Pre-Qing Dynasty Chinese clothing is broadly referred to as ''hanfu'' with many variations such as traditional Chinese academic dress. Depending on one's status in society, each social class had a different sense of fashion.
Civil and military officials
Chinese civil or military officials used a variety of codes to show their rank and position. The most recognized is the Mandarin square or rank badge. Another code was also the use of colorful hat knobs fixed on the top of their hats. The specific hat knob on one's hat determined one's rank. As there were nine types of hat knobs representing the nine distinctive ranks of the civil or military position. Variations existed for Ming official headwear.
The rise of the Manchu Qing Dynasty in many ways represented a cultural rupture with the past and new clothing styles were required to be worn by all citizens through laws such as the Queue Orders. A new style of dress, called ''tangzhuang'', included the ''changshan'' worn by men and the qipao worn by women. Manchu official headwear differed from the Ming version but the Qing continued to use the Mandarin square.
Republic of China
The abolition of imperial China in 1912 had an immediate effect on dress and customs. The largely Han Chinese population immediately cut off their as they were forced to grow in submission to the overthrown Qing Dynasty. Sun Yat-sen popularised a new style of men's wear, featuring jacket and trousers instead of the robes worn previously. Adapted from Japanese student wear, this style of dress became known as the Zhongshan suit .
For women, a transformation of the traditional ''qipao'' resulted in a slender and form fitting dress with a high cut, resulting in the contemporary image of a cheongsam but contrasting sharply with the traditional ''qipao''.
People's Republic of China
Early in the People's Republic, Mao Zedong would inspire Chinese fashion with his own variant of the Zhongshan suit, which would be known to the west as Mao suit. Meanwhile, Sun Yat-sen's widow, Soong Ching-ling, popularised the cheongsam as the standard female dress. At the same time, old practices such as footbinding, which had been viewed as backwards and unmodern by both the Chinese as well as Westerners, were forbidden.
Around the period in 1964, almost anything seen as part of would lead to problems with the . Items that attracted dangerous attention if caught in the public included jeans, high heels, Western-style coats, ties, jewelry, cheongsams, and long hair. These items were regarded as symbols of bourgeois lifestyle, which represented wealth. Citizens had to avoid them or suffer serious consequences such as torture or beatings by the guards.
Clothing in contemporary China
Following the relaxation of communist clothing standards in the 1980s, Chinese fashion grew closer to that of the rest of East Asia. Contemporary urban clothing seemed to have developed an obsession with brand names. In major urban centres, especially Shanghai, an increased western look is preferred, and there is an emphasis on formal wear over casual wear for adults on the streets. Teenagers prefer brand names. Children usually wear clothes decorated with cartoon characters.
However, there is also effort by some to revive traditional clothing forms such as the ''hanfu'' by the hanfu movement. At an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Shanghai in 2001, the host presented silk-embroided ''tangzhuang'' jackets as the Chinese traditional national costume.