Dudou, the artistic underwear of medieval China

"Red underwear" painting
"Red Underwear", a painting by Liushi Zong  source

What do you think the young lady on the painting above is wearing? As the painting's title suggests it is an underwear. But what kind of? Actually it is a dudou. The garment with such unusually-sounding name has a long history. It was invented by the Chinese somewhen in the 17th century with the sole practical purpose to keep the chest and stomach area warm. It is just a square or rhomboidal piece of cloth with attached straps that were tied around the neck and at the back. The dudou often has a pocket where ginger, musk or other medicinal herbs believed to keep the belly warm were put. It was worn by children, women and men alike to prevent not only cold but, according to some sources, diarrhea as well.

Dudou, early 20th century
Dudou, early 20th century. The National Museum of Taiwan History

Dudou, Qing dynasty

This simple garment worn underneath robes and not seen practically by anybody was, however, artistically decorated with embroidery. The embroidery served not just as mere decoration, each figure or pattern had a special meaning. As traditionally these bellybands were made by women for themselves, their lovers, husbands or children the patterns' subject depended on who the dudou was intended for. Those for lovers obviously had love as their theme: romantic stories taken from operas, myths and folklore; those for young women and brides could contain figures of dragon, phoenix and fish as symbols of good luck, happiness and fertility; the patterns used for the bellybands of babies and children often had tiger as their main character who was believed to give protection against evil; dudous for older people could be embroidered with images of tortoise, a symbol of longevity. The embroidery themes were given beautiful poetic names like the "Fish Darting and Playing Between Lotus Leaves" or the "Butterfly Loving a Flower" or the "Phoenix Playing with a Peony".

Embroidered dudou, late Qing dynasty
Dudou, late Qing dynasty, satin, silver chain. Embroidery depicts "both husband and wife around the house" story. China National Silk Museum

Boy wearing dudou sculpture
Boy wearing a dudou, a sculpture in Qiantang. Photo source

Figurine of a prince wearing a dudou
Figurine of a prince wearing a dudou. 

Traditional dudous were mostly made of silk satin. The straps could be of the same fabric or cotton but those from rich families used gold or silver chains instead.

Model wearing dudou

Guy wearing dudou

In recent years the dudou has made a come back in China, as a fashion item as well as an underwear. Nowadays there are different designs of dudou on the Chinese market that can be worn in the streets as a backless top combined with skirts or jeans or at home as a sexy lingerie.

A few more examples of traditional dudous

Embroidered dudou
 "Lion Rolling an Embroidered Ball". Such patter was usually used for a baby boy's dudou

Embroidered dudou
"White Rabbit and Fuwa". This embroidery theme is a symbol of life and fertility

Chinese embroidery close up
"Record of a Journey to the West". People's faces here have no eyes, noses or mouths. It is characteristic of embroidery from Gaoping area.

Dudou embroidered with a scene from traditional Chinese opera
"The Rabbit Jumping Into a Garden". This is a scene from a traditional opera. While chasing a white rabbit the main character, the first emperor of the Song Dynasty, enters a garden. The white rabbit runs up to a girl named Fu, young people meet and fall in love.

Embroidered dudou depicting a scene from traditional Chinese opera
Another scene from a traditional opera which symbolizes a happy and harmonious love life

Related posts
Qipao, the evergreen classic
Traditional headdresses of the Miao women of China


  1. I have never heard of dudous, aren't the colours and embroidery exquisite? I was also thinking that they would be wearable as outerwear now (Vix makes little tops out of scarves which look very similar). And how interesting that they are being marketed for men too, they look so overtly feminine to me. Another fascinating post, Olga! xxx

  2. Curtise is right, I make little tops like that now! I love them. The embroidery is exquisite. xxx

  3. Never heard of this type of underwear. Wow, such beautiful embroidery! Thank you, Olga -- you always surprise me with your posts about fashion. Have a wonderful week.

  4. Olga, do you remember they were very fashionable in early 2000s? I had no idea they have such deep roots in Chinese culture thought! Very beautiful, intricate details. Thank you for the discovery!! xxx

  5. When my daughter was a baby, my in-laws (who are from Taiwan, originally both from China) gave her something looking like a wide quilted belt to keep baby's stomach warm - yes, they have a thing about that in Chinese culture. Are you familiar with it in Nepal?

    1. No, there is no any special garment for keeping stomach warm in Nepal. But here they smear babies with mustard seeds oil to warm them. Even adults from poorer families use this oil in winter.

  6. I'd never heard of these! Could have used something like it when I was attending school on the windiest, foggiest hilltop in San Francisco, though. :D

    The hours and hours that must have gone into each garment stun me now. We wear such comparatively simple things these days.

  7. How wonderful, thank you so much for sharing

  8. So lovely and fascinating too! I will look at halter tops in a new way now. I suppose these embroidered messages were the early printed tshirts! Although for private use:-) xo JJ

  9. very interesting! I once bought this top in a China shop (when I was about 15, I'm 30 now so that was 15 years ago) back when they used to sell Chinese clothing in China shops and not Western ones...and the owner said something about how I should wore it only for my boyfriend (who was with me the time when I bought it) and he smiled...I only now get why he said it...because you know, it was the nineties 'the time of the cropped tops', so I wore it as a cropped top. I didn't know what it was supposed to mean, but now I get that remark:).

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