Right on BU’s Campus, the Revival of Centuries-old Chinese Fashion
Written by Meghan Bohannon
February 27, 2023
Prior to the onset of the 21st century, traditional Chinese clothing, originating from the illustrious years of ancient dynasties, was just that– an artifact from the past. Driven by a desire to return to their cultural roots and drawn to the clothing’s aesthetic beauty, China’s youth have put their traditional clothing at the forefront of a style revival- the Hanfu movement.
In recent years, the increasingly-popular Hanfu movement has manifested itself in events across the country, such as Hanfu Culture Week, a festival which draws over 100,000 visitors to Xi Tang, an ancient water town in China’s Zhejiang Province. But members of the younger generation are more than just promoters of the clothing– they’re consumers too. Retailers and fashion designers across China seem to be taking notes as they’ve begun to incorporate traditional Chinese elements into their storefronts and high fashion collections, turning Hanfu clothing into a market of 400 million people in 2020.
Here on Boston University’s campus, two students are driving the movement forward, founding the only club for traditional Chinese clothing in the metro-Boston area– the BU Chinese Traditional Clothing Club (CTCC). The club had previously existed at BU, but ended when CFA student XianYing (Bonnie) Yu was just a freshman. As a senior, Yu started the club back up again, feeling personally connected to the movement in China and wanting to spread its practice to BU again.
After attending the club’s first ever event, a celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival, in 2021 senior Jia Yi (Alisa) Li decided to get involved as the club’s photographer. During the spring 2022 semester, she took on the role of vice president.
“I was always interested in the Hanfu movement when it was early on during my high school years. I didn’t attend the Chinese Traditional Club back at my high school but I was always excited about it and I was always wearing traditional Chinese clothing just to go out and celebrate with my friends,” said Li.
The club has bi-weekly events that range from lectures and workshops to celebrations of Chinese holidays to photoshoots showcasing their clothing. The events, which started as a space for the BU community to come together for their shared interest in Chinese culture, have since attracted students from neighboring schools, including Berklee, Bentley, and Harvard.
This semester, BU CTCC is incorporating their own runway show in an effort to highlight the contemporary melding of traditional Chinese clothing and modern fashion. During its first year in operation, the BU CTCC brought traditional styles to the Boston community by celebrating the Lunar New Year in Chinatown. They also performed a traditional Chinese dance at the 40th anniversary celebration of Boston’s sister-city tie with Hang Zhou, China.
For Li and Yu, the club’s impact comes from a personal connection to the fashion movement. When Li was attending high school in Nanjing, China, she was assigned to design costumes for a school play depicting the Ming Dynasty. Wanting to steer clear of the mostly cheap or historically incorrect traditional clothing that were being offered, she went to a formal shop to rent the garments.
“During all of this, I had a closer connection and understanding with how it should look and should be dressed and I put all the clothes onto our actors and actresses for the play,” Li said. “That’s kind of how the clothing grew on me.”
Yu, who grew up in Shenzhen, China, has always been interested in traditional Chinese clothing, but her time with CTCC has changed the direction of her art. Today, all of her paintings are inspired by traditional clothing.
“When I wear this, a lot of people compliment it and ask if it’s Korean clothing or if it's a Japanese kimono, if it’s cosplay. I say, ‘no, this is Chinese traditional clothing’,” said Yu, while wearing a traditional Ming Dynasty outfit, an embroidered robe which seems to cascade over a long blouse and pleated maxi-skirt. “When I’m wearing it, I’m spreading the culture. I can tell people what it is.”
The top of her outfit is white and cotton, with a flipped up collar called a Li Ling Shang Ao (立领上袄). The sleeves, which are called Pi Pa Xiu (琵琶袖), look like balloon sleeves, and they’re designed to act like pockets. Yu puts her phone in hers, slipping it inside through the wrist cuffs.
For a Boston winter, the outfit fares perfectly, since the Ice Age of the Ming Dynasty inspired clothes with warmer, thicker designs. In the summer and during labor-intensive photoshoots, Yu usually wears the traditional, elaborate attire of the Tang Dynasty.
While different dynasties throughout Chinese history have produced different clothing styles, there is one element that persists on the backs of every top– the Zhong Feng (中缝), or the middle line, which can be seen by a faint stitch that begins at the top of the collar. The Zhong Fong represents honesty and integrity–encouraging the wearer to be upright and brave.
“I think it gives you courage to face a lot of things,” Li said. “You might not think of it when you’re doing stuff and wearing that at the same time, but I think it always gives you emotional support in your subconscious.”
In the upcoming weeks, the BU CTCC is hosting two workshops for traditional Chinese makeup and hairstyle lessons, in preparation for their upcoming runway show. More info can be found at http://buctcc.com/ or their instagram @bu_ctcc.