Headwear of Early Asian Cultures

Over thousands of years of Chinese and later Japanese history, many different forms of headwear and hairstyles were worn, depending both upon fashion and upon the restrictions that were placed on fashions at any given time. In this brief accounting, just a few of the most distinctive of those styles will be discussed. One thing that should be remembered is that both the Chinese and Japanese people have deep black hair. Hair coloring was not used in either of these Asian cultures.

Japanese hairstyles often relied on pins, combs, and other forms of fasteners to keep hair in place. Reproduced by permission of © .

Chinese customs

As best is known, men in early Chinese societies wore their hair long but tied it up in a knot that they wore close to the top of their head. This custom changed dramatically in 1644 C.E. when the Manchu people took control of the throne, founding the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). The Manchus were of a different ethnic group than the majority of the Chinese people, who were known as Han Chinese. Upon taking power the Manchus established a law that required that all Han Chinese men shave the front of their heads and wear their hair in a single long braid that hung down the center of the back of the neck. This braid of hair was called a queue. The queue remained in style until the revolution of 1911, which brought an end to imperial rule in China, after which Chinese men tended to wear their hair shorter and cut in various styles similar to those in the West.

Chinese men wore a variety of hats over the many years of their civilization, but two are especially distinctive. The first, known as the summer hat, was conical in shape and made out of rattan, a type of palm, sometimes covered in silk. Its sloping sides extended to the ears and provided protection from the sun. The winter hat was equally distinctive. This hat had a close fitting crown and a long brim that was turned straight up all the way around the head. Extending from the center of the crown was an ornament or a feather, depending on the rank of the wearer. These winter hats could be made of silk, fur, or velvet.

Chinese women tended not to wear hats, but their hairstyles were very important. The hair of Chinese women was naturally straight, and they wore it long. It was well suited to styling. Women used a sticky oil made from wood shavings as a kind of gel and sculpted their hair into styles that wound or piled the hair at the back of the head and the sides. Hair pins and combs were used to hold the hair in place, and flowers and ribbons were used as ornaments.

Japanese customs

Japanese women's hair and headwear customs resembled those of the Chinese in many ways. They used their beautiful dark hair as their primary ornament and developed a variety of complex coiled and wrapped hairstyles. As with so many areas of Japanese life, hairstyles had specific names and were worn for different occasions. The dominant formal hairdo was called a shimada. With this style a woman's long hair is wrapped up from the crown of the head, secured around a small bar, and then spread into a chignon, or a knot of hair tied at the back of the neck. Informal hairstyles also relied on pins, combs, and other forms of hair fasteners.

For much of their early history, Japanese men wore their hair long and tied back into a queue. They also wore long beards and mustaches. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Japanese men began to shave off all their facial hair. This is a custom that has continued to this day.

Changes in the twentieth century

As both China and Japan modernized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most people adopted Western customs in headwear and hairstyles. Following the rise of communism in China after 1949, however, hairstyles became much simpler. (Communism is a system of government in which the state controls the economy and all property and wealth are shared equally by the people.) The Communists wanted to strip away the differences between people, and they discouraged women from wearing expensive decorative items in their hair. Women's hairstyles became much simpler and less adorned.


Sichel, Marion. Japan. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Steele, Valerie, and John S. Major. China Chic: East Meets West. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

Wilson, Verity. Chinese Dress. London, England: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1986.

Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopedia of World Costume. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: