China’s Loss and Reclamation of Cultural Heritage Through Fashion

China is a nation credited with having one of the richest cultures in history. Behind every element of Chinese life there is an extensive narrative, especially concerning fashion.

Traditional dress of Chinese Han natives and minorities has evolved countless times. Clothes were an indication of status, class, and background. One garment which embodies this well is the qipao, or cheongsam. After becoming the ruling power of China, Manchu (an ethnic minority group) imposed their traditional dress on Han men. Han women were not subject to the same laws, however as Manchu continued to rule China, ‘upper class Han and Manchu women started to imitate each other’s styles’ (Wu, 2009). Consequently, the Manchu staple of the qipao (fig. 1) became increasingly ingrained into the hybrid culture. In 1927, a new qipao (fig. 2) was introduced to unite various components of Chinese heritage, and create ‘a national garment for Chinese women’ (Wu, 2009). It was an altered version of the traditional dress, incorporating Western dressmaking techniques like ‘darts, set-in sleeves [to create a] formfitting’ structure (Wu, 2009).

During 1966, this symbol of Chinese history and culture was dubbed inherently evil, along with ancient artefacts and sacred sites as Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution engulfed China. Mao sought to ‘stamp out everything that was old, feudal, or foreign’ (Wu, 2009). His objective was to completely reform China, with no ties to any of her ‘old customs, old habits, old culture…old thinking’ (Wu 2009). ‘Mao regarded himself as God to the Chinese people’ (Newbold, 2017), and therefore every aspect of life was dictated as he saw fit, with no regard for cultural significance. All was drab- a far cry from the delicate embroidery and exciting prints so loved before. My mother, who was brought up during the revolution, recalls this: ‘Everyone wore the same three colours (fig. 3) inspired by the clothing of the USSR’ (2017). The Soviet influence in the garments reflect its grasp on the whole culture. In Mao’s quest for reformation, China was becoming less itself, and more a microcosm of USSR culture.

Political Poster
Fig. 3; political poster, featuring good examples the clothing and limited colour palette of the time; 1971, China

When the revolution came to an end, China needed to find itself again. After a period of modernisation and following in the footsteps of the West, the Chinese people looked back to their history and embraced their culture once again.

It is now a mélange of East and West, where fast-fashion European brands rub shoulders with local designers who preserve the traditional styles of before.




  1. Manchu woman’s informal court robe. (n.d.) St. Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum. [online image]. Available from: [Accessed 25 October 2017]
  2. C. 1930 qipao. (n.d.). London: (C) Victoria and Albert Museum. [online image]. Available from: [Accessed 25 October 2017]
  3. Cultural Revolution political poster.千里野营练红心 (A Thousand Miles in the Wilderness Forge Red Hearts). (1971). Spartanburg: Wofford College: Fine Arts Collection. [online image]. Available from: [Accessed 25 October 2017]



Newbold, L. (2017). Telephone conversation with author. 25 October.

Wu, J.J. (2009). Chinese Fashion: From Mao to Now. Oxford: Berg.


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