Two women wearing "hanfu" - traditional Chinese clothing - preparing to pose for a photo. Greg Baker/AFP
Dressed in a flowing long robe adorned with beaded floral embroidery from a bygone era, stylist Xiao Hang looks like she surfaced from a time machine as she strides across the bustling Beijing metro, attracting curious glances and inquisitive questions.
China has embraced Western fashion and futuristic technology as its economy boomed in recent decades, but a growing number of young people like Xiao are looking to the past for their sartorial choices and donning traditional "hanfu", or "Han clothing".
"If we as a people and as a country do not even understand our traditional clothing or don't wear them, how can we talk about other essential parts of our culture?
These historic costumes of the Han ethnic majority are enjoying a renaissance in part because the government is promoting traditional culture in a bid to boost patriotism and national identity.
There is no uniform definition of what counts as hanfu since each Han-dominated dynasty had its own style, but the outfits are characterised by loose, flowing robes that drape around the body, with sleeves that hang down to the knees.
Xiao, runs her own hanfu business, where she dresses customers for photo shoots and even plans hanfu-style weddings.
Ancient style, new fashion
In modern China, the hanfu community spans the gamut: from history enthusiasts to anime fans, to students and even young professionals.
Yang Jiaming, a high school student in Beijing, wears his outfit under his school uniform.
"Two-thirds of my wardrobe is hanfu," he said, decked out in a Tang-style beige gown and black boots at a hanfu gathering, adding that his classmates and teachers have been supportive of his style.
Clothes are the "foundation of culture," said Jiang Xue, who is part of Beijing-based hanfu club Mowutianxia, which has received funding from the Communist Youth League.
"If we as a people and as a country do not even understand our traditional clothing or don't wear them, how can we talk about other essential parts of our culture?" she said.
A woman wearing "hanfu" -l Chinese clothing - posing for photos. Greg Baker/AFP
There is some way before the style reaches mainstream acceptance in China.
In March, two students in Shijiazhuang Medical College in northern China were reportedly threatened with expulsion for wearing the outfits to school.
Also known as cheongsam in Cantonese, the qipao -- meaning "Qi robe" -- began as a long, loose dress worn by the Manchus or "Qi" people who ruled China from the 17th century to the early 1900s.
Its popularity took off in 1920s Shanghai when it was modified into a fitted must-have, favoured by actresses and intellectuals as a symbol of femininity and refinement.
Children wearing "hanfu" at a gathering of hanfu devotees at a park in Beijing. Greg Baker/AFP
"Some people... think that the cheongsam was inspired in the Qing Dynasty, which is not enough to represent China. There are nationalist undertones in this issue," said Chinese culture scholar Gong Pengcheng.
"It is a good trend to explore traditional culture and clothing culture... There are many things we can talk about, and we need not shrink to nationalist confrontation."
He said: "At the very least, we can wear our own traditional clothes, just like the ethnic minorities."
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