Why Qing Dynasty Clothing Isn’t the Best at Communicating the Idea of ‘Ancient China’

Xena: Warrior Princess is nominally set during the time of Hercules (i.e. before the 8th century B.C.), but in practice, the TV show is all over the place historically. Thus, when Xena travels to ‘Chin’ (i.e. China), um, they don’t wear clothes that people would have worn in 8th century B.C. China, or even 8th-century A.D. China. Since I’m commenting on the clothing and hair only and nothing else, I think it is sufficient to skim this clip rather than watch the whole thing.

For anyone who has the slightest clue about historical Chinese clothing, the clothing is glaringly anachronistic. More anachronistic than the European clothes that Xena: Warrior Princess characters wear? Perhaps not. But I think there are reasons that these particular anachronisms were chosen. Namely, it is bloody obvious that the characters are wearing clothing from the Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 A.D. to 1912. When I first saw that Xena clip, I found it jarring that they were dressed in the style of the Qing dynasty.

To anyone who has watched Chinese historical dramas, these costumes scream ‘Qing Dynasty!’

To see an example of a Chinese historical drama set during the Qing Dynasty which has an English character (wearing period-appropriate clothing), check out this video. (That Englishman also sometimes wears Chinese clothing.) That gives you a rough idea of what type of European clothing corresponds to the time of the Qing Dynasty.

This is obvious to anyone who has paid even the least amount to historical Chinese clothing because the Qing dynasty represented a major change in Chinese fashion. No matter how little the costume designer for a Chinese historical drama cares about historical accuracy, they will make sure that the costumes in a Qing dynasty drama will look approximately like the clothes people wore during the Qing dynasty, and that historical dramas set before the Qing dynasty will feature costumes that look really different. Otherwise, they will confuse the audience. It’s the same reason that Hollywood costume designers wouldn’t have actors wearing togas in a drama set in 18th-century France, or petticoats + corset + panniers in a drama set in 1st century A.D. Rome, unless there was a good reason for a character to be wearing a toga in 18th-century France, or petticoats + corset + panniers in 1st century A.D. Rome. Continue reading