What did people make clothing from during China’s Golden Age?
Princess Anle had the bright idea of wearing a skirt made entirely from feathers and she ordered the imperial workshops to prepare one for her. The result, apparently, was spectacular and the skirt glowed with different colours by day and by night and depending on whether the viewer was favoured with the front or the rear view of the princess. The fashion spread rapidly and hunters descended in hordes upon the birds of China – so much so, in fact, that the numbers of birds declined disastrously, causing the Divine Emperor to have the original skirt ritually burned as a way of putting an end to the craze.
However, feathers were not the only means of making clothes. Felt was an important fabric, with much of it imported from the Central Asian Steppes and used to make hats. The Steppes offered a challenging environment and any material stout enough to ward off wind, rain, snow and piercing sunlight was always going to be a boon for the urban Chinese. Additionally, clothes made from wool, linen and silk were also prevalent – although, of course, people had to be careful not to offend against the sumptuary laws which detailed which class of people were able to wear which types of clothes and jewellery.
The stature of the Tang court was such that many neighbouring countries were willing to provide tribute to the Emperor – in fact, this was most of the time really just a means of disguising the fact that the Imperial Court was indulging in commerce with foreigners, which would otherwise be considered something shameful. From Southeast Asia, Korea and Japan, then, came the bombycine, made from the cocoons of the tussah moth, while camel hair textiles, prized for their softness, came from the northwest of Tang influence. Trade along the Silk Road brought cottons from India and Pakistan – the Chinese knew about this textile but did not then make it themselves. Indian cotton clothes were known throughout the whole region and had a reputation for being colourful.
Poorer people might have to make do with fur from animals they may themselves have caught or else some form of hemp or kudzu. These coarser cloths were more or less effective in keeping out the elements and were characteristic of many of the lower orders. A final alternative was clothes made from paper, which is what one city full of people had to resort to after their possessions were devastated so thoroughly by a conquering army there was nothing else left for them to use.
For more information, see Charles Benn’s excellent China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).