Chinese Works of Art

Retro Fashion Revival: Chinese Accessories and How to Wear Them

By Jennifer Huang Bernstein
If you are a collector of antique accessories or consider yourself a Hanfu revivalist, then you probably know that it isn’t the clothes that make the person. In pre-19th century China, no lady above a certain social rank would be caught dead with her hair unadorned. And no nobleman could show his face at court without the right belt. Such personal adornments were emblematic of status, so it is important to know how to wear them correctly.

Accessories made from jade, gold, silver, semiprecious inlays, bone, kingfisher, etc. were reserved only for the wealthiest or most powerful members of the ruling class. While these adornments may include earrings, necklaces, rings, bracelets or what we consider jewelry in the modern sense, in traditional China the emphasis was more on the head and the hips.

Popular imperial court drama “The Story of Yanxi Palace painstakingly reproduced the hair accessories and the styles of the Qing dynasty. (Photo Credit: IQiYi Handout via SCMP)

Hair Accessories

What was going on up top was important. Dictated by the style of the time, people typically wore their hair up, combed high in a topknot. Such grooming was practical as well as decorative, since cutting hair was considered an unfilial desecration of the body, and long tresses if unmanaged would only become unkempt. Men could give the topknot a bit more pizzazz with a choice of caps including the soft jin, hard mao or for more formal occasions the guan. For ladies, the styles tended to be much more elaborate, often secured and then embellished with hanging adornments and hairpins.

Although the long single-stick ji (笄) had been used by men and women alike, it also lends its name to the coiffing ceremony ji li (笄禮) in which a girl’s hair was washed, combed and then pinned up. This was a rite of passage at age 15, as mature women customarily fashioned their hair up. Maturity, marital status and social rank all differentiated the manner of hairstyle. Of course, trends also varied greatly throughout the different dynasties. For example, one popular Ming dynasty look was the tao xin knot (桃心髻) while a young lady during the Tang dynasty might prefer to sweep her hair ever higher into a shape reminiscent of a cloud.

While it may be fun to watch period dramas for an impression of the styles of the times, portraits and paintings can provide a more accurate record. In one Song dynasty painting "Song Ren Que Zuo Tu" (宋人卻坐圖) at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, the work depicts a story from the Han dynasty about an emperor who once favored his consorts by allowing them to sit in areas expressly reserved for the emperor and the empress. In the scene, he is listening to his minister's admonishment on the wrongfulness of this action. Around him are five of his consorts, all coiffed in different fashion, giving us a unique glimpse of the variety of hairstyles and embellishments popular during that period.

"Song Ren Que Zuo Tu" (宋人卻坐圖), from the National Palace Museum, Taipei

The shapes of the coiffure favored different combinations of hair accessories. Hair gathered onto the crown in a tall topknot might be secured by a zan (簪), the more ornate cousin of the ji. A center top pin, such as the fen xin (分心), or a banded coronet, such as the shou dian (寿鈿), may be set into the hair; what you would call the accessory would be determined by its position in the topknot. Doing double duty as a comb, the fine-toothed bi (篦) may also be decorative, inserted into side-swept hair buns, usually two or three combs in a cluster. The comb could also gather up and secure the hair from the back.

Other adornments might include the chai (釵), a double-pronged pin that was either U-shaped or a more ornate double-zan. A variant of chai, the bu yao (步摇) works best for hairstyles twisted into prominent overhanging shapes on either side of the head. As the name suggests, the bu yao features dangling tassels, bobbles or chains that would sway and quiver along with every step a lady takes.

Some accessories were designed for the face or forehead. Delicate cutouts of flower buds dian hua (鈿花) might dot the cheeks and brow, a look that was especially popular during the Tang dynasty. At the time, it was also popular to paint the face with small motifs such as birds, flower buds or moons. Other ornaments for the forehead include embroidered bands called the mo e (抹額) or the fan-shaped hua sheng (花勝), which was draped down from the hairline.

Kingfisher headdress and a portrait of Empress Wu (Wu Zetian) (Photo credit: Image taken from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. Originally published/produced in China, 18th century. (British Library, Shelfmark Or. 2231)/ Wikimedia Commons)

There was also the option of caps and headdresses. The diji (狄髻), essentially hair extensions shaped into a hard small cone, were adorned with ornaments and precious materials. Ladies could pop that onto the topknot or, similarly, use the hua guan (花冠), a decorative cup-shaped crown. And for formal occasions or big ceremonies, ladies might opt for the feng guan (鳳冠). While not an actual portrait of Empress Wu Zetian, the above painting of the Tang dynasty ruler might offer inspiration on how a kingfisher headdress might be worn. Similarly, Giuseppe Castiglione's imperial portrait of Consort Chunhui shows how to achieve the look with a phoenix headdress in the Qing dynasty.


While it was popular to display ever more elaborate hair accessories and hairstyles as a reflection of social status among ladies, the equivalent for noblemen would be belt ornaments. The use of belts was highly restricted, as traditional court dress and jade belt were reserved for dignitaries attending important ceremonies at court.

There were two styles of wearing belts: the ornamented dai kua (帶銙) and the multi-strap die xie dai (蹀躞帶). Girdles made of silk sashes or leather were set with rectangular or crescent-shaped ornaments, carved with animal or flower designs. In some dynasties, the number of pieces on the belt would vary based on the official rank of the wearer. Over time, this practice changed and was no longer the norm during the Qing dynasty.

Hooks would have one or more flattened circular knobs at the back of the shaft for attachment. The hooked end was used to fasten the two ends of the court belt at the back by slipping the hook through a similarly carved loop. Some of these belt hooks would have matching plaques that adorned either side of the belt from which further hangings ornaments could be suspended.

The die xie style originated from northern China and had straps that hung down from the main central band, from which implements were hung—a utility belt of sorts. To illustrate how this was worn, we can refer to an imperial court painting portraying the commanding officer of the northern borders of the Qing empire. While his fur-lined hat with its red glass bead and a peacock feather might first draw the eye, other details soon emerge. His left hand rests atop the right hand at his waist, and upon closer inspection, we see that his belt is securing a ceremonial sword concealed in a green shagreen sheath. Often special knives were attached to these belts. The use of personal knives at meals was a mark of Manchu identity, as it was a expected for men to cut their meat themselves. When eating sacrificial pork, women were also expected to cut up their own meat. These special knives with other eating utensils formed part of the dowries of ladies and were highly prized.

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