Clothing in ancient China reflects the evolution of the country itself. Not only did it embody a core tension between nomadic tribes and dynastic culture, but differences in fashion also represented differences in social class. A particularly significant example of ancient Chinese clothing is the traditional garment known as the hanfu, which expressed gradations in status even as it symbolized the unity of civilization and style.

Neolithic Nomads

Garments from approximately 3800 years ago have been found at burial sites in northwestern China, a region populated with nomadic tribes. Clothes found at these sites include wool robes and trousers, wool cloaks with fringe tassels; fur overcoats, fur-lined leather boots, felt hats with pointed tops, mittens and socks. The woolen garments of the nomadic tribes of ancient northern China were considered to be barbaric elsewhere, and differences between nomadic style and clothing considered to be civilized went on to become a fundamental tension within ancient Chinese culture.

Silk and Social Status

China's Ministry of Culture notes that the origins of Chinese fashion lie in the reign of Huang Di, known as the Yellow Emperor. Silk, hemp and cotton were standard clothing fabrics. Silk clothes were associated with the upper class, and hemp was for centuries the standard fabric for those outside China's elite until it eventually was supplanted by cotton. The clothing of China's elite was also characterized by elaborate decoration, such as embroidered patterns, vivid colors or complex stylized construction.

The Hanfu and Confucianism

The traditional garment worn in ancient China since the Shang Dynasty, which flourished from approximately 1600 to 1000 B.C., was the hanfu, named after the Han people. Although styles varied over time, the hanfu consisted of a tunic with sleeves and a sash. Depending on the style the tunic could be worn by itself or with trousers or a skirt. A defining characteristic of the hanfu was that the tunic's left panel was draped over the right. The hanfu's central place in ancient Chinese style was solidified by its association with Confucianism, which integrated the hanfu into its rituals.

Social Stratification

Clothing in ancient China became associated with social stratification in ways that went beyond the use of silk fabric by China's elite. For example, the third century B.C. Book of Guanxi called for differentiations in style based on rank within the ruling class as well as between the ruling class and ordinary people. Similarly, clothes were differentiated by activity, with specific styles associated with government functions, hunting, weddings, mourning and other activities.