Divine Origin of Tang Court Ladies Fashion

Ariel Tian, Contributor, Pingping Yu, Contributing Translator

One night in the eighth century, in the grand royal palace of the Tang Dynasty, the Emperor is drinking under the full moon. Chang’an, the world’s first true metropolis and the capital of his vast empire, is now quietly resting in the glowing moonlight. Half drunk, the Emperor raises his cup to pay his respects to the moon. He drinks and then lies back to get more comfortable, soon drifting off to sleep.

Suddenly a group of heavenly maidens fly out of the moon and land on the white marble bricks of his courtyard. The Emperor isn’t sure if he is dreaming. The Lady of the Moon, who leads the fairies, gestures to him invitingly. Then she flies towards the moon, taking the Emperor along with her!

When the moon draws near, a beautiful palace emerges where they land. The fairies start to dance, accompanied by the most beautiful melody the Emperor has ever heard. Forgetting himself, the Emperor starts dancing to the heavenly music.

The next thing he knows, he is at his palace again. The Emperor can’t tell if it was all just a dream, but the music that fascinated him is still ringing in his ears. An avid lover of music and arts, the Emperor quickly writes down the tune, or the half that he can recall, and names it “The Melody of Rainbow Skirts and Feather Robes.”

This is a story passed down through history from the court of Emperor Xuanzong. A court dance was later created to the tune to imitate the fairies’ beautiful movements. The best dancer, of course, was the Emperor’s beloved consort Yang Yuhuan, one of the four Great Beauties of Chinese history. The graceful dance of Yuhuan became the inspiration of numerous songs, poems, and stories for thousands of years to come. Though the music and dance were both lost to history, you can find a beautiful representation of this legendary episode in Shen Yun’s 2013 production, The Emperor Journeys to the Moon.

The Tang Dynasty was the golden age in China’s 5,000-year history. In addition to its vast size, economic prosperity, advanced technology and global influence, the Tang empire is also known as an era of high artistic achievements and spiritual richness. Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism all flourished and coexisted in harmony, along with newly imported belief systems brought by large numbers of foreign visitors and immigrants.

The ladies of the Tang royal court were a perfect embodiment of that age. Elegant, virtuous, confident, and playful at times, the Tang ladies found in ancient artifacts bear a unique aura. Their aesthetic was bolder than the dynasties before and after, maybe because the blood of the northern Xianbei nomads was still running through their veins. What did the Tang ladies look like? They had elaborate makeup in a wide variety of styles; tall hair buns in various shapes artfully decorated with jewelry and large flowers; decorative facial patterns and stickers made with colorful paper, flowers, gold foils, or even a variety of creative materials like dragonfly wings.

However, the most admired element of their beauty was their attire. Inspired by heavenly beings, the dresses of the ladies of the Tang Dynasty were characterized by silky broad-sleeved robes and long Ru skirts. The unique arched necks and high waistlines above the chest influenced the fashion styles across Asia at the time. (The high waistlines bear a striking resemblance to Britain’s Regency Era dresses made famous in Jane Austen books and movies.)

Such elements also inspired Shen Yun designers to create the Tang leather collections. Made with genuine European leather and crafted using traditional techniques, the purses in this collection are characterized by an elegant arch that resembles the neckline of the Tang dresses, while the totes also feature expandable side panels that spread out like the Tang ladies’ wide sleeves

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