Re-discovering the Chinese Wedding Dress
Updated: Dec 8, 2019
Ask someone to think of the Chinese wedding dress, and first thing that comes to mind would probably be the red-coloured kua. This two-piece outfit, usually ornamented with dragon and phoenix designs, has become the representative attire for brides at Chinese weddings in Singapore. However, a quick dip into history reveals that the kua only scrapes the surface of traditional Chinese wedding garb - this idea of “tradition" has evolved through the ages, and wedding culture, together with the wedding dress, has undergone numerous re-fashionings in response to socio-cultural change.
Although we associate red with the colour of Chinese weddings and celebrations today, this was not always the preferred shade for bride and grooms in ancient China. In the Han dynasty, the lucky couple wore black, and in the Tang dynasty, brides wore green while grooms donned red. Sometimes, blue, white, and purple were also worn, depending on what the sumptuary laws in the period allowed for, and what colour dyes were available. For most common folk, their wedding dress was simply the newest and most beautiful piece of clothing they had.
It was only in the Ming Dynasty when red became the auspicious colour for weddings - largely because the Chinese character for the founding Emperor’s surname (朱) literally meant “crimson”, and was supposedly his favourite shade. His concubines were often beautifully dressed in red, and noble ladies often wore this colour as a sign of their status. But even prior to this, the colour had been closely associated with love and romantic attachment. Beautiful ladies were referred to poetically as “红颜知己”，“红粉佳人” (rouged beauty / companion) by their admirers, and myths describe couples as being bound together by a red cord, predestined to be lovers for eternity.
In the early years of the Ming dynasty, wearing red was more likely to bring danger than good fortune, however; donning a colour reserved for the nobility was considered taboo, and regarded as an offense of ambition. But these strict laws regulating dressing were relaxed in the later part of the era, where marriage became increasingly enshrined as an important Confucian ideal. Couples, even those from non-aristocratic families, were allowed to dress above their status on their big day. Grooms could don the robes of officials of the 9th grade, and brides could wear phoenix coronets with embroidered garments. While the quality and workmanship of these items varied according to the family’s wealth, one thing was clear - the newly-weds were to be regarded with the greatest respect and admiration on this special occasion.
As such, girls from wealthy merchant families often enjoyed the same luxuries as royalty on their wedding day. Their hair was often worn in a high conical top-bun, supporting an opulently decorated phoenix crown crafted from gold and other precious materials. More elaborate crowns had tassels and gems incorporated into the design, with diancui and other heritage crafts topping off the incredibly intricate metalwork. Clothes wise, ladies wore red robes heavily embroidered with gold auspicious motifs, belts with jade or gold embellishments, and embroidered skirts with multiple pleats.
For the men, their outfits were relatively simpler as they donned an official’s formal court dress and wore a red sash across their bodies. Like the women, they also wore heavily decorated belts, and ornamented their hats with flower accessories. Given the material costs of such a lavish outfit, the wedding dress, together with the rest of the wedding ceremony, was meant to be a proclamation of the family’s wealth and status, as much as it was about celebrating the happy union of two lovers.
Today, the Chinese wedding ritual often involves the groom lifting the red veil of the bride after the solemnization. This practice was also popularised in the Ming dynasty. After the ceremony, the groom would raise the veil with his hands, or a wooden tool, and enjoy her beauty in the privacy of their nuptial chamber.
In earlier eras, brides would appear in front of the guests covering their faces with a fan, appearing all the more exquisite with their beauty half-concealed from view. Just as the Emperor’s royal visage was shielded from the prying eyes of the common masses, the partial concealment of the bride’s appearance added to her nobility and unattainability, especially now that she was another man’s wife. Functionally, the fan also served to hide any embarrassment or anxiety which the bride might face during the initial stages of the ceremony, when she first encounters a huge group of guests.
This transition from fan to veil, though seemingly inconsequential, reflects a more sobering change in the social status of women from the Tang to Ming dynasty. In the fan-lowering ritual of earlier periods, the groom would have to recite a short poem requesting for the bride to put down her fan, whereupon she would agree if the performance was up to expectations. However, with the bride being veiled in the Ming dynasty, her face (and unique identity) was completely hidden from view according to the Confucian standards of female propriety, and instead of having the agency to decide if she wished to reveal herself, she passively participates in the groom’s act of unveiling her. In certain cases, the tool used by the groom to raise the veil even formed part of the bride’s induction ritual into the family – using long wooden chopsticks would imply that the bride was expected to quickly bear children (快生贵子), while using one hand to remove the veil would suggest that the groom expected her to obey his authority. If the man were to lift the veil with both hands, the bride was considered lucky, as it suggested he was warmly receiving her into the family.
If Ming was the last Han-Chinese dynasty, where did the kua come from, and why has it come to be known as the Chinese wedding dress? Structurally, the kua most closely resembles the Qing dynasty’s Manchurian robe and jacket combination. With the influence of Western fashion in the Republican era, the jacket became more fitted to highlight a woman’s figure, sleeve lengths were shortened, and a symmetrical front opening adopted, instead of the “Y” collar that had typified Chinese dress for centuries. Brides in Southern China later chose to eschew floral motifs and have dragon and phoenix imagery embroidered with gold and silver threads - these same designs have continued to be recognised as the iconic Chinese wedding dress up till today.
However, not all the dresses we see today are the products of history – some of them have in fact been inspired by fiction in the form of successful television dramas. The 秀禾服 and 凤仙装 today fuse elements from beautiful drama costumes in the 1950s and early 2000s, while retaining select features of the Ming and Qing traditional dress. So many variants of the kua exist that some argue it’s impossible to even consider it traditional dress.
As fashion continues to evolve and beauty standards shift alongside trends in cultural dominance, what will the Chinese wedding dress look like in the years to come? Will there even be a future for it in our modern age? Even though we may choose not to don such garments ourselves, there is still so much we can learn by viewing them as complex texts from history, offering insights into the rich tapestry of human society in ancient civilisations.
For inquiries about our couple and wedding shoot packages, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Outdoor Shoot - Samuel and Yuhui MUA: Yanghui Assistant: Liju Photography / Styling: Sharon Indoor Shoot - Chunyang and Song Ge
Assistant: Duo Jia
Photography / Styling: Sharon