hanfu collective has expanded content from pure fashion to a full-scale revival of Chinese traditions. In July 2019, Alibaba launched its Gutao App, a social platform dedicated to hanfu shopping to meet the skyrocketing consumer interests. Then there are, of course, the Taobao stores.
Moreover, the trend of blending traditional Chinese elements (like hanfu) into one’s daily fashion routine is here to stay – among the younger generations, that is. On short video platforms Bilibili and Douyin, popular hanfu KOL content (modern-day China Fashion Icons) now includes “everyday hanfu guides” and “genderless, streetwear hanfu” as more and more aficionados and -as match their hanfu pieces with Balenciaga sneakers and Supreme hoodies.
Admittedly, this 21st Century fashion tribe may not be the direct “doing” of Wu per se, but iconic, she sure was.
Mirror, mirror on the wall…
Wu was the most cunning China Fashion Icon of them all?
FEATURED IMAGE: CHINA FASHION ICONS — FAN BINGBING PORTRAYS WU ZETIAN IN THE 2015 HUNAN TELEVISION DRAMA EMPRESS OF CHINA
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