Leadership lessons from Confucius: dressing for success

dressing for success

A leader doesn’t wear purple or maroon for the embroidered borders on his gown; he doesn’t use red or purple either for casual wear. During the summer, he wears a fine or coarse linen singlet, but never goes out without wearing an undergarment beneath it. He wears a black robe over a lambskin coat; a white robe over a fawn fur coat; and a yellow robe over a fox fur coat. His casual fur robes are long and have a shorter right sleeve. His nightgown is very long. He uses thick furs such as fox and badger as cushions. Except when he is in mourning, he can wear any type of adornment on his girdle. Apart from his ceremonial robes, the layers of his other robes are cut to different lengths. At funerals, he doesn’t wear lambskin coats or black caps. On the day of the Auspicious Moon Ceremony, he attends court dressed in full court attire. (1) (2) 

Even if the fashions have changed, dressing for success has never gone out of style. No matter whether it’s a Patagonia vest when you’re in Silicon Valley or a Savile Row suit when you’re in the City, you have to show that you’re one of the in-crowd and mean business.

Just be grateful that managing your wardrobe is a lot simpler than it was in Confucius’s times.


This article features a translation of Chapter 6 of Book 10 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 10 here.

(1) This passage looks as if it has been ripped off from the ancient Chinese equivalent of GQ, and possibly refers to leaders (君子/jūnzǐ) in general rather than Confucius in particular. That doesn’t make it any less interesting, though, assuming of course that the finer points of fifth-century BCE Chinese gentleman’s fashion are your thing. Here are a few additional comments and explanations that I have gleaned from various sources:

Purple and maroon were too close to black in color, which was used only for ceremonial and official purposes. Indeed, black was the standard color for garments worn at court. White was the color for mourning in ancient China. 

Red and purple were considered too lavish to wear at home.

In 17.18, Confucius declares that he loathes purple for replacing vermilion. This was most likely because it wasn’t a primary color, and Confucius therefore considered it to be impure.

The right sleeve on the home robe would probably have been shorter to make eating and other daily tasks easier.

The meaning of the phrase describing the gentleman’s nightgown (長一身有半/zhǎng yīshēn yǒu bàn) has perplexed scholars for thousands of years. Literally it means “half as long again as a man’s body”, which would make for an extremely long garment. I have settled for the ambiguous “very long” for want of any better alternative.

(2) According to many commentators, the Auspicious Moon Ceremony (吉月/jíyuè) was traditionally held on the first day of each lunar month, but had fallen into decline during the reign of Duke Wen of Lu (626–609 BC). They speculate that it is the same event featured in 3.17, where Confucius voices his opposition to Zigong’s plan to remove the sacrifice of a sheep from the ritual.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Yilan, Taiwan.

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