Out from under

Updated: 2012-11-02 07:48

By Yin Yin (China Daily)

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 Out from under

Chinese actress Bai Ling, wearing a dudou, attends a film screening in Los Angeles. Photos provided to China Daily

Ancient Chinese underwear is being resurrected as a fashion item

Western-style underwear is currently the norm among Chinese women nowadays. But the Chinese dudou, a traditional style of undergarment, is creeping back into vogue. Both women and children have rediscovered the dudou, which literally means belly cover.

"The dudou is hard to resist. Although it is underwear, today, when matched with an appropriate hair style, accessories and bottoms, it creates a simple, unique and sexy impression," says Chen Lihua, chief designer and dressmaker at Daxin Textile Co, a Beijing-based clothing brand.

The ancient Chinese halter top has a long and evolving history. It can be traced back to before the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). It became popular across China during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420-581).

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), more exquisite designs began to appear. And in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it transformed into a simple square or rhomboidal cut of silk with fine ribbons tied around the neck and back.

"Traditional dudou was mostly made of silk yarn or crepe edged with brocade," Chen says. "Young women often wore bright-colored brocade of red, pink or blue, as well as embroidered flowers, butterflies or mandarin ducks, which symbolize love, on the front of dudou."

Sometimes a dudou had pockets for keeping medicine or herbs.

"But, the dudou was more about traditional Chinese embroidery patterns," Chen says. "Many ancient folk designs could be found on a dudou, including peonies, lotuses, cyprinoids, magpies and mythical creatures. The themes were mainly about keeping good fortune and warding off disaster."

The most common color for the dudou was red because Chinese people believe it symbolizes good luck and can ward off evil.

"The more luxurious dudou were usually made of a black base cloth, gold and silver threads tightly wound together and then an embroidered cloth on top," Chen says. "The outer edges were endowed with auspicious cloud patterns while the face of the central design showed Chinese animals that symbolized good fortune."

The dudou was the most enduring undergarment for women across Chinese history and also the most popular until the introduction of the brassiere in the 20th century.

But the dudou has made a comeback in recent years as a fashion item rather than underwear, with its popularity spreading globally.

"The rage in the West and among some young women in Beijing and Shanghai is to wear these little tops that bare their shoulders, arms and back," Chen says.

This is a far cry from the original purpose of the dudou, which was never revealed in public, according to Zheng Zhenze, a professor at the Chinese Folklore Society.

"This exquisite lingerie would be completely concealed beneath multiple outer layers by decent and elegant Chinese women," Zheng says. "Though some daring women use it as a dress today, they would have been considered loose women in ancient China."

The popularity of the dudou as outerwear is partly because of Western designers such as Gianni Versace bringing it to the catwalk.

"As society develops, the idea of being simple and free has had greater impact on women's clothing," Zheng says. "The traditional Chinese dudou makes a statement about being Chinese as well as freedom and individuality."

In the summer, bold young women often wear it like a vest, Chen says.

"Now, modified dudou have begun to appear on the market," she says.

"Our shop caters to our customers wishes and tailors the back of the dudou to be less revealing and just show half of the back."

These modifications are helping to attract more buyers who were previously uneasy about wearing such a revealing top.

"If you want to wear a dudou, you can match it with a long dark skirt or skinny jeans, along with brilliant jewelry," Chen says. "The ancient Chinese dudou embodies the free spirit of women and fashion. Many Western women buy it to show their curvy bodies. It is simple and sexy."

It is for women who are comfortable with their bodies. Because of its revealing nature, it also looks best on slim women, she says.

Across China's streets, the dudou is back in fashion with young women. Many wear traditional dudou with red brocade and embroidery. Some add Western details such as sequins, faux diamonds and paillettes.

Such is the growing popularity of this ancient Chinese design that it has also begun to appear on the silver screen, worn by singers, television show hosts and actresses. And so it seems this most enduring item of Chinese underwear has found a new lease on life, this time in plain sight.


 Out from under

The dudou from the Qing Dynasty is a rhomboidal cut of silk with ribbons tied around the neck and back.

(China Daily 11/02/2012 page18)