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Ancient China

The Ancient World and Fashion > Peoples of the South and East
Colorful silk robes covered
Chinese nobles wore colorful silk robes covered with embroidery
Nail protectors
Nail protectors
Terracotta warrior
Terracotta warrior

A round 5000 BCE people began farming along the banks of the Yellow River. After a thousand years, farmers began to grow rice, and around 2700 BCE they discovered how to make silk. From that time on, wealthy people in China wore exquisite robes woven from this material.

Making Silk

Silk thread is produced by silkworms that spin their thread into tightly bound cocoons. The ancient Chinese discovered that if they soaked these cocoons in hot water, the threads would loosen, making it possible to unwind the silk thread onto a stick. Once the thread was collected, several strands were twisted together to make threads thick enough for weaving. By creating threads of different thicknesses, the Chinese could weave a range of different silk cloths, from light gauzes to heavy brocades. Silk was woven on looms to make fine cloth, but was also used for embroidery thread. The Chinese soon learned to embroider exquisite patterns onto silk cloth, often using a contrasting color. Some silk was made into beautiful clothes, and some was taken by merchants who traveled to the West, where silk sold for enormous prices. Soon, Chinese silk was so famous that the trading route that ran across Asia to Europe became known as the Silk Road.

Fancy Fingernails

Around 3000 BCE wealthy people in China began to paint their fingernails. The colors used depended on rank. China’s early rulers wore gold and silver nail polish, but by the time of the emperors the royal colors were red and black. Well-manicured nails were a symbol of a high social position. They emphasized the difference between the nobility and the workers, who had to labor with their hands.

Emperors and Nobles

In 221 BCE Qin Shi Huangdi established China's first empire. He established a pattern of living very grandly, and the emperors that followed him built magnificent palaces where they lived with their courtiers. Emperors and nobles wore wide-sleeved, flowing silk robes, which crossed over at the front and were fastened by a high belt. The robes included long, trailing sashes and were covered with embroidered designs. Emperors and nobles often wore their beards and moustaches long. Emperors had elaborate caps decorated with tassels, while nobles usually wore their hair tied in a topknot and covered with a small, silken cap.

Working Dress

The Chinese had strict rules about dress. No merchants were allowed to wear silk, and farmers and craftworkers dressed very simply. Some wore cotton loincloths,while others had loose tunics and pants. On their feet they wore sandals made from rushes or straw. In the warm, wet south, peasants working in the fields wore wide-brimmed, cone-shaped hats to protect them from the sun and rain.

Chinese Warriors

The enormous tomb of the first emperor of China contains more than seven thousand life-sized model warriors, placed there to guard his body. Made from terracotta and originally brightly painted, the warriors wear knee-length tunics. Some warriors have their hair tied in a topknot and wear a simple headband, but the officers sport elaborate bonnets with two wings at the top that tie under the chin. Some of the warriors carried real crossbows, which were set to fire if anyone dared to enter the tomb.

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