This website has been archived and is no longer updated.

The content featured is no longer current and is being made available to the general public for research and historical information purposes only.

Powerhouse Museum - Home



The Republican period: modernising Chinese dress

Evolution and revolution: Chinese dress 1700s-1990s

Political, economic and social change
The beginning of the 20th century saw much change in China: political, economic, social and cultural. The social changes gained impetus after the 1911 revolution which resulted in the demise of the Qing dynasty. Social reform led to change in dress codes too. The head shaving and queue (long plait) men had been forced to wear, to demonstrate their subservience, gradually disappeared. The practice of foot binding also decreased.

Sun Yat-sen and his wife
Sun Yat-sen and his wife Song Qingling, Shanghai, 1922. Sun Yat-sen wearing a jacket with a closed-stand collar and centre-front opening known as Qiling wenzhuang, which was popularly worn by Chinese students in Japan and south-east Asia and inspired by the Japanese student's uniform. Song Qinling wears a jacket and skirt or aoqun.

Dr Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan) was instrumental in the fall of the Qing (Ch'ing) Dynasty in 1911 and was named Provisional President of the Republic. He is popularly regarded as the father of modern China. He is also credited with the development of a form of national dress which embodied modern values and the notion of equality. What came to be known as the Sun Yat-sen suit developed over more than 50 years. It was a complex mix of:

  • Japanese Meiji period (1868-1912) student uniform
  • military dress
  • the Western suit.

Sun Yat-sen and his wife Song Qingling
Sun Yat-sen and his wife Song Qingling, Guangzhou, 1923. Sun Yat-sen wears a jacket with a turn-down collar and four symmetrically placed pockets, features which derive from Western military dress.

Black Sun Yat-sen jacket
Black Sun Yat-sen jacket (Zhongshan fu): this 1930s style, wool Sun Yat-sen suit features pleats in the top pockets, Western-style centre-back seam, waistband and vent. Powerhouse Museum collection. 98/126/40

  Wang family
Note the similarities between the Sun Yat-sen suit and the Western suit pictured. Photo courtesy: Wang family.

Sketch the Sun Yat-sen suit. Label the sketch with the features from the Japanese student uniform, German military dress and the Western suit.

For a contemporary version of the Sun Yat-sen suit see Sun Jian's trouser suit. Sun Jian is a fashion designer from mainland China.

Emancipation of women expressed through fashion
Life in China in the early 20th century was characterised by great freedom of expression. Fashion was influenced by women's emancipation and their pursuit of education, employment and independence. Western fashions also influenced dress, and styles changed rapidly, affected by the unstable political climate.
While many fashion-conscious women dressed in a Western manner, the majority chose between two forms of Chinese dress - the jacket and skirt called aoqun which had evolved from Han Chinese dress, and a one-piece garment called the qipao or cheungsam. During the early 20th century the aoqun became shorter and more tailored in response to Western dress and changes in fashion.

The most distinctive women's garment to emerge during this time was the qipao or cheungsam. This was a one-piece garment, the design of which may be traced back to Manchu dress of the Qing Dynasty. By the 1930s, the qipao became the most fashionable style of female dress. Influenced by Western fashion, it revealed a woman's body unlike any previous Chinese garment. The qipao and Sun Yat-sen suit thus came to represent modernity in Chinese clothing.

Fabric dyes

tea Both local and imported dyes were used for textiles made in China during the Republican period. Dyes were made by a number of Chinese and international companies including the well known German dye company I. G. Farben. An illustration on a dye tin in the collection of the Powerhouse Museum depicts the Ruisheng Dye Company in Tianjin, and a street parade promoting the Yuxing Dye Company. The men, wearing Sun Yat-sen suits, are walking through an archway which proclaims Long Live the Republic. Powerhouse Museum collection. 98/126/95


Poster: This is one of many posters which advertised Indantren fabric dye. The young woman wears a sleeveless dark blue cheungsam. Fabrics dyed with Indantren (from the German dye company, Farben) were very popular in the 1930s due to their colour-fastness and durability.

The company created a large range of colourful advertising material including posters, display cards and labels for fabric bolts. Powerhouse Museum collection. 95/29/12. This poster was used on the cover of the Evolution and revolution catalogue.

HSC technology syllabses support - HOME space Evolution and revolution: Chinese dress 1700s-1990s