Ba Sing Se and the Manchus
Ba Sing Se is based on China’s Qing Dynasty. Even though the majority of the population was/is Han Chinese, the ruling class during the Qing dynasty was not, they were Manchu.
Compare the vastly different styles in Ba Sing Se (Manchu based) and the rest of the Earth Kingdom (largely Han based, with an emphasis in different place on different dynasties e.g. Toph’s family- Tang Dynasty).
Han Chinese traditionally wore hanfu, while the Manchu traditional dress is the qipao.
The headdress we see women in Ba Sing Se wear is called a Liang Ba Tou.
Manchu women arranged their hair in a rather stately fashion, with a decorated frame attached to the top of the head. Instead of tying their hair up in a bun like the Chinese did, Manchu women wrapped their hair around a wooden, metal, or ivory fillet (called “bian fang”), extending over either side of the head and fastened behind the head.
The coiffure rose dramatically above the head, with decorative flowers attached to the front. Silk tassels hung from the two sides, matching the patterns of the flowered shoes. This was called the banner hair or “liang ba tou (two handfuls of hair)” as the hair was parted in the middle and wrapped to the two sides of the fillet.
During the Qing Dynasty, the coiffure became higher and fan-shaped, sitting on the head like a flat crown. Instead of being wrapped with hair, the frame was covered in silk or velvet, and decorations were also more lavish.
The hairstyle we see on men i.e. the partially shaved head with the long braided queue, is called the Manchu Queue.
The queue is a hairstyle in which the hair is worn long and gathered up into a ponytail. The Chinese queue was a specific hairstyle worn by the Manchus from central Manchuria and later imposed on the Chinese in China. The hairstyle consisted of the hair on the front of the head being shaved off above the temples and the rest of the hair braided into a long ponytail, or queue. The ponytail was never to be cut for it would justify execution as treason.
The Manchu hairstyle was forcefully introduced to China by Nurhaci in the early 17th century. Nurhaci achieved the creation of a Manchu state in Manchuria, later becoming the Qing Dynasty of China, after having defeated the Ming forces in northern China. Once firmly in power, Nurhaci commanded all men in the areas he had conquered to adopt the Manchu hairstyle. The Manchu hairstyle was significant because it was a symbol of Ming Chinese submission to Manchu rule. The queue also aided the Manchus in identifying those Chinese that refused to accept Manchu domination of the Chinese.
Han Chinese wore their hair in a variety of styles i.e. including Ozai, Zhao, the Boulder, Hahn and Haru style.
Side note: The Manchu did not practice footbinding.
Image source: One, two, three