Helping Han costumes make elegant comeback

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 July, 2010, 12:00am

In an unassuming ground-floor shop in an obscure neighbourhood in the northwest of Beijing, Shangdong -native Kang Zhaoxiang, 58, has been making traditional Han costumes since 2002 for a growing circle of customers who find such costumes fashionable, and even necessary in a fast-changing China. Han costumes, by definition, are clothing worn by the Han ethnic group in history, presumably since the Han dynasty. Kang is however not particularly fussed with historical accuracy. Taking such orders out of interest, she's just pleased that more of the younger generation is becoming interested in their cultural roots - as well as looking good in the costumes that she makes.

When did you start making Han costumes?

I came to Beijing in 1999, when my elder daughter got a post here. At first I tried to work for a small tailor shop in the community but I found that I was better than all the tailors there, so I decided to start my own shop. Three years later, my daughter helped me post online a notice hiring tailors to help me out with a growing demand. And surprisingly, a company which supplies Han costumes for shows and rentals approached me, and asked me if I'd like to work for them. I turned them down because I preferred the freedom of working on my own.

How's the business doing?

The demand for Han costumes has been growing every year. When I first started, making about 20 sets per month was pretty good. But now I'm making around 60 sets. And I'm already turning away big orders because I want to spend more time with my grandchildren. Many young people, university students, come to me for their costumes. I charge about 300 yuan per set. In 2007 when some students from Peking University proposed to wear Han costumes instead of Western-style graduation robes in their graduation ceremonies, they came to me to make the samples.

What do you think drives the growing popularity of Han costumes?

Young girls seem to like Han costumes better since, unlike qipaos, the revival of Han costumes is a relatively new thing and considered more trendy. Han costumes, made up mainly by layers of robes and a belt, are also less figure-hugging than qipaos. They are more flowy, like a long dress. And the large sleeves, typical of Han costumes, makes a girl look like a beautiful butterfly. I was invited this year to a gathering at Yuyuantan Park when the cherry trees blossomed , and there were at least 30 young people who participated wearing Han costumes, half of which I recognised were made by me. Three years ago, there were probably only ten.

How about you? Which do you prefer?

I haven't worn a Han costume myself, mainly because I have no time to dress up. I wear qipaos from time to time though, especially during the summers. I think qipaos and Han dresses display two different types of Chinese beauty. I think mostly older people prefer qipaos. My grandchildren regularly wear Han costumes when they are out playing, attracting lots of attention, which they love. But my daughters are more shy.

Do you think one day Han costumes could become as popular among Chinese as the kimono is with Japanese?

As this young generation who loves Han costumes grows old, maybe they would bring up their children wearing Han costumes from time to time. And slowly wearing Han costumes may become accepted.

Do you have to read many books to study how Han costumes look?

I read some in the beginning, but now I mainly watch period television dramas and copy the designs.

Most customers come to me with a specific idea of what they want, bringing a photo of movie stars in Han costume, or even animation characters in Han costume. Sometimes what they are really asking for is modern designs with some elements of Han costume. I think it's good to revive Han costume in modern designs.

My attitude is, a lot of clothes that our ancestors wore in history were actually much more revealing than the standard we could accept today. Showing off the shoulders and the neckline could be very elegant too.

Have you found someone to inherit your craft?

Both my daughters have managed to attend universities, so I would like them to stick to their profession. Tailoring is too laborious.

However, both of them are very supportive of my work. My younger daughter is particularly interested in Han costume now, creating her own designs. She's even thinking of starting an online shop to sell our own designs. My elder daughter is also helping me with the tailoring some times.

But actually, the person I really want to groom to take over from me is my granddaughter. She's only two years old, but she's already sitting herself at the sewing machine, and operating the pedal like a professional.