Chinese costume designer brings ancient fashion into modern world

Born in 1986, traditional Chinese costume designer Chen Shiyu has been involved in the research, restoration, and creation of ancient Chinese costumes for over a decade. He has served as a costume consultant for the cultural program “National Treasure” produced by China Media Group (CMG), and the hit Chinese period drama “Serenade of Peaceful Joy.”

Chen first found himself interested in ancient costumes in 2001, and then began to collect related materials and compare notes with friends about the clothing and fine art traditions of ancient China. “We were wondering how those ancient garments, as we imagined them, would fit on real people today. So, we made an attempt to recreate certain designs of ancient clothing,” Chen said.

His early team was established in 2006, and then extended four years later to work more on ancient costume restoration. The team participated in many exhibitions of ancient Chinese costumes including the planning, research and restoration work, while collaborating with the National Museum of China, Shandong Museum, and other respected institutions.

They also engaged in promoting traditional culture through different activities. Chen said, “Now, through our work, we aim to present in a more comprehensive and realistic manner how ancient Chinese people dressed. We hope to revive the beauty of history.”

Chen Shiyu introduces Chinese traditional costumes. /Courtesy: Chen Shiyu

As a costume designer, Chen Shiyu has closely followed the changes of aesthetics in fashion and Chinese style clothing in recent years. “In the 1980s when the country first opened up, people were eager to copy Western styles as exemplars of excellence. But as our economy grew, people have come to appreciate more elevated spiritual and cultural pursuits,” he noted, “In particular, young people born in the two decades since 1990, tend to be firm believers in our oriental aesthetics.”

In terms of clothing, there used to be few choices if one wanted some attractive garments embodying traditional classical aesthetics before. People could occasionally pick a cheongsam dress or a Tang jacket, but there were not enough of them to reflect the infinite variety of traditional Chinese clothing. “In the earlier Chinese styles, the designers often just tentatively blended in some inconspicuous Chinese elements. Now in our neo-Chinese style, we’re trying to give the Chinese elements greater scope and let them shine through.”

China has a time-honored clothing culture, which is both rich and profound. People in different periods have varied tastes, which are often influenced by different culture. But there are certain common traits in our contemporary aesthetics. “Now people especially favor the theme of nature and harmony with the heaven,” Chen said, “For different seasons and different surroundings, we’re fitting our clothing to contemporary life. Now there is a huge range of choice in the new Chinese style.”

A screenshot of CMG’s cultural program “National Treasure” /CGTN

Nowadays, more and more Chinese films, TV dramas, and variety shows are faithfully recreating the look of traditional Chinese garments and makeup. Since 2013, Chen’s team has gradually served as traditional costume consultant in dramas and variety shows, including the hit cultural program “National Treasure.”

“Ahead of shooting the first season, the production team came to us in the hope of enlisting our help in telling some history stories. They wanted our opinions and insights about the costumes in the re-enactments,” Chen recalled, many viewers have noticed that some ancient garments were entirely original. “They could sense the clothing’s connection with a particular historical artifact and spot the elements derived from an ancient mural or an unearthed gown. Many history enthusiasts were surprised to see such clothing. But they found our creations a fitting echo of the corresponding artifacts, so they were happy to embrace the idea.”

When it comes to the biggest plan in the future, Chen said he would continue to reach a wider audience and help them understand the classical Chinese aesthetic and its relevance and significance today. He noted that his biggest dream is to share the beauty of these costumes by reinterpreting and transforming them into creative designs befitting modern society.

Related Posts