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Clothes and Fashion in Late Ming Dynasty China

What factors influenced the changing fashions of clothes in the late Ming Dynasty period of China?

Many countries in Asia have used laws as well as customs to determine what clothes people are permitted to wear – these laws are known as ‘sumptuary laws.’ The laws divide people according to their class and occasionally by their occupation or ethnicity. One of the great crimes of the past has been for people to pretend to be someone they were not, especially if this involved pretending to be someone from a higher class. Various reasons have contributed to this, including the association of virtue with luck. That is, the assumption existed that people born into power and wealth were not simply lucky but were somehow being rewarded for their virtue, perhaps in a previous life as Buddhism would suggest. The ways in which people spoke to each other, behaved to each other and paid taxes to each other all depended on the classes involved and, to keep the system stable, then the rules had to be policed effectively.

A variation of this system was present during the Ming Dynasty of China (1368-1644), although it was continually threatened by rises in living standards and the importance of the merchant class, especially during the later period. Fashion, as represented by clothing, appearance and accessories, was used by the ruling elites to demonstrate their standing, wealth and taste. Human factors contributed to the changing nature of fashion and the growing sophistication of international trade and manufacturing capabilities meant that the rate of change could accelerate. Both men and women were susceptible to changes in fashion although it was frequently the case that women’s bodies were the canvas on which the rich men who possessed them demonstrated their opulence and taste – whether the results were comfortable or even bearable for the women concerned (consider, for example, the practice of footbinding) was of lesser importance.

Into this situation, increasingly, the impudent merchant class interposed themselves. Offering lower cost versions of upper class clothes, they enabled the lower classes to overstep the boundaries of custom, leading to many palpitations among the upper classes. Further, by offering the lower classes the opportunity to sport attractive designs not available to the upper classes, they challenged the monopoly that the rich elites had maintained on the concept of good taste. It is not surprising to find, therefore, that the history of the period featured regular conflicts between the state, its institutions and the merchant classes. While merchants could be milked (or ‘squeezed’ as the phrase has it) for tax revenue to support the state and its elites, they also threatened to overturn the established order and be subversive agents. The act of wearing new and fashionable clothes, therefore, could be a very political and dangerous act.

For more details, see Timothy Brook’s The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China.

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