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.


  1. This is gorgeous, thank you so much! Those two at the top are beautiful, especially the one designed after the autumn wind. Would you happen to know what kind of cording is used to hold the pieces together? I can't stop picturing a modern that combines Chinese design and needle painting with Irish crochet techniques. Make a set of pieces in wind shapes with vibrant, intensely detailed leaves blowing through the sky (maybe a different species of leaf per piece, with careful use of metallic threads); edge the pieces with a tiny buttonhole stitch in very heavy black silk thread (maybe #16); then with the smallest hook that will work, join the pieces with what resembles cobwebbing. You might VERY carefully be able to use gold thread rather than black.

    In any case, I can't needle paint, and 95% of me is so white I'm translucent, and the other 5% is just embarrassed. ;) As much as I am in love with these things, I just wouldn't feel right wearing it. But thank you for the wonderful post (and blog! I need to look around!), and the inspiration. <3

  2. But surely the point is that, just as in other historical clothing from a similar period, that unless you are very very generously endowed, support just wasn't an issue. Athletes appear to have had bust binding and there is the lengberg Castle brassiere but otherwise support was probably either non-existent or similar to said breast binding. Also, just because modern taste says that a sagging bust line plus creased fabric looks odd, you have to remember that 1000yrs or so ago tastes were very different. An article I read today stated that in Tang China big was beautiful, and if you look at the paintings carefully the bust line is definitely lower than it would be if they were wearing bras. If you must have support, and my daughter is a UK 38M so comes well under the 'well endowed' title, wear a soft sleeping/sports bra that gives some support without looking obvious. We have one of the dresses described with the princess seams and other support (gift to daughter from my sister-in-law who is Chinese) and it is obviously not period looking when compared to the paintings. The idea is great and probably looks better for TV/film purposes but the SCA is supposed to be as realistic as possible, and boning/princess seams are very modern and not Tang or similar dynasties.

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