University of Fashion Blog

Posts Tagged: "china"

Silk Through Time – From Ancient Luxury to Modern Sustainability

19th Century Silk Dress from Present-day Uzbekistan, Bukhara (Photo Credit: The MET, Islamic Art collection, “Robe”)

19th Century Silk Dress from Present-day Uzbekistan, Bukhara (Photo Credit: The MET, Islamic Art collection, “Robe”)

SILK – a fabric steeped in legend, with tales of secrets and smuggling along the ancient Silk Road, now finds itself at the heart of modern controversy. Luckily, as a luxurious, durable, and biodegradable fabric, there are ways that we can prioritize the benefits of this fabric and leave the rest behind.

Early History & Expansion of Silk

Silkworm caterpillars feeding on leaves (Photo credit:, IOM/Begüm Başaran)

Silkworm caterpillars feeding on leaves (Photo credit:, IOM/Begüm Başaran)

Legend traces silk’s origins back to the Chinese empress Leizu around 3000 BCE, who, according to myth, discovered the fabric by chance as a silkworm’s cocoon fell into her tea. While the truth of this tale remains shrouded, silk undeniably began its journey in China, flourishing into a prized commodity for its luxurious feel and ability to hold vibrant color.

Silk’s expansion beyond China’s borders was spurred by the Silk Road, transforming it from a closely guarded secret to a global treasure. However, the production of silk remained largely a secret that only China held until around 550 CE, when the emperor of the Byzantine Empire convinced two monks to smuggle silk worms out of China. From those clandestine caterpillars grew the silk production of Europe. As a lightweight, vibrant fabric, it quickly became a status symbol, adorning the elite from Asia to Europe.

Today’s Ethical and Environmental Concerns in Silk Production

Silk Moth Image

Silk Moth (Image by Dan Burchmore from Pixabay)

Contrary to the name silkworm, silk doesn’t originate from worms but from moths, who weave their cocoons out of these long silk fibers. Where the fibers would naturally be broken as the moth emerges from the cocoon, traditional silk production involves boiling or steaming the cocoons to kill the moth before it has a chance to emerge to preserve the long strands. The most common kind of silk is Mulberry silk, named after the tree the caterpillars feed on, and is typically processed this way.

This process is deemed unsustainable and unethical by some due to its impact on the silkworms. Raising silkworms also has a toll on the environment: silk production demands vast quantities of mulberry leaves, necessitating extensive land use, water consumption, and fertilizer application.

Weaving a Sustainable Future: Innovation and Alternatives

Eucalyptus silk dress from brand Green Cult (Image credit: silk dress from brand Green Cult (Image credit:

In response to ethical and environmental concerns, alternative solutions are gaining popularity within the silk industry.

Ahimsa silk, or “peace silk,” refers to a process where silkworms are allowed to complete their life cycle naturally, albeit with a slightly rougher texture of the finished silk as the fibers are broken. Unfortunately, not every brand that claims to use peace silk is truly upholding these values, so it’s important to read about the individual brands to ensure. But, when followed, this process can benefit the moths. Additionally, organic silk ensures that the trees where the caterpillars grow are not treated with harmful chemicals that impact the environment and ecosystems around them.

Another alternative to traditional silk is semi-synthetic fabrics with silk-like properties. Made from eucalyptus fibers, these offer a cruelty-free, eco-friendly alternative. Produced through more sustainable processes, these fabrics, like lyocell or Tencel, maintain silk’s luxurious feel while minimizing the environmental impact.

By embracing these traditional silk alternatives and advocating for transparency and ethical practices throughout the supply chain, we can pave the way towards a more sustainable silk industry and ensure that silk can be enjoyed in harmony with our planet.

So, tell us, which future-forward silk are you excited to try out?

Inspiration China- Moving Beyond Dynasties & Dragons

- - Fashion History


China has been a cultural marvel for the past 5,000 years, beginning with their discovery of the silk worm during the Neolithic period (4th millennium BCE). Chinese artisans wove the most amazing textiles and introduced robes with intricate handcrafted embroideries that, to this day, provide a wealth of inspiration. Over time, Western designers began incorporating Chinese cultural symbolism into their designs: the philosophy of Confucius, Chinese calligraphy and porcelain, Imperial Chinese dynastic robes featuring embroidered dragons (a symbol of power), the martial arts of Tai Chi and Kung Fu, Chinese medicine and food, and of course, the Great Wall.

After the Chinese national revolution of 1911, the country began to accept a more “modern” form of dress. By the mid-twentieth century, the tight-fitting dress known as a cheongsam or qípáo, became traditional women’s dress and the “Mao suit,” a modern revolutionary garment, often made in blue cotton, was the expected attire for men.

Subsequently, when we visualize Chinese or Chinese-inspired clothing, we imagine large dragon motifs, dense floral embroidery, including lotus and plum blossoms. Works of calligraphy paired with red geometric borders and China porcelain art comes to mind. With time, Mandarin collars, Mao jackets and frog closures also found their way into Western designers’ collections.

China’s Influence on Western Fashion

Let’s take a look at some of the best and most popular examples of how Western designers used exoticism, borrowed from the Far East, in their collections.


Paul Poiret circa 1912 (Courtesy

French designer Paul Poiret was highly influenced by Chinese fashion with his famous ‘lampshade’ dress and embroidered Chinese-inspired robe from 1912.

Fast Forward to the 21th Century

In his Fall/Winter 2004 ready-to-wear collection, Tom Ford designed his version of the Chinese cheongsam or qípáo, with added sequins and a side draped detail.


Sequinned Chinese cheongsam by Tom Ford for Saint Laurent Fall/Winter 2004 RTW collection (Photo Credit:  Vogue)

Roberto Cavalli’s Fall 2005 ready-to-wear collection showcased this silk gown with a Chinese blue and white porcelain pattern.


Chinese porcelain-inspired satin evening dress by Roberto Cavalli Fall 2005 ready-to-wear collection (Photo Credit: Vogue)

Designers continued to channel China in the Fall 2011 collections of both Ralph Lauren and Naeem Khan. Khan was inspired by the book The Silk Road.


Ralph Lauren Fall 2011 ready-to-wear collection (Photo Credit: Vogue)


Naeem Khan Fall 2011 ready-to-wear collection (Photo Credit: Vogue)

Far Eastern influences continued as a trend that same year as Oscar de la Renta featured ornate Chinoiserie patterns on coats and silk dresses.

oscar de la renta fall 2011

Oscar de la Renta Fall 2011 ready-to-wear collection (Photo Credit: Vogue)

Christian Louboutin brought Chinese inspiration to accessories, with his dragon motif pumps and flats.


Black Pumps with dragon motif by Christian Louboutin (2014) (Image Credits: Christian Louboutin)

Metropolitan Museum of Art: China- Through the Looking Glass

The impact that Chinese aesthetics has had on Western fashion and the extent to which China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries, was explored in a show entitled: China – Through the Looking Glass, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2015.

The Met Gala Opening (2015) saw celebrities getting into the spirit. Traditional talismans like dragons, yin-yang and butterflies abounded. Jennifer Lopez poses on the red carpet with this strategically placed dragon-motif gown.


Jennifer Lopez wearing a gown with dragon motif at Met Gala 2015 (Huffington Post)

The gala was also provided a showcase for Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei, who designed Rihanna’s golden yellow gown. Pei, whose couture collection is shown during Paris Fashion Week, channels Chinese Imperialism, by utilizing rich fabrics and intricate embellished embroideries for the stars that seek out her work.


Rihanna wearing a golden yellow embroidered gown at Met Gala 2015 designed by Guo Pei

guo-pei-fw16-haute-couture-off-shoulder-blue-layered-gown-fall-winter-2016-17-dress (1)

A dress from Guo Pei Fall-Winter 2016/17 haute couture collection (Image Credits:

The year 2016 was a big one for Chinese inspiration as dragon motifs were favoured by designers at Emilio Pucci, Giuseppe Zanotti and at Gucci.

emilio pucci dragon dress

Emilio Pucci dragon print silk jacket (2016) (Image Credits: Polyvore)

Giuseppe Zanotti dragon shoe

Dragon Shoe by Giuseppe Zanotti (2016)


Details from Gucci Pre-Fall 2017 collection showing dragon motifs

Chinese zodiac signs also became a marketing opportunity for Western fashion designers as the Year of the Monkey ushered in a series of monkey-motifs that appeared on handbags, watches and on this studded jacket at Valentino.


Studded suede jacket by Valentino for the Year of the Monkey (2016) (Image Credits:

Gucci went China crazy with this updated cheongsam that featured a floral and dragon motif in a patchwork combo from their Pre-Fall 2017 collection.


Dress from Gucci Pre-Fall 2017 collection featuring dense floral patterns in red (Image Credits: Elle)

It appeared that Gucci just couldn’t get over ‘Chinoiserie Fever’ when they created this blue and white Chinese porcelain-inspired dress for its Cruise 2017 collection.


Silk dress – Gucci Cruise 2017 collection featuring China porcelain print (Image Credits: Gucci)

China’s Future

China has given the Western fashion world a plethora of design inspiration and yet for a country that: comprises 19.24% of the total world population, ranks number 1 the list of countries in world population with a total of over 1.4 billion people, we have yet to see Chinese designers reach the status of a Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani or Tom Ford. However, stay tuned. We at UoF have our eyes set on a new group of Chinese designers that we think are about to change the future of fashion. Let’s face it…they have lots of inspiration to tap from.