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10 Fascinating Facts from the Dynasties of Fashion

Like lot 452 in Dreweatts’ Asian Sale on 23 May,
every Chinese robe – across dynastic eras and traditions – has a story to tell.

Each holds distinctive clues as to the life and status of the person it once adorned through the colours, symbols, style features chosen – even the type of stitch can reveal insight into the courtly life of its former owner.  To ensure your robe collection is always a cut above the rest, here is our quick guide to the most fascinating facts and clues that can be gleaned from these stunning fashion statements and top tips to kick start your collection.

Lot 452: A rare Imperial Chinese eight dragon roundel robe, 'long pat', Daoguang Provenance: From a private English Family collection, acquired before 1950 when found in the trunk of a military gentleman
Est. £8,000-12,000 (+fees)

As the Chinese art market grows in popularity, countless fakes have appeared. So, before you fall in love with a dragon emblazoned satin robe believing it to have Imperial origins, it’s best to be sure it’s the real deal.  Linda Wrigglesworth London’s leading consultant in Antique Chinese Costume and textiles says ‘Condition is an important factor when buying a robe as any kind of damage – unlike porcelain – can be restored, but cannot be removed or hidden. Textiles move and so any damage can be exacerbated. So, this should always be considered against rarity and age. However, a passion to collect a piece that still holds integrity is perhaps a reason to accept some imperfections“. Linda recommends a safe starting price of £4000-6,000.  This will ensure a certain level of quality. Although an Emperor’s robe will be out of reach at this price, Linda says there are many other Courtly pieces worth collecting: “In general the higher the quality and condition the higher the price, and the easier it will be to sell in the future”. 

Detail: Imperial Consorts sleeve
Lot 452 Imperial robe for sale at Dreweatts on 23 May 2019 | Courtesy of Linda Wrigglesworth Private Collection, London

As with many works of art, it can be difficult to determine a textile’s precise date of creation unless the maker has left a maker’s mark. However, there are always clues to look out for – such as colours and style. Certain colours only appeared in the late 19th century, when chemical aniline dyes from Europe became available. Brighter than the traditional vegetable dyes used they created bolder hues – such as Perkin’s Purple created in England in 1856.  Changing styles also give good indication as to the age of a robe. For example, in the late 19th century the Empress Dowager Cixi decided she loved bold, floral designs, which were then speedily replicated by court noblewomen wishing to follow suit. The fad was short lived but if you fall in love with a floral Chinese robe, it could well be from the Cixi fashion craze. Incidentally, Empress Cixi never packed lightly: apparently for one short trip her servants packed 56 trunks of robes, vests and jackets – each trunk measuring 4 x 5 feet – and was also known to change her robe as many as 4-5 times a day.

Portrait of the Emperor Qianlong, China 1736 by Giuseppe Castiglione | Courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund

When the nomadic Manchu people overthrew China’s ruling Ming dynasty in the mid 17th century, not only did they establish the Qing dynasty that would rule the roost for nearly three centuries, but they also heralded in a new and influential era in the Chinese fashion story. Ruling from 1644 to 1911, the Qing dynasty began making its fashion mark by introducing a new style of dress that was to be worn by all noblemen and officials. In 1759 Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) took protocol to a new level and commissioned the Huangchao Liqi Tushi – a strict and comprehensive, illustrated guide as to the exact dress code to be worn by each member of the Imperial household.  The Chinese emperors were the fashion leaders of their day – whatever inspired the emperor, inspired everyone – and are continuing to inspire a new generation of wealthy Chinese collectors today, determined to acquire the very best of the best.

A fine Chinese blue-ground embroidered dragon robe, 'Jifu', Qing Dynasty, early to mid 19th century, the robe originally worn by a Mandarin of the Imperial court, sold for £16,120 at Dreweatts on 14 November 2017

Making your status clear for all to see was never more than within the Imperial court of the Qing dynasty. From the bats on your sleeves to the writhing dragons on your coat, the clothes you wore during the Qing dynasty were designed to reveal your rank, in just one glance…

The Emperors Twelve Imperial Emblems The twelve imperial emblems are the sun, the moon, the stars, mountains, dragons, axes, fu, flames, pheasants, ritual cups, aquatic grass, and grains of rice. Each held particular meaning – for example the moon and moon rabbit represented the elixir of life; the stars symbolised happiness, prosperity and longevity; the dragon represented adaptability and strength while the two animals with their backs together symbolised the distinction between right and wrong. With a long history and first appearing on the ritual apparel of pre-modern emperors, princes, feudal lords, ministers, and high officials, rulers of every age would go on to appropriate the Twelve Emblems for different purposes, with the Qing emperors making them exclusive to royalty and using them to embellish not only ritual apparel used for sacrificial ceremonies, but also on an emperor’s formal wear and other ceremonial dress.

Colour Blocking The Qing dynasty’s official colour was blue. Noblemen and court mandarins wore this colour, but Yellow – thought of as the luckiest of colours – was reserved for royalty only and consisted of five Imperial Yellows. However, the emperors’ and empresses’ dragon robes of the Qing dynasty could be of many colours – bright yellow, apricot yellow, golden yellow, light brown, ginger yellow, greenish brown, pale pinkish purple, lilac, forest green, light sea green, slate blue, maroon, peach red, pink, bluish white, dark slate blue, rouge red, blue, red, green, dark brown, crimson, brown, purple, tan, etc. Sometimes the emperor might decree a favourite colour for a particular dragon robe – on 30th January 1756 eunuch Wang Jinglong conveyed the following imperial instruction from Emperor Qianlong: “After a bath, the emperor is to wear a greenish-brown, tapestry-weave serving dragon robe lined with black fox. For every lunar New Year’s Eve from now on, this is to be the precedent”.

Dressed to the Nines Distinguishing civil and military officials from the rest of the imperial court was done by dividing them into nine ranks, with first being the highest and ninth the lowest. Each rank was represented by a symbolic animal and worn as a badge on their blue/black silk ‘surcoats’. Birds represented the civil ranks, while either mythical or real animals represented the military ranks.

A rare formal court robe of charcoal grey silk gauze, chao'fu, Qing Dynasty, mid-19th century, sold for £7,095 at Dreweatts on 14 November 2017

As with all imperial wardrobe protocol, Qing dynasty ceremonies required officials to dress in a particular way. Formal robes were often designed in the traditional style of the ruling Manchu people featuring nomadic, horse-riding attire featuring side-fastening jackets and ‘horse shoe’ cuffs – originally designed to protect the wearer’s hands when riding in harsh conditions.  Coloured dress and patterned clothes were robes chosen for their designs and colours to suit the varying requirements of the season or festive holiday. For government business it was expected that one would wear semi-official clothing, including the well-known jifu, or dragon robe, which again featured the ‘horse-shoe’ cuff should circumstance require the wearer to jump on a horse. Jifu robes were rich in symbolic meaning, representing the entire universe in their design – from the lishui waves at the base, anchored by a central mountain, to the dragons among clouds that swirled above, denoting authority.

Detail of a 19th century oil painting of a female courtier wearing informal dress | Courtesy of Linda Wrigglesworth Private Collection, London

Within the Imperial court and government of the Qing dynasty women in general kept a low profile, with most female Imperial courtiers living their life in the northern section or inner court of the Forbidden City. So, for the majority, the opportunities to wear formal dress such as chaofu or dragon robes were minimal, making surviving examples – such as Lot 452 up for sale at Dreweatts this May – particularly rare. However, once raised to the rank of consort one of the small perks (to make up for no longer being allowed to leave court for the rest of their lives) was that they then had access to the Imperial embroidery workshops where they would commission their wardrobe and wear garments made of the highest quality and most exquisite silk cloth available. However, a wife’s robe still had to reflect her husband’s status. Women would wear the same rank badge as their husband (or father if unmarried) displayed on an outer coat. In the 18th century it became popular for a wife’s badge to mirror her husband’s so that, when seated together, the animals on each faced each other. The robe on sale at Dreweatts on 23 May is believed to be of high royalty or consort status, due to the clasping of the pearl by the side facing dragons, and so is likely to have been worn by an Imperial Consort or a Princess, wife to a first or second rank Prince.

19th century lady's sleeve decoration, with a large coral coloured peony embroidered in the 'Forbidden' knot | Photograph Courtesy of Linda Wrigglesworth Private Collection, London

Reserved for highly important embroidery detailing, the Pekin Knot (also known as the French Knot, Chinese Knot, or Seed Stitch) was often referred to as the Forbidden Knot or Blind Knot because it was said to be so fine and precise in execution that it would turn the embroiderer blind. There is of course no real evidence of anyone going blind, but the stitch was real and incredibly intricate to execute – and thought to have been named after the Forbidden City, where it was used to adorn the garments of Emperors and royalty only, and never meant to be used beyond its walls. To look at, the stitch resembles a minuscule circle with a dimple in its centre formed by winding thread around an embroidery needle three or four times, then plunging it through the middle of the coil and in through the fabric.

A small Chinese silk jacket, re-tailored from a 19th century imperial workshop embroidery, and a surcoat robe that has been completely re-shaped and adapted into a modern jacket. Sold at Dreweatts on 16 May 2017 for £5,208

Antique Chinese robes became coveted by European and American tourists in the 19th and early 20th century. Traditionally made to a loose-fitting cut, new owners would often have them tailored to a slimmer Western style, even lining some with fur. Robes that were originally produced for the Chinese court were also bought by buyers in Tibet as luxuries for their aristocracy and high-ranking clergy and re-cut to fit Tibetan costume styles.

19th century blue dragon robe wrapped with acid free tissue | Photograph Courtesy of Linda Wrigglesworth Private Collection, London

As with most textiles to preserve as much of their original state as possible they should be stored flat in a cool, dark dry and clean conditions. Serious collectors do take condition into account. However, these robes, however delicate, were once worn by real bodies and so are bound to show evidence of such original purpose. So, when buying a robe try to focus your collecting on those with as little evidence as possible of general wear or staining — particularly around the collar or shoulders. Sun damage can also be an issue since the silk and dyes used to make robes were often organic and so susceptible to irreversible damage. If folding, fold along the seam lines to reduce abrasion and any weakening of the fibres. If kept properly, these beautiful ancient fabrics will survive for many centuries to come and for future generations to admire.

Much like the Emperors throughout history, collectors of Asian textiles today – especially Chinese mainland collectors – are looking for nothing less than the most stunning Imperial garments made to the highest quality by the finest craftsmen of the Imperial court. In particular the finest imperial works of art from the Qianlong period (1735-96) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) are much in demand especially with regard to Chinese textiles. Linda Wrigglesworth expert consultant to the Chinese costume and textile world would be one person to turn to should you wish to commission a safe pair of hands to advise on either purchase or sale. Guiding the collector on price and giving confidence as to when to buy above the estimates, Linda states that she will happily give advice and share her knowledge gleaned and honed from over 40 years experience in this exciting textiles market. However, whether employing the services of an expert or venturing out on your own, far from being a niche area to invest, the antique Chinese robe market is clearly booming, and may well prove to be the most popular fashion statement ever to remain ‘in vogue’.