Grace and Beauty in Tang Dynasty Era Costume

PureInsight | May 6, 2002


When Master Li once spoke about man’s mode of dress throughout history he said, “'A dynasty's emperor has that dynasty's courtiers, there are also 'a dynasty's sovereign being has that dynasty's people,' 'dynasty's culture…' 'a dynasty's dress…' In the past, when the dynasty changed, the culture would immediately change, too, and the differences in dress were also substantial.' (From 'Teaching the Fa at the Washington, D.C. International Fa Conference' in Guiding the Voyage). From that, one can see that the costume/dress style of each dynasty had its own inner meanings.

The Dunhuang Caves in Henan Valley of Shanxi Province contain many colorful Buddhist paintings, depicting the magnificently beautiful Buddhist heavens, flying fairies and gods. When we examined the costume of Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), the most culturally prosperous period in Chinese history, we found a striking similarity to the costumes worn by gods in the Dunhuang cave paintings. There is a good explanation for the similarity. Ancient Chinese people cherished moral values and governed themselves with reason. When they showed their respect toward gods and displayed their faith in Buddhism, gods would intentionally reveal select truths of the universe to them. People would pursue and imitate the beautiful and holy visions they were granted, even imitating dress styles. This explains the similarity in costume between and the reason for the Tang Dynasty costumes and the murals in the Caves of Dunhuang.

When people pursue morality and kindness, the universe will reward them in some way, perhaps even including the blossoming of cultures, inventions of beautiful costumes and the resources to produce those costumes. Here I will briefly discuss the costume style of the Tang Dynasty. Hopefully, after learning about these beautiful costumes you will begin to ask yourself this question: “Was life in ancient times really not as great as today?”

Daily Costume for Affluent Women

Picture on the Left: long-sleeve gauze robe, a dressy outfit for every day. The hairdo was a unique Tang style, hair piled high, decorated with large flowers and flowery hairpins. An ornament dangled from the hands. Thin eyebrows and heavy rouge were in fashion. A sleeveless top was worn over a long-sleeve gauze robe that closed in front, and also a long skirt, tied up with a large ornamental chord, silk ribbons and high heels. The long-sleeve gauze robe was a typical outdoor outfit in the Tang Dynasty and was very fashionable among feudal gentlewomen.

Picture in the Center: half-sleeve gauze shirt, a fashion outfit only seen during the Tang Dynasty. It was originally designed for banquets and later used as daily wear. This style was much favored by members of the royal family and distinguished gentlewomen.

Picture on the Right: Tang Dynasty era banquet dress. The look was completed with a tight undergarment, a gauze shawl, and a chest-to-toe A-line skirt tied with soft chords. An upswept hairdo, crowned with a chignon and adorned with flower hairpins completed the look (sometimes worn as a daily outdoor outfit).

Seeing these dresses might give people the idea that people back then had a very liberal view of fashion, because the costumes revealed a bit of skin. People’s behaviors in a society are actually governed by their morals. Throughout Chinese history, different expectations in behavior towards men and women were the norm. Conventions for men and women varied. Men worked outdoors while [most] women worked indoors. Since women during the Tang Dynasty era would normally work on domestic administration at home, they would have traveled in closed-windowed carriages and sat apart from the men, in separate rooms for home banquets and other gatherings, it would not be improper for women to show a little skin.

We can imagine that well-off Tang Dynasty women must have looked very beautiful in these dresses. Their lives, compared to those of today’s women, weren’t as mechanical, tense and full of pressure. Perhaps some women are concerned that women confined to an indoor life might be subject to mistreatment from men. In reality, women being mistreated has nothing to do with the social structure of the society. Master Li had pointed the root cause of this issue in the 'Teaching the Fa at a New York Meeting' from Lectures in the United States, “It’s not that women are being mistreated by men; rather, men are also mistreating men, women are also mistreating women, and men are also mistreating women; it’s just that men’s mistreatment of women is more noticeable. Actually, there are also women who have power and mistreat men. This is caused by the moral degeneration of the entire society.” How should one resolve this issue then? Master Li suggested in the Lecture At The US East Coast Conference, “Because women acted like women, men loved to help them, respect them and care for them. At the same time, in a feminine way, women cherished their husbands. This was human behavior.”

With women’s true nature surfacing, we will again be blessed with women’s beauty, dignity and serenity.

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