Monday, May 2, 2016

[Advert} Accessories Inspired by the Ancient Orient

I've sidetracked a little and started dabbling in jewelry making as a more viable alternative to sewing full costumes after work. This has grown on me and I've been running a little online shop as of late. Here are my pieces - please drop by if you are possibly keen on picking up some ancient accessories of your own :)

I've also started a jade necklace customisation service, check out the photo album for more details! Here's a sample I designed - the jade pendant was a gift from a friend, and this necklace was crafted from an assortment of semi-precious stones: Amazonite beads, blue agate, lapis lazuli, moonstone and freshwater pearls. It's one of my favourite jewelry pieces now and I'd love to make a similar one for you!

I'm keen on collaborating with any who might be interested in a costumed photoshoot / tea gathering etc. if you're also located in Singapore - leave me a note and let's see if we can works something out!

I promise to update soon with photos and more information about the Tang costume process. Thanks for sticking around!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Tang Dynasty Summer Ruqun - 朱雀 (Zhuque)

It's finally the holidays and I'm working on another design for a Tang Dynasty costume - something more youthful and energetic this time.

Red and green is a classic colour combinations for Hanfu and Korean garb - probably due to their auspicious symbolism and connotations. In Korea, this combination of red and green is commonly worn by young ladies at their "coming-of-age" ceremonies - green signifies having many children, and red signifies defeating evil. For the Chinese, green signifies vitality and energy, while red signifies good fortune.

Here is my design and mood board for the costume. I decided to use turqoise instead of green to create a more modern and fresh colour scheme. Let me know what you think!

(click to enlarge)

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Tang Dynasty Dress - 紫燕 (Zi Yan)

It's been a long time since I updated! Am really heartened by some of the comments and the fact that there are still people reading this blog, and using what I wrote as inspiration or even for your own research. Thank you! Do share your projects with me so that I can learn from you too!

Anyway, I've found some time to revisit the Tang Dynasty costume recently and gained inspiration to complete it again. I realised one reason why I was procrastinating was because the fabrics I had previously acquired just didn't feel right - even though they could work, I guess there was some dissatisfaction with the overall look in my mind and I didn't want to get started on cutting the cloth and going past the point of no return. Recently though, I found some brilliant embroidered/woven trimmings, and sketched an updated design (above) based on these materials.

Also got myself a new duo-coloured taffeta fabric for the skirt. It has a gorgeous purple-blue iridescence which looks so much better than the light-weight shiny silk. It was really difficult to capture the nuances of this fabric's colour! I used one of the trimmings for the belt design and am intending to use the other two for the big-sleeved robe.

Without the woven trimming, the belt appears saggy and kept slipping off. At first I thought it might be necessary to sew on some interfacing, but after sewing on the trim, the belt appeared a lot more rigid and maintained its shape much better. I also eventually got rid of the giant bow and decided to fasten the skirt at the side instead, with a small knot.

Here's the final outfit. More close-ups next time! 

I suppose it is best to go with your heart and wait to do what feels right, even when it comes to sewing :) Am still waiting for some materials to arrive for the big-sleeved robe. Will update when I get down to that! 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Another drawing

It's been ages since the last post and work has been terribly busy, to the point where I contemplated just giving up and settling for a more realistic career instead of pursuing my passion. But there is always the knowledge that giving up will be an eternal regret. So I'll be trying to apply for another costuming undergraduate course next year, let's see where that goes! In the meantime, another Tang dynasty costume design :)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ancient Chinese Accessories

It's been ages since my last post and I've really not had the time to finish up my costumes over the past year. I've got all the materials prepared, but just the missing motivation to drag them out of the cupboard and to start sewing again after coming home from work. Am hoping to complete the Tang dress at the end of the year once the holidays begin.

But for now, here are some beautiful hairpieces I've acquired over the years. I love designing hairdos, they are huge fun to think up but unfortunately, quite painful to wear. Literally got a headache from wearing the huge Korean braids to a dinner party last time because the pins holding them up had to be pinned tightly to the hair closest to my scalp.Can't imagine how the ladies survived wearing these hairpieces for days on end back in the past.


And here are two pictures of a very simple Qing dynasty hairdo that I created to match a costume for a fun event at the office. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Making the Hezi

So these are the pattern pieces from Butterick's #6766 for an evening dress.The pattern was pretty old and it was tough figuirng out the instructions from the faded pattern markings. All pieces need to be cut out twice, one time with the inverse side of the pattern placed on the right side of the fabric.

For this pattern, the structured bodice is made to reach the waist, while according to my research, the Hezi does not fully cover the stomach area. I cut short the pattern pieces as such, and also modified the princess seams to better fit my body shape. I also straightened out the back seams.

Edit: The left side of Pattern 4 here needs to be taken in a bit more to match the curve for the front piece (Pattern 3). I did those changes while sewing and have not adjusted the muslin pieces yet.

I cut out three sets of patterns in all; one from the Chinese brocade, one from the Bemsilk lining, and one from sew-on interfacing which I used for underlining. Next, I sewed the interfacing onto the brocade pieces according to the pattern instructions, and applied Fray Stoppa to all the cut edges to stop the fabric from fraying. (Chinese brocade frays like crazy and that tends to damage the weave of the fabric if it is not stopped.)

Seams need to be pressed flat open. It's pretty hard to do that for the curved, clipped seams; I think a tailor's ham is necessary. I improvised by using a scrunched up pile of old fabrics.

After that, it was time to put in the boning. I got some from Spotlight, but they only sell the plastic type that comes in a fabric casing. The boning is sold in a circular length, like this:

Unfortunately, because it is stored in this curved position over a long time, the plastic won't lie flat and cannot be directly sewn into clothing.

Using the curved boning would pull the fabric away from the body, instead of helping to structure the garment according to the body's contours. It might also cause the fabric to tear where the bones strain the fabric at the edges.

To solve this problem, the bones need to be heated up and remoulded. This tutorial suggests boiling the plastic, and then pressing them with a stack of books, but I decided to try ironing first and it worked just as well. I ironed the boning on high heat and steam through a piece of wool, and then pressed them under a stack of books.

The boning needs to be pressed for at least 30 minutes until they have completely cooled and retain their new shape. Unfortunately they still curve a little bit towards the sides, even though they now lie flat on the surface. Perhaps they need to be pressed a little on the sides too. It isn't much of a problem, however.

Once the boning is straightened, the edges need to be trimmed and filed into a rounded shape so that the ends won't poke out of the fabric casing. More details on how to handle boning can be found on this excellent tutorial here.

I pinned the fabric casings to the seams of the lining fabric and sewed them down. It's a lot easier to attach the casing to the lining as the fabric is much softer and eaiser to manipulate than the Chinese brocade. In addition, the sewing on both sides of the fabric casing won't show through on the right side of the fashion fabric, unlike in a corset where the boning channels sometimes becomes a part of the design. Once that is done, sew the lining fabric to the fashion fabric. Understitch the lining fabric and press. (Understitching is, by the way, one of the most brilliant sewing tips I discovered recently. See Coletterie's wonderful guide to doing it here.) 

I decided to complete the finishing closure with hook and eyes instead of a using an invisble zipper in the end because the hezi is really quite short, and putting in a zip wouldn't allow much width for the garment to open. The hezi is also really tight, and it was quite impossible to pull it over my shoulders with the zipper tape securing the bottom end of the opening seam. So it seems like the Hezi needs to be a wrap garment, like the corset, if it is constructed in this way. (For the Butterick pattern, the zip extends past the waistline into the skirt section of the garment so it makes sense.)

I hand-sewed 11 hook and eyes, each about 1 cm apart, onto the edge of the closing ends of the hezi. For the closure to be flat, many many hook and eyes need to be used, but the end results are well worth the torture of sewing by hand:

While I am really pleased with the fit, I might alter the hook and eye placements to make the hezi a little looser, and to get rid of those shear lines on the fabric. I think I will also add a cloth strap in contrasting colour to finish the garment later on.

And here is the final piece! The skirt in this picture is from an old gown which isn't going to be a part of the Tang costume. The actual skirt will have a waistband that covers the tummy. The only problem with this Hezi I've found so far, is that the interfacing is really really warm, which would make it torturous to wear in our tropical climate even without the robe and other layers.

Will be starting work on the robe next. While the festivities are still in order, here's wishing everyone a blessed and fufilling year ahead. Thanks for reading!

Friday, December 14, 2012

More on the Hezi (Undergarment)

It's interesting that while European undergarments became increasingly structured as they evolved (think of all the boning and underskirt cages), undergarments in ancient China made use of organic shapes and soft materials like silk and other thin fabrics. In all its various forms, these undergarments looked rather similar to our modern day camisoles and essentially consisted of a piece of soft fabric with straps or ties. 

These shapes were often inspired by nature or were symbols with positive connotations in Chinese culture. They were also skillfully crafted with embroidery and delicate patterns that reflected the wearer's individuality, and thus can be viewed as a rare outlet for personal expression in an age where what one could wear (on the outside) was largely determined by rank and social class. 

Tracing the history of this simple piece of cloth would take another post altogether; for now, let's look at the Tang undergarment, the Hezi (诃子).

It was really hard to find information on this piece of cloth; the only comprehensive article I could find (without delving into historical texts myself) was a piece of original resesarch on a forum page at Baidu. The piece did make lots of references to mention of the Hezi in Chinese literature and analysed various well-known paintings, and what it says makes quite a lot of sense. Most of this post will therefore be a translation of the article, which can be found here.

The word Hezi is more frequently used as the name of a fruit used in Chinese medicine. While some argue that Hezi should be written 袔子 instead, with the left-radical of the Chinese character relating it to clothing, the article says that there is no basis for such writing.  I'm inclined to agree although this is purely guesswork; given the Tang society's strong obsession with nature and natural shapes, one might suppose that the barrel-like shape of the Hezi reminded one of the fruit, thus inspiring its name. This idea is supported by the fact that one poem, <<采桑子>> by He Ning who was a poet in the period of the Five Dynasties, referred to the garment as 诃梨子, which is actually the full name of the fruit. 


The Hezi was apparently unwittingly invented by (Imperial Consort Yang), the highest ranking consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang and one of famed Four Beauties of ancient China. A Song Dynasty text <<事物纪原>>, a documentation of the origins of items in China, states that Yang used a piece of embroidered cloth to cover her bosom when An Lu Shan, a Tang general, accidentally scratched it,  and she did not want the Emperor to notice and  ask questions. Accounts vary but suffice to say, the consort and An had a rather scandalous relationship. Yang called the embroidered cloth Hezi, and this look was copied by the other consorts who were constantly looking out for new ways to beautify themselves and compete for the Emperor's favour. Eventually, the trend also spread to the commoners and became a staple garment of Tang women in the latter part of the dynasty.

Since there isn't much historical documentation about the Hezi, a lot has to be inferred from looking at paintings and depictions of Tang women instead. Around 874 AD, the Hezi Qun (诃子裙) became the predominant garment of the time amongst the noblewomen, replacing the Tang Ruqun. Instead of having waistband of the skirt worn over the chest (齐胸褥裙), the waistband was now worn below the bustline, exposing the Hezi across the chest area. When matched with a big-sleeved robe and some shawls, the Hezi Qun became acceptable for wear in public and in court/ceremonial occasions. However, it was more common, but not mandatory for them to wear the Hezi Qun in a more private setting, and wear a shirt beneath the Hezi when appearing in public (rather like our modern trends of lingerie as outerwear).

For court clothing, these then are the commonly worn variations:

 半臂褥裙 (Ban Bi Ruqun)

齐胸褥裙 (Ji Xiong Ruqun)

齐胸褥裙 (Ji Xiong Ruqun) with 大袖衫 (Da Xiu Shan). Noble ladies wore the Ji Xiong Ruqun as well, but the Ji Xiong Ruqun was usually worn by maids and commoners. This trend co-existed with the 诃子裙 throughout the Tang dynasty as lower-class ladies were not allowed to wear the Hezi Qun for a number of reasons: 1) Only noble women were allowed to expose their chests, the degree to which depended on their rank. See if that is true the next time you watch a Tang dynasty period drama. 2) A woman could not wear the Hezi Qun without a 大袖衫 or outer robe for reasons of modesty/sensibility in keeping warm. Maids could not do their chores in such sweeping garments--the sleeves would get in the way--and commoners were unlikely to be able to afford these robes because of the sheer amount of fabric involved. In period drams therefore, you will usually see the maids wearing 齐胸褥裙, and noble ladies wearing the 诃子裙.

诃子裙 (Hezi Qun) with a heavily decorated shirt worn inside
诃子裙 (Hezi Qun) with a shirt worn inside and 大袖衫 (Da Xiu Shan).

Here is a summary of the Hezi's key traits as mentioned in the article:

1) There are two horizontal cloth bands that are used to tie the Hezi close at the waist. The Hezi has no shoulder/halter neck straps.
2) The Hezi Qun comprises of two separate pieces, the Hezi and skirt. They were not sewn together at the waist. A thin cloth belt was usually used to hide the joint.
3) Some Hezi had the barrel shape with a raised front centre section that gently curved down at the sides. Others were straight and rectangular, like our modern tube top. Apparently there were some other shapes, as this painting depicts one that has a scalloped/flower petal shape, but the sweetheart neckline is most likely a modern invention and there are no grounds for it appearing in Tang clothing.

4) The Hezi was rather short  and only covered the chest, in comparison to the Ming Dynasty undergarment, the Mo Xiong (抹胸), which extended to cover the stomach area. 

When it comes to constructing undergarments, an unavoidable question to consider is how it provides support. In my brief mention of the Hezi earlier, I said that it was likely to be constructed from heavy, slightly elasticized fabric. Thinking about it now, the person who wrote the article I read then probably applied modern knowledge of garment construction in trying to understand how the hezi functioned. While using heavy fabric is perfectly logical (to provide some structure and support), it is unlikely that anyone would embroider elasticized fabric as the decorative stitches are likely to tear when the garment is stretched. There is also no evidence to suggest that elasticized fabric was used in Chinese clothing anywhere in its history; stretch fabric instead seems to have only came into existence in 19th century Europe.

Some also say that the Hezi had the effect of improving posture and supporting the breasts, but this is likely to be an anachronistic idea again; the ancient Chinese had a different sense of aesthetics regarding the human body, and were contented with wearing comfortable garments that protected them from the elements.

A Mainland historical drama, 大明宫词 (Palace of Desire), has done, I think, the most accurate Tang costumes based on what I've researched. The colours are more muted and sombre, and the designs really reflect the delicate elegance of the clothes depicted in ancient Tang paintings.

In the Hezi on the left, the horizontal shear lines show that the Hezi, if worn on its own, needs to be very tightly wrapped around the chest. As in the paintings, it doesn't have any seams or darts along the front which accentuate the shape of the bust.  

The shear lines show that the Hezi is not internally supported. As this peach fabric is quite thin, it has more creases. 

The fabric used here looks really similar to Sari brocade. The big-sleeved robe is pinned to the edge of the Hezi to stop it from opening further and exposing the shoulders, and a belt is worn over the Hezi and big-sleeved robe. Again, you can see that there isn't much structure to the Hezi from the fabric creases and it isn't doing much to support the breasts. 

This picture most clearly illustrates how the Hezi is secured with a tie below the bustline, even though the fabric is extended here to function as a kind of belt as well.  When worn over a shirt, it doesn't need to be as tighlty wrapped around the body as when worn on its own. (You can also see here how the Japanese kimono took its form.) The fabric is quite thick and more structured in this costume though.

The Hezi is really then just a piece of cloth secured around the bosom. To wear it, the fabric is wrapped around the chest and tied close with straps at the back. A wide belt can be worn below the bust to provide additional support and to stop the cloth from slipping.

Modern reconstructions of the Hezi seem to be like structured tube-tops these days, however. Those sold on the internet are more like Western evening dresses topped with a big-sleeved robe. Here are some examples from Taobao (rather like China's eBay):

This dress, though beautiful, uses modern construction methods. If you you remove the big-sleeved robe, it could easily be used as a Western evening gown. The bodice, which is passed off as a Hezi in this costume, is structured by two princess seams and probably boning, enabling it to stand stiffly without creasing.

This dress also uses the princess seam and sneakily keeps the fabric up with two very slim spaghetti straps. The function of the princess seam is absolutely essential in modern dressmaking, as it shapes the cloth to match the curves of the body, removing the unsightly fabric sag and creases that occur.

Period dramas that are not too particular about historical accuracy also tend to use these methods to construct the Hezi. Afterall, it is hard to disassociate ourselves from modern perceptions of beauty, and a structured undergarment is defnitely easier to wear (without fear of it slipping), while providing support and improving posture at the same time.

Structured modern reconstruction. You can see the seams very clearly again. 

 Compared to this Hezi without structure; the fabric creases and does not provide support. It just look poorly done to the modern eye.
The author of the article recommends cutting off the skirt and shortening the bodice of an old evening dress to make a Hezi. Sewn-in bra cups can be left in place if necessary, and some embroidery can be added to the centre of the bodice for embellishment. The zipper at the back can be left in place, or it could be substituted by lacing/straps for closure at the back.

Alternative methods I found when looking up costumes that other people have made are to use elastic around the back band of the Hezi, or to use a corset-like lacing to close the back (even though this is probably anachronistic for the Tang period.)

This Hezi makes use of elastic, as you can see from the fabric puckering under the back band. The advantage of this is confidence that your Hezi would never slip down (if you sew the elastic properly), and that there wouldn't be a need for closures/straps if the elastic gives enough for you to slip it on over your shoulders. The downside is that the fabric still creases and there isn't any support for the breasts. It would also be rather uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time as the elastic needs to dig into your skin in order for it to hold up well.

Lacing can also be used to give a reconstructed Hezi some historical character, with better security than a single tie closure under the bust. I'm rather keen to do mine with side lacing, but with the loops on the inside of the Hezi itself so that the joint will look less apparent from the outside. It can be internally laced and the ends of the ribbon/strap can be tucked into the Hezi top. Or maybe I'll just used a side zipper. Some experimenting is on the way!

For the body of the Hezi itself, I will be using princess seams for the front panel and some boning. A few days ago I found a pattern in my stash of stuff--(Butterick's #6766) for a structured tube evening dress--and I'll be using it to make the Hezi. Here are the steps for constructing the bodice. The pattern pieces need to be shortened (to end above the waist) and modified for a better fit. More pattern drafts soon.