Theses Doctoral

Dressing for the Times: Fashion in Tang Dynasty China (618-907)

Chen, Bu Yun

During the Tang dynasty, an increased capacity for change created a new value system predicated on the accumulation of wealth and the obsolescence of things that is best understood as fashion. Increased wealth among Tang elites was paralleled by a greater investment in clothes, which imbued clothes with new meaning. Intellectuals, who viewed heightened commercial activity and social mobility as symptomatic of an unstable society, found such profound changes in the vestimentary landscape unsettling. For them, a range of troubling developments, including crisis in the central government, deep suspicion of the newly empowered military and professional class, and anxiety about waste and obsolescence were all subsumed under the trope of fashionable dressing. The clamor of these intellectuals about the widespread desire to be "current" reveals the significant space fashion inhabited in the empire - a space that was repeatedly gendered female. This dissertation considers fashion as a system of social practices that is governed by material relations - a system that is also embroiled in the politics of the gendered self and the body. I demonstrate that this notion of fashion is the best way to understand the process through which competition for status and self-identification among elites gradually broke away from the imperial court and its system of official ranks. Out of status instability grew a desire for novelty that transformed the dressed body into an object for status display during the late eighth and ninth centuries. Sartorial savvy became a critical arena for the articulation of wealth and power by the old aristocracy and new military or professional elite alike. A foundational aim of my dissertation is to understand how fashion contributed to a new system for ordering the world in Tang dynasty China. By the ninth century, changes in the Tang economic and political structure enabled the rise of a new fashionable elite whose politics of appearance were driven more by the luxury silk economy than by the old symbolic order. I argue that the emergence of fashion was intimately related to developments in the silk industry, which not only reached record production levels during this period, but also manufactured fabrics that were unprecedented in design and complexity. The rise of private silk workshops in the latter half of the dynasty made silk more available to the new military and professional elites. As consumers of novel silks, these elites propelled the silk industry forward and with it, fashion. The new silk economy was personified in a popular literary trope of the ninth century: the impoverished weaving girl slaving away in the silk workshops as an icon of the damages engendered by the excessive consumption of luxury. With this project, I illustrate how the history of Tang fashion serves as an important prism into the workings of the Tang state, the productive lives of premodern women, and the formation of social and cultural identities during a dynamic period of world history. My approach is interdisciplinary, informed by economic history, art history, literature, and textile technology. To my analysis of Tang poetry, sumptuary laws, and economic treatises, I add careful examination of the visual representations of dress and a close study of the corpus of silk artifacts to map the transformations in sartorial practice. By the end of the dynasty, fashion had become a key part of a larger critique of the waning empire's economic landscape, the rise of a new military and professional elite, and the collapse of stable status displays. Involved in a nascent market system, tied to the building of new hierarchies, and implicated in structures of gender and cultural identity, the Tang fashion system was integral to these larger historical processes.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Ko, Dorothy Yin-Yee
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 13, 2013