Material Girls: Silk and Self-Fashioning in Tang China (618–907)
Tang dynasty China was a fashionable place. Low-cut necklines, kaftans sewn from sumptuously brocaded silks, diaphanous shawls cut from resist-dyed silk gauze, and striped skirts elaborately patterned with rosettes abound in the visual and material archive. This article takes a closer look at the Tang woman’s wardrobe to show how changes in dress and shifts in the perceptions of dress signified the emergence of a fashion system. It argues that what manifested in the second half of the dynasty as hallmarks of a fashion system were produced by ruptures within the social, economic, and political fabric of society. Such rifts included a crisis in representation that stemmed from a loss of faith in clothing’s ability to accurately represent the status of the wearer, and spurred on by the expanding commercial society of the eighth and ninth centuries. But it was the silk industry that was the driving force of the Tang fashion system, as innovations in silk weaving and design supplied all the trappings for elite self-fashioning. The article narrates these shifts in Tang China, and the material processes that underpinned fashion’s fabrication, through an integrated analysis that brings visual and archaeological materials into conversation with the textual archive.