Costumes of Chinese ethnic minorities are flowery, colorful, extremely exquisite, and highly distinctive. They play an important role of the rich history and culture of the ethnic groups.
Every aspect of their garments, such as raw materials, textile technology, fashion and decoration, retains a distinct characteristic of the ethnic group and the locality. The Hezhen ethnic minority people, who mainly make a living on fishing, used to make clothes with fish-skin. The hunting ethnic groups, such as Oroqen and Ewenki, used roe skin and animal tendon to stitch up their clothes. The Mongolians, Tibetans, Kazakstans, Khalkhases, Uygurs, etc., who are mainly engaged in stockbreeding, make their apparel mostly from animal skin and hair. And, farming ethnic minorities usually take the locally produced cotton or hemp thread as raw materials to spin cloth and silk and make clothes.
The spinning and weaving, tanning and felting techniques of Chinese ethnic people boast a long history. For example, bombax, cloth of the Li ethnic minority, woolen fabric of the Tibetan, Adelis, silk of the Uygur, fur products of the Oroqen have enjoyed a worldwide reputation all along.
There are numerous clothing designs and forms in Chinese ethnic minorities. Generally speaking, they can be classified into two types: long gowns and short clothes. People usually wear a hat and boots to match long gowns, and headcloth and shoes to match short clothes. The gowns take various forms. The high-collar and big-front type is worn by the Mongolian, the Manchu and the Tu. The collarless tilted-front type is worn by the Tibetan and the Moinba. The tilted-front type is worn by the Uygur and other ethnic minorities. As for short clothes, they fall into two types: trousers and skirts.
In terms of skirts, there are pleated skirts, tube skirts, short skirts and one-piece dress. In any kind of clothes, no matter it is a gown, a coat, a skirt, or trousers, different ethnic minority groups employ different structures, techniques and styles. Women of the Li, Dai, Jingpo and De’ang ethnic minorities all wear tube skirts, but those tube skirts worn by the Li are brocade skirts made of cotton, those worn by the Jingpo are woolen multicolored skirts, those worn by the De’ang are skirts with horizontal stripes, and those worn by the Dai are usually skirts made of ordinary cloth.
Costumes of ethnic minorities vary greatly not only with different nationalities, but also with different branches and different regions within the same ethnic group. Difference can be seen from province to province, from county to county, and even from village to village. Costume is the most obvious symbol of an ethnic group, and in the history, many ethnic groups were named just by their garments.
In a vast country like China, with so many ethnic groups and an unbalanced social development, styles of clothes vary a lot due to different economic lives, cultural levels, natural environments and geographical conditions and climatic conditions. This is one of the characteristics of folk garments.
Techniques such as embroidery and batik are much developed, and are widely used in making clothing adornments. This is another feature of their costumes.
Embroidery is a technique generally favored by all ethnic groups, and it is usually used in the headband, the waistband, the apron, and some rapid-wearing parts such as the border of the front, the round shoulder, the lower hem, the wristband, the bottom of trouser legs, the edge of the skirt, etc., being both decorative and practical. Embroidery techniques include cross-stitch work and appliqué. Embroidery methods include surface, twine, chain, net, stab and stack embroidery. Motifs are natural scenes, auspicious patterns and geometric patterns.
Chinese ethnic costumes are often thought to provide a record of the history and folklore and bear the totems of the minorities’ beliefs, as the weaving together of every yarn also bears the marks of the delicate craftsmanship and wisdom of people.
These costumes bear a wide range of symbols, many of which are motifs drawn from their daily life but with hidden meanings. For example, in Miao minority, birds and butterfly motifs are found, indicating that these people have once worshipped them as totems.