Naxi Costumes

Naxi dress and adornments are usually made of leather from cattle and sheep. In the "Welcome to God Dongge" of the classical Dongba Scriptures can be found the following lines: "The snake of the universe gave birth to a brother and a sister. They formed ties of mutual affection and married. They tended white sheep, making sheepskin into clothing, capes, hats and belts. From then on, the sheepskin cape became the insignia of Naxi dress and adornment."

The sheepskin cape is called a "You'er" in Naxi. It is made of pure black sheepskin which is prepared by washing it in a simple, yet effective detergent consisting of rice flour (this detergent derives its effectiveness from the fact that it works on the basis of enzymes), then drying it over Glauber's salt. The cape is then cut to measure and sewn, using black down or Pulu ("You'er Tong") to represent the sheep's neck, seven patches of colorful velvet embroidery as eyes, and seven bars of sheepskin leather as beard. The cape is finished off with long white straps on either side at the top, whose purpose is to secure the cape in a modified, reverse-suspenders, or back-to-front suspenders, fashion: each strap is brought forward over the nearest shoulder, the two straps meeting in front in an overhand knot at midpoint, where chest meets abdomen, with the loose ends of the straps continuing on downwards and around the waist, to be tied in back. The visual effect is to form an "X" of the white straps in front of the body.

The male costume is similar to the Han Chinese gown, replete with Mandarin-style jacket with buttons. However, the female costume has its own unique features. It consists of a long, unlined gown and a colorful, embroidered cape. The gown is slightly longer in back, reaching the calf of the leg, while it reaches the knee in the front. Underneath this gown, Naxi women wear trousers, and on their feet they wear the traditional boat-shaped shoes. A Naxi woman's dress is traditionally in one of three main colors – blue, white or black – and is trimmed with lace about the collar and on the sleeves. Married women wear their hair in a bun under a black gauze cap while unmarried women do up their hair in back, covering it with a scarf or with a black velvet skullcap.

What makes a Naxi woman's dress most distinctive is of course the special cape on her back. This cape is made of black sheepskin and has seven round designs embroidered on it. These seven round designs represent the stars. Hence it is named the "Seven-Star Sheepskin Cape". The cape consists of two main colors: white and black. The color white symbolizes the sky while black represents the earth. Together, the sky, earth and stars that are sewn onto the Naxi woman's cape thus symbolize the hard labor of the Naxi woman. According to legend, there once lived a beautiful, capable and hard-working girl named Yinggu who fought against the drought devil for nine days and finally perished of exhaustion. The supreme god Sanduo sent his Snow Spirit Dragon to conquer the drought devil and to pinch the seven cold suns, which were forever after swallowed by the drought devil, into seven stars and inlay them in Yinggu's sun cape. From then on, Naxi girls have followed this inherited tradition.

"Seven-Star Sheepskin Cape" of Naxi people. (Photo from

An alternative legend regarding the origin of the seven round designs on the Naxi cape belongs to the historical worship of the frog totem. According to this legend, the Naxi admire the frog as the god of intelligence who can help people out of danger, and therefore the seven round designs on the Naxi cape depict frog eyes.

For everyday use, Naxi women wear wide-sleeved loose gowns topped with a jacket – usually with a piece of sheepskin slung over the shoulder – over long trousers tied with a richly decorated belt at the waist. However, Naxi women in Ninglang County wear short jackets over very long skirts that reach the ground with several folds. They also wear large black cotton turbans and adorn themselves with large silver earrings that contrast sharply with the black turbans. The costume of the Naxi men of Ninglang County, like the male Naxi costume elsewhere, is inspired by that of the Chinese.

Today, traditional Naxi dress is rarely worn among the younger generation, since most of them prefer to wear mainstream Chinese dress, itself greatly influenced by the world at large. Traditional Naxi dress is now usually only worn at cultural events and on other special occasions.

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