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56 Ethnic Costume


56 Ethnic Costume


Ethnic clothes set int'l fashion trends

If you are a fashion follower, you'll be familiar with Nokia 7200, the visually stunning, trend-setting mobile phone released earlier this year.

01A Tajik woman in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, shows off her traditional dress.

Its modern, stylish look is an important element of men's fashion this year.

But the pattern is by no means a new invention. Similar patterns have actually been used by some ethnic minority groups living in the remote areas of China, for maybe 1,000 years or more.

By the end of last month in Beijing, dozens of ethnologists from home and abroad marvelled at their traditional costumes, while visiting the Museum of Ethnic Costumes under the Beijing Institute of Clothing Technology.

Modern elements, for example patterns similar to that of Nokia 7200, were frequently found in some of the traditional clothes.

Yang Yuan, curator of the museum, said this was thought-provoking.

"It might be a good choice for Chinese fashion designers to base their inspiration on ethnic costumes. The more it is national, the more it is international," Yang said.

With a lack of international fashion brands and designers, China has made fewer contributions to the world's fashion industry than it should have.

Between November 27 and 28, the visiting ethnologists attended a symposium on how to extend better protection of China's ethnic garments.

The "Cultural Heritage and Ethnic Costumes," symposium was held by the Chinese Ethnological Society and the Beijing Institute of Clothing Technology.

Ethnic costumes

China is home to 56 ethnic groups, whose own characteristics and traditions are expressed in their unique clothes and ornaments with distinctive decoration.

02The Jino people, who mainly live in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, love singing and dancing.

Ethnic costumes are often considered as providing a record of history and folklore and bear the totems of the minorities' beliefs.

Yang's museum is home to rare and bountiful collections.

It boasts the country's most complete Miao collection, as well as the clothing of southern ethnic groups such as the Zhuang, and those of northern ethnic groups such as the Uygur.

It also has collections of ethnic metallic accessories, brocades, embroidered items and batiks.

These materials have elaborate designs and workmanship and also relate the myths, customs and culture of each group.

All the exhibits were collected one by one by Yang and her colleagues at the museum.

Yang began collecting as early as 1990, when she was invited by the Beijing Institute of Clothing Technology to help set up the museum.

"It was a very strenuous task. Ethnic costumes are now rare even in regions themselves. In most circumstances, when we take a fancy to an item, the owner is very reluctant to sell to us. We often need to spend a great deal of time, maybe several months or even longer, to negotiate with them," Yang said.

Yang spent two years persuading the descendants of a Mongolian princess to get hold of some of her headwear.

On another occasion, while chasing the leader of a county in the Tibet Autonomous Region who refused to sell her a tiger robe handed down from his family, Yang fell off her horse and broke her leg. This actually moved the owner to sell the robe to her.

Yang deems her work very important.

As well as giving inspiration to today's fashion designers, studying traditional clothing has significance in many other aspects.

A costume reflects an ethnic group's traditional value and concepts, and carries a nation's culture, she said.

Customs and conventions, art traditions, religious beliefs, ways of life and so on, are all represented to some extent by the costumes and accoutrements of various minorities, she said.

Yang's view was echoed by experts attending the symposium.

A careful study of these costumes provides a better understanding of these minorities, said Qi Chunying from the Central University of Nationalities.

Yang also believes her museum gives good lessons on patriotism.

"Knowing more about the history of Chinese ethnic costumes will boost our pride in being Chinese," said Yang.

Endangered clothes

However, as China modernizes, traditional garb is seriously endangered.

"Every day it is getting more and more difficult to collect pieces from the ethnic regions. Ten years ago it was much easier because at that time many people were still wearing the clothes," Yang said.

Today society is developing so quickly that modern lifestyles have arrived in almost every corner of China.

As the result of the popularity of synthetic fibres and changes in youngsters' tastes, many ethnic people choose more convenient modern clothing as their daily wear, dressing in their unique costumes only on festival occasions or during traditional ceremonies.

Even in regions where ethnic costumes are still the main style, they have been simplified, as Yang has discovered, for example, replacing embroidery with printed cloth.

Experts are also worried that traditional techniques of clothes-making are disappearing and fewer people are learning how to make them.

The exhibit includes one garment made of the skin of carp, chum salmon and pike.

It was collected from the Hezhe people living in Northeast China, the only people in China to use fish skin for this purpose.

Yang said only very few old Hezhe people are aware of the technique of making cloth with fish skin.

The techniques could die with these elderly people - if it weren't for Yang and her colleagues.

In collecting the clothes, Yang also brings a documentary crew with her. The crew recorded the production process of many ethnic costumes, including this fish skin costume.

Yang and her colleagues, as well as some volunteers, have also learned to make the clothes themselves, staying with local farmers to learn the skills. Yang said she would remember remarks by a well-known French fashion designer when the museum's items were exhibited last year in Paris.

"He said he hoped that all the fashion forecasts of 2004 could be traced in my exhibits," Yang said.

Costumes of Ethnic Minorities in China

Clothes of Chinese ethnic minorities are flowery and colorful, extremely exquisite, and highly distinctive. They constitute an important part of the rich history and culture of the ethnic groups.

03A pleated skirt

Every aspect of their garments, such as raw materials, textile technology, fashion and decoration, retains a distinct characteristic of the ethnic group and the locality. The Hezhen ethnic minority people, who mainly make a living on fishing, used to make clothes with fishskin. The hunting ethnic groups, such as Oroqen and Ewenki, used roe skin and animal tendon to stitch up their clothes. The Mongolians, Tibetans, Kazakstans, Khalkhases, Yugurs, etc., who are mainly engaged in stockbreeding, make their apparel mostly from animal skin and hair. And, farming ethnic minorities usually take the locally produced cotton or hemp thread as raw materials to spin cloth and silk and make clothes.

Ethnic minorities' spinning and weaving, tanning and felting techniques boast a long history. For example, bombax cloth of the Li ethnic minority, woolen fabric of the Tibetan, Adelis silk of the Uygur, fur products of the Oroqen have enjoyed a worldwide reputation all along.

There are numerous clothing designs and forms in Chinese ethnic minorities. Generally speaking, they can be classified into two types: long gowns and short clothes. People usually wear a hat and boots to match long gowns, and headcloth and shoes to match short clothes. The gowns take various forms: the high-collar and big-front type worn by the Mongolian, the Manchu, the Tu and so on; the collarless tilted-front type worn by the Tibetan, the Moinba and so on; the tilted-front type worn by the Uygur and other ethnic minorities; and so on. As for short clothes, they fall into two types: trousers and skirts.

04In terms of fashion of skirts, there are pleated skirts, tube skirts, short skirts, one-piece dress and so on. In any kind of clothes, no matter it is the gown, the coat, the skirt, or the trousers, different ethnic minority groups employ different structures, techniques and styles. Take high-collared big gowns for example. Some of them have kick pleat, some don't have any kick pleat, some have kick pleat both in front and on the back, and some have front and back kick pleat and edging all around. Women of the Li, the Dai, the Jingpo, the De'ang ethnic minorities and so on all wear tube skirts, but those tube skirts worn by the Li are brocade skirts made of cotton, those worn by the Jingpo are woolen multicolored skirts, those worn by the De'ang are skirts with horizontal stripes, and those worn by the Dai are usually skirts made of common cloth.

Costumes of ethnic minorities vary greatly not only with different nationalities, but also with different branches and different regions within the same ethnic group. Difference can be seen from province to province, from county to county, and even from village to village. Costume is the most obvious symbol of an ethnic group, and in the history, many ethnic groups were named just according to their garments.

In a vast country like China, with so many ethnic groups and an unbalanced social development, styles of clothes vary a lot due to different economic lives, cultural levels, natural environments and geographical conditions and climatic conditions. This is one of the characteristics of folk garments.

Some techniques of Chinese ethnic minorities such as embroidery and batik are much developed, and are widely used in making clothing adornments. This is another feature of their costumes.

Embroidery is a technique generally favored by all ethnic groups, and it is usually used in the headband, the waistband, the apron, and some rapid-wearing parts such as the border of the front, the round shoulder, the lower hem, the wristband, the bottom of trouser legs, the edge of the skirt, etc., being both decorative and practical. Embroidery techniques include cross-stitch work, applique, embroidering and so on; methods include surface, twine, chain, net, stab and stack embroidery, etc; patterns include natural scenes, auspicious patterns and geometric patterns and so on.

Chinese ethnic costumes dazzle Washington audiences

Models wearing ancient Chinese ethnic costumes stand on a stage during the "Splendid China - Exhibition of Ethnic Costumes from Ancient Chinese Dynasties & Nationalities," at the John F. Kennedy Arts Center in Washington DC, July 19, 2010. The exhibition, a fusion of ancient dress, etiquette, and cultural elements with modern fashion and visual technologies, received an ovation from the local audience.

A model wears a white Chinese ethnic costume to show Chinese culture during the "Splendid China" exhibit at the John F. Kennedy Arts Center in Washington DC, July 19, 2010.

A performer dances on stage during the "Splendid China" exhibit at the John F. Kennedy Arts Center in Washington DC, July 19, 2010.

A Chinese model walks backstage during the "Splendid China" exhibit at the John F. Kennedy Arts Center in Washington DC, July 19, 2010.