Clothing and Social Status

views updated

Clothing and Social Status


Official Colors. From the Tang (618-907) to Song (960-1279) dynasties purple, scarlet, green, and blue were kept exclusively for use by officials with rank, while all others were prohibited from using them. In 674 the emperor issued a decree to enforce this policy because many unauthorized people were wearing these colors under their outer garments. In the early Tang period officials without rank and commoners were permitted to wear only yellow and white; in later years ordinary folk were permitted to wear black. In Ming times (1368-1644) males were allowed to wear garments of various colors except yellow. Females were permitted to wear purple, green, peach, and other light colors, except scarlet, blue black, or yellow. Their formal clothing might be dyed purple.

Lower Classes. Customarily regarded as inferior to commoners, merchants had the colors of their clothing regulated from time to time. Since slaves, servants, actors, prostitutes, and government runners were considered humble and were not on the same level as commoners, their dress was distinguished from all others. In Tang times male and female slaves wore yellow and white dresses, but female slaves could also wear blue and green outfits. In Yuan times (1279-1368) prostitutes wore black-purple clothes and males in their families bound their heads with blue scarves. In Ming times actors wore green scarves; musicians only wore bright green, pink, jade, peach, and tea-brown, with red or green belts; and singing girls wore black vests. Government runners in the early days wore black robes, which were later colored light blue.

Materials. The fabric in one’s clothing differed in accor-dance with one’s social status. Brocade or embroidery, and all varieties of fine silk, were worn only by certain persons. In Tang times only highly ranked officials were permitted to wear fine silks; ordinary people and slaves wore coarse silks and wool. Government runners were allowed to wear only coarse silks. During the Ming dynasty commoners were permitted to wear plain gauze silks but not brocade. The use of gold embroidery and shiny materials was severely regulated; those who violated the regulations were penalized, and the offending garment was confiscated. Among the four classes of common people only farmers could wear coarse silks, gauze, and cotton. Merchants wore only coarse silks and cotton. Moreover, if a member of an agricultural family was a merchant, no one in that family could wear ordinary silk or gauze. Buddhist and Daoist monks in Ming times were permitted to wear only coarse silk and cotton.

Furs and Hats. During Ming times, merchants, officials without rank, servants, prostitutes, actors, and all people of lower class were prohibited from wearing sable. Hats also were regulated. In Yuan times common people were not permitted to ornament their hats with gold or jade. During the Ming dynasty, officials without rank and commoners were not permitted to wear hats with buttons on top, and all ornaments had to be of crystal or sandal-wood. Cap rings could not be made of gold, jade, agate, coral, or amber.

Shoes and Boots. During the Tang dynasty women in the families of officials without rank and ordinary people were not permitted to wear boots or shoes of certain colors. In Yuan times the commoners were not permitted to have designs on their boots. In early Ming the lower classes could neither have designs on their boots nor embellish them with gold thread. In 1379 the Ming court decreed that common people, government runners, merchants,

physicians, and diviners could wear only leather boots, while officials, their fathers, brothers, paternal uncles, brothers’ sons, and sons-in-law could wear satin boots.

Jewelry. From the Tang to Ming dynasties common people were not permitted to wear jewelry of jade, gold, or silver. In Tang days commoners could wear only copper and iron. In Song times officials with rank could put jade, gold, silver, or rhinoceros horn on their belts, while common people, artisans, and merchants could use only copper, iron, or black jade for embellishment. Differences were also identified in minor items of decoration. In Yuan and Ming times officials of the first, second, and third ranks were permitted to have fine gauze curtains ornamented with gold flower designs; those of the sixth rank and below were permitted to use plain fine gauze; ordi-nary people were allowed coarse silk. In Ming times officials of the first through fifth ranks could have their mattresses and comforters made of fine hempen cloth, brocade, or embroidery; those from the sixth to ninth ranks were permitted fine silk gauze, ordinary silk, or coarse silk; and common people could use only ordinary silk, coarse silk, or lower-grade cloth.

Women. A woman’s social standing depended on the status of her father before marriage and on that of her husband or son after marriage. The mother or wife of an official was given the right to wear certain garments, which varied according to the rank of the husband or son, at weddings and other occasions. Dresses and ornaments of these women were distinguishable from those of lesser-ranked wives. In 732 the Tang court ordered that mothers or wives of officials could dress in line with the rank of their husbands or sons; those higher than the fifth rank were allowed to wear mauve, those higher than the ninth rank crimson. In Yuan times the mothers and wives of officials of the first, second, and third ranks could wear gold dresses; fourth- and fifth-ranked women could use gold vests; and sixth-, seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-level women could wear spangled-gold vests. Common women were not allowed to wear such clothing.

Limitations. In Tang through Yuan times only mothers and wives of officials with rank were permitted to wear gold, pearls, and jade. Women commoners, no matter how rich their family, were banned from wearing them. In Song times lower-class women were prohibited from embellishing their dresses with spangled gold, splashed gold, or pearls. Yuan women of the sixth rank could wear gold ornaments but could only use pearls for earrings. Ordinary women were allowed chrysoprase hairpins, gold hairpins, and earrings of gold or pearls; all other embellishments had to be of silver. In Ming times the mothers and wives of officials of the first and second ranks could put on gold, pearls, chrysoprase, and jade; those of the third and fourth ranks gold, pearls, and chrysoprase; of the fifth rank gold and chrysoprase; from the sixth rank down gold-washed silver and pearls. Ordinary women could wear head adornments of gold, pearl earrings and silver bracelets. Any other embellishment made of valuable stones or pearls was confiscated.

Utensils. Only the imperial family could use gold and jade utensils. In Song times only officials of third rank and above, and members of the imperial and consort families, could use utensils with gold corners. Officials of the first, second, and third ranks could use tea or wine utensils made of gold or jade. Those of the fourth and fifth ranks could use only gold cups. Those of the sixth rank and below could use only gold-plated cups. Ordinary people were allowed wine pots and cups made of silver. In the Ming dynasty dukes, marquises, and officials of the first and second ranks used wine pots and cups made of gold, while all other utensils were made of silver. Officials of the third, fourth, and fifth ranks used gold cups, but silver was used on their wine utensils. Those of the sixth rank and below used wine utensils made of silver. Ordinary people used wine pots made of tin and cups made of silver, with all other utensils made of porcelain or lacquer. In Ming times ordinary people and Buddhist and Daoist monks were prohibited from using gold-decorated furniture and gold or silver wine utensils.


Valery M. Garrett, Chinese Clothing: An Illustrated Guide (Hong Kong &, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Tung-tsu Chu, Law and Society in Traditional China (Paris: Mouton, 1961).

Zhou Xun and Gao Chunming, 5000 Years of Chinese Costumes (San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals, 1987; Hong Kong: Commercial Press, 1987).

About this article

Clothing and Social Status

Updated About content Print Article