Before Mulan, there was Fu Hao (ca. 1200 BCE). This Shang Dynasty queen was a remarkable figure: not only was she King Wu Ding’s wife and the mother of his children, but she was also his chief military commander. It seems to us like a strange combination, but Fu Hao was a very successful general, personally leading thousands of troops into battle. Some scholars have even speculated that Fu Hao’s military prowess was the whole reason Wu Ding married her; she may have been a northern princess or warlord who brought horses and chariots into the Shang kingdom as part of the marriage alliance. Fu Hao’s name also pops up repeatedly in the oracle bone inscriptions from that time, showing that she served as a key religious official at court. There’s a lot we don’t understand about the status of women in Bronze Age China, but Fu Hao makes it clear that at least some women could play hugely significant roles in public life.
The basic garment in Shang Dynasty times was a lapped robe with contrasting borders, belted with a broad sash. Nobles also wore full underskirts beneath their robes and had fancy brocade panels hanging down from their sashes in front. As a commanding general, Fu Hao would have also been equipped with armor, a helmet with pheasant feathers, and a ceremonial battle axe with a silk banner. The pieces we suggest, from left to right:
1. Thai silk wrap skirt. We chose this for the underskirt because the pattern is reminiscent of Shang weaving. Not a lot of this will show, though, so you can certainly get away with something more basic.
2. Black brocade robe with dragon and phoenix motif plus four yards of jacquard ribbon. The robe is probably a bit fancy for the period, but we like it because of the phoenix and dragon. These imperial symbols date right back to Shang times, and in fact, Fu Hao’s tomb contained an exquisite carved jade phoenix (main illustration above). Temporarily attach the jacquard trim with Res-Q tape to create the contrasting borders.
3. Lacquered lamellar armor: bassinet pad plus Rust-Oleum Lacquer Chinese Red spray paint. Fu Hao’s body armor was probably made of small squares of lacquered leather, and if you’re hardcore you’ll of course want to get right to work sewing dozens of little pieces of leather together. But spray painting a piece of quilting is a heck of a lot easier, and good enough for Halloween. (You might want to use a black marker pen to highlight the lines in the quilting to give it more of that lamellar look.) If you make two pads you can have front and back armor, and then pin on a couple of short pieces of ribbon as shoulder straps. Then wrap a black sash (#4) around your waist and cinch it tight.
4. Three sashes: one red paisley, one solid black, and one solid red. The paisley is for the fancy panel that hangs down in front of your robe. Just fold it into a narrow band and suspend it from your waist underneath your armor. The solid black is to cinch around your waist over the armor. The solid red is to tie around your axe (#5) as a banner.
5. Battle axe. Also available here. The symbol of military authority in Shang times was the yue, a huge bronze battle axe capable of slicing a person in half with a single blow. The shape of the blade on this costume axe isn’t right—the blade on a yue was more rectangular than curved—but the size is great (6 feet long overall). Just improve the color with some spray paint: a coat of Krylon Fusion Blonde Shimmer followed by a coat of Rust-Oleum Aged Brass. Then tie your red sash (#4) around the staff as a banner.
6. General’s helmet with pheasant feathers. Start with a bronze costume helmet. This one is made of flimsy latex, which is good because you need to cut off the nose piece and the cheek pieces. Then get a small brass flange like the kind that’s used in table lamps (available online or in your local hardware store). Glue the flange to the top of the helmet with some seriously powerful adhesive like Gem-Tac. Finally, insert a couple of pheasant feathers into the flange and secure with more glue.
Accessories: It’s the Shang Dynasty, so you gotta wear some hoop earrings. (Fu Hao is even wearing hoops on her statue.) Black leather arm bracers with antique brass rivets will help reinforce your military look.