Imperial Chinese robes on display at V&A

Emperor's summer court robe, 1851-1861An exhibit displaying unbelievably gorgeous Chinese imperial robes opens today at the Victoria & Albert museum in London. Most of these textiles have never left China, and many of them haven’t ever been displayed in the Forbidden City either.

They once adorned only members of the imperial families of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and have been preserved over the centuries in a condition so sterling that it frankly beggars belief. That’s why they’ve so rarely been shown in public, because even after the Forbidden City became a museum in 1925, there were no public galleries that could provide the proper conditions required to conserve these fragile textiles.

Emperor's winter court robe, 1796-1820They remained in the Forbidden City stores for hundreds of years, treated as sacred and carefully tended even as the wars both Opium and World, rebellions both Boxer and Taiping, and the dissolution of the entire imperial system exploded around them. As soon as the emperor, empress, concubines and their children died, their clothing was taken to the stores, never to be worn again, never exposed to sunlight and the various effluvia of humanity. The collection is so enormous that it is has taken almost a century since the opening of the Forbidden City to catalog all the pieces. That’s 5 generations of curators dedicated to the task.

The exhibition includes a wedding gown made in 1889 when Yehe Nara Jingen married the emperor Guangxu, which took three years to make. It is richly embroidered with dragons and phoenix, on red silk, the colour for weddings: the last boy emperor Pu Yi recalled that when he married in 1922, two years before he was expelled from the Forbidden City, the bridal chamber “looked like a melted red wax candle”.

The garments followed a strict hierarchy: bright yellow for the emperor, apricot yellow for his sons, Siberian sable only for the imperial family, pale blue for moon ceremonies, padded robes embroidered with narrow rows of gold to look like metal armour for travelling with an entourage of 3,000 people, 6,000 horses and 1,000 boats. Ordinary Chinese people could never have afforded the sumptuous dragon embroideries, but were in any case forbidden by law to use them.

Women's shoes, 1875-1908The robes are accompanied by accessories, of course, as fashion demands. There are slippers, shoes, helmets and headdresses. The women’s shoes on the left were known as “flower pot shoes” because of the shape of the heel. Manchu women did not bind their feet, so the shoes are normal sized. That heel is something else, right? Lady Gaga, eat your heart out, you amateur.

Please do yourself a favor and browse the V&A website on the exhibit. There are many pictures, all of which are the kind of beautiful that make you audibly exclaim as you browse. Also, check out the curator’s blog for all kinds of fascinating detail about the exhibit, the garments and their conservation.

6 thoughts on “Imperial Chinese robes on display at V&A

    1. Thank you! That kind of comment is why a history teacher I had in high school called my writing “very American”. I don’t think he meant it as a compliment, though. :giggle:

  1. Livius hi
    It’s been quite a while since i commented on your posts – sorry for that.
    Been following you constantly and retweeting your post. Got a question though – are you on twitter, cause i couldn’t find you.
    Oh and sorry for spamming the comments on this post.

    Best regards

    1. Hiya Boris, it’s great to see you commenting. I am not on Twitter. I checked it out some time ago thinking I might could use it as a companion to my blog, but it’s just not for me.

      Thank you for (re)tweeting my posts, though. :hattip:

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