Costume of custom
By Lauren Lam
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While white chiffon and tulle project a princess-like image for a bride, a traditional red Chinese wedding costume represents nobility.
A kwan kwa is a traditional Chinese wedding costume composed of a long, silk blouse and a long skirt.
Historically, only members of the Chinese imperial family were privileged to wear this costume.
But the kwan kwa has not been confined to imperial brides since the Yuan Dynasty.
A Yuan emperor, Khan, saw a courtier pick up old clothes for his sister as a wedding costume. Feeling pity for the girl, Khan granted her an imperial kwa.
The kwan kwa was then made available to ordinary people, and it became a mainstream wedding costume.
However, the kwa was not popular among the poor, as it was still a luxury.
Said Mr. Kenneth Wong, administration manager of Top Fashion Embroidery Co.: In the old days, only the rich could afford to wear a kwa while the poor wore clothes made of hemp for weddings.
The popularization of the kwa increased with a fall in prices. Many brides can afford to wear them now.
In any case, most brides now rent kwas instead of buying them.
This contravenes older practices. Older generations insisted on buying their own kwas and passed them to their daughters.
Old people think that renting a wedding costume is not good.
They worry about bad luck being passed through them in case someone who has rented the costume before does not have a happy marriage.
In the past few decades, kwas have been richly decorated with dragons and phoenixes, representing Chinese emperors and empresses.
Chinese wedding costumes are usually red, which is regarded as a lucky colour. Green, pink, purple and gold are also available.
Each colour for a kwan kwa was strictly confined to women of certain status in the past.
For instance, only first wives had the right to wear a red kwa, while concubines wore pink or green ones.
Mr. Wong said, Because Hong Kong men are not allowed to have concubines, such differentiation is no longer a rule.
Brides nowadays can wear wedding costumes in any colour they wish.
For mothers-in-law, black kwas are still preferred. A black blouse and skirt are suitable for women over 60, while younger ones wear a black blouse and a red skirt.
Despite such differentiation, there are three main types of kwa according to the decorating materials.
One popular type of kwa, which was introduced in the 1960s, is embellished with sequins and beads for a glittering effect.
Another type the most luxurious and sophisticated one is called The King of Kwas. It is the most sumptuous because all sewing is done by hand.
Real golden and silver thread is used to sew motifs of dragons, phoenixes and auspicious symbols.
Motifs of dragons and phoenixes are regarded as symbols of prosperity and fortune.
The third type of kwa is a combination of the former types. It has some decorative beads and sequins together with embroidery in golden and silver thread.
A special kind of kwa was worn by a woman on both her wedding and burial days.
Some women own a kwa which is worn on the wedding day, and then when the owner dies, her corpse is dressed in the kwa again.
The popularity of such kwas has faded out already, however.
Changes also have taken place in the designs of kwas.
Throughout the last century, designs of kwas changed a lot. For example, wavy fringes on blouses, called romantic fringes, substitute for the flat fringes of former days.
Only kwas with long sleeves stretching below the knees were made in the old days. But now kwas tailored with sleeves to fit ones arm are available. Shoes have changed as well.
Said Mr. Wong, Old-style bridal shoes were made of simple embroidered cloth and had no heels.
Modern brides wear leather, high-heeled shoes.
The latest design in bridal shoes contains decorations made in sequins and embroidery, Mr. Wong said.
In addition to costumes and shoes, a traditional bride needed many accessories.
In the 19th century, it was common to wear an ornate headdress which was made of silver inlaid with kingfisher features and pearls.
Since the 20th century, headdresses have been made of a cloth-covered card with motifs of phoenixes and auspicious Chinese characters like double happiness.
Many colourful puffy balls with strands of pearls hang along the front edge of a headdress.
The strands of pearls are used to cover the brides face for the whole wedding day.
It was customary for a groom to help his wife take off her headdress on their wedding night.
Modern brides do not wear headdresses. Instead, they put a red flower on their head, said Mr. Wong.
Brides wear gold bangles with motifs of dragons and phoenixes carved on them.
Jade bangles are also worn as it is believed that they protect a bride from mishaps.
For weddings in rural areas, brides sometimes wear demon-reflecting mirrors around their necks to protect themselves against evil.
Local rural Chinese couples usually perform Chinese wedding rituals because they want to keep up the Chinese traditions.
Miss Winnie Cheng, who is going to get married, said that she will wear a kwa in a Chinese wedding ceremony.
It is believed that a bride should wear the whole set of the wedding dress only on wedding day.
She said, I didnt know this and so I almost tried the whole set when I was fitting.
Luckily, my mother told me that I should try the blouse and the skirt separately.
Wearing the whole set only on the wedding day assures that a woman will not get married more than one time in her life.
I must say that the blouse is very heavy although it is beautiful. There are so many heavy beads on it.
However, because it will bring me a happy marriage. Ill wear it no matter how heavy it is, she said.
A model shows a contemporary short-sleeved kwa for summer weddings. (Courtesy of Mr. Kenneth Wong)
(Courtesy of Mr. Kenneth Wong)