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LOOK: Chinese Dragon Designs in Historical and Modern Fashion

Over the years, fashion has drawn inspiration from Chinese dragon robes. But it’s only by learning more about its history and cultural symbolism that we may appreciate the dragon designs we still see today in modern clothes.

As early as the Western Zhou dynasty (1045 BC to 256 BC), Chinese emperors began using dragon robes for festival banquets and military inspections. This was largely due to the dragon’s depiction in Chinese mythology as a creature of immense power and source of divine protection.

Each dragon robe, meant to be worn by the emperor, took two years to make because of the many complex techniques used in the process. Regardless, the ancient Chinese believed that it was only fitting for the emperor to have the dragon be among the twelve symbols of sovereignty on their ruler’s robes. 

Front and back of an 18th Century Festival Robe that is said to belong to Emperor Qianlong

However, during the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), the Chinese began embroidering the dragon on their clothes, making it a more informal fashion statement. But at the height of the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1911), the dragon design on clothing became a more significant and respected design as it was worn by not just the emperor, but the crown prince and other medium- and high-ranking officials in the imperial court. This was not to inflict their power, but to bring good luck to their people.

(right) Vivienne Tam’s “Dragon Robe”; (left) Valentino’s “Dragon Shirt”

The Chinese imperial dragon robes have gained many popular fans today and have influenced modern fashion. Many modern fashion designers draw inspiration from these dragon designs, as reflected in their collections. These include designs from acclaimed designers like Vivienne Tam, Jason Wu, Ralph Lauren, and Valentino.

Several famous celebrities, such as Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, have also worn the dragon symbol during red carpet events, fashion shows, movie premieres, and awards ceremonies.

Furthermore, in modern society, the dragon symbol is casually depicted on shirts and dresses all over the world, most especially in the modern-day qi pao dresses. With respect to Chinese culture, it’s important that people are aware of the origins of the dragon design in order to further appreciate it and use it appropriately.

(Right) Anna May Wong in a Travis Banton–designed dress in 1934; (Left) Fan Bingbing wearing a dress that she designed with Laurence Xu in 2010

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