Close-Up: Minority Musings.

Fashion has  long been taking a leaf out of the extensive fashion pages owned by China’s ethnic minorities.


No matter where you turn your Bardot-lined peepers, fashion designers, shops and chains around the globe have long been taking a leaf out of the extensive fashion pages owned by China’s ethnic minorities. And why not. With an array of 56 groups covering the vast mainland of China – the largest of which is the Han group with approximately 1.2 billion descendants (say, 92% of the overall population) — you can infuse any outfit with a bad bump in a straight stitch second. Their different decorations are one styling aspect of what sets the minorities apart from one another.

Some people collect high-end brands, I collect far-out wristbands.

All political affirmations and connotations aside (not engaging in any “he said, she said” snaufus today; would prefer to keep things fashionably chaste), the various traditional minority dresscodes have had an extensive influence on hangers nationwide, comprising the full scale from hard-to-handle fabrics to exuberant embroidery to fantastical earrings. Leaving behind the Han this time (nothing personal), I’d like to put a quick white-hot spotlight on some particular favorites of mine. One might disagree, given the sometimes borderline overbearing accessories are not always meant for the fainthearted sleek style sense lovers (to whom I actually do belong most of the time), but oh well… A little edge never hurt anyone.

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Uyghur to Miao

Located in China’s utmost western region, Xinjiang Province (新疆省) with its greenscreen grasslands, icy blue mountain lakes, wide-stretching deserts and rapidly developing large cities (trust me, the view from a top floor in its capital of Urumqi gets more impressive by the year), harbors 47 minority groups. The largest one? The Turkic Uyghur, who outdo anyone when it comes to processing their artisanal silk and leather goods. With the ancient Silk Road running through their veins, their Xinjiang home-base formed a melting pot of Greek, Roman, Indian and Islam culture, leading to a wide cultural diversity that found its way into the local wardrobes.

The most distinctive Uyghur feature would have to be the daily-worn cap, referring to age, position occupation and ethnic origin. I myself possess a weakness for the large handwoven silk and kashmer scarfs emblazoned with wildly colorful flowery motives produced in the area. Yet, should you prefer a modern-day twist on tradition; take a nod from Lio He’s Beijing-based Zephyr brand, designing a wide selection of pure silk scarves featuring graphic prints, from dainty to dashing.

From graphic prints, it’s only a small leap to embroidery, brocades and batik, yet more characteristics found across the tradition-prescribed clothing. Especially renowned for their sowing skills are the Miao (苗族), located in China’s southwestern Guizhou Province (贵州省, jumping all over the place, as usual). Often depicting the natural landscape surrounding them, the most commonly depicted motives include flowers, birds and other fauna. From aprons to dresses to baby carriers to shoes and towering headwear, the Miao processing techniques are the primi (primae?) inter pares, with colors often being on the more earthy-honed side. On the brighter side of the color pallette, we might find the Yunnan Province — 云南省 — motives; minor detail.

Should you be on the lookout for a more contemporary twist on these “knits”; then literally embrace your body with the Pillowbook lingerie brand. Founder and designer Irene Lu often incorporates intricate embroidery in her undergarments. Just a little tip for the saucier snookums out there.

These craftsmen know their moulding and carving, often inlaying the basic pieces with precious stones, including agate, jasper and turquoise.

Silk to Silver

Speaking of Yunnan Province (the bright home to 25 minority groups)… As we swiftly sweep through China’s southern areas, we stumble upon another firm favorite of mine: The silver gems. Cap adornments, XL drop earrings or broches and bracelets; the entire shiny shebang is present. With the location’s earliest silver accessories dating back to the Song Dynasty (宋朝代, 907-1272), these craftsmen know their moulding and carving, often inlaying the basic pieces with precious stones, including agate, jasper and turquoise.

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Tempted to get your slinky paws on any of the aforementioned? Just take a look at Aimotown’s downstairs area (yes, that Yunnan place inside Beijing’s No.44, Fangjia Hutong –方家胡同). Or when you enter Beijing’s general tourist-trap Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷) from Gulou East (鼓楼东大街), be careful not to simply pass by a Lilliputian (must. use. word) shop on your left hand. Thus risking to pass up on some imported traditional treasures. Why the GPS description? ‘Cause the shop has no name; just adds to the mystique.


Silver puts the crown on the bountiful (yet here back-to-very-basic) looks sported by China’s assorted indigenous populations. The different ethnic fashions are truly minors playing in the majors – the major ‘tude stakes, that is.




Photos: China Culture, unless noted otherwise.


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