Collecting guide: Chinese robes
From the butterflies on your sleeves to the dragons on your coat, never has what you wear been as important as it was in Qing-dynasty China. Here's our expert guide to the colours, the symbols and the styles that told everyone exactly who you were
In the mid-17th century, the nomadic Manchu people overthrew China’s ruling Ming dynasty, sparking the beginning of the Qing dynasty. It ruled over a sprawling empire that survived nearly three centuries, and formed the territorial base for modern China.
In these politically fraught times, what you wore mattered. Clothes were designed to indicate rank and status, becoming so distinct that the wearer’s position in court could be ascertained at a glance.
By the time of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign, strict sartorial rules had been outlined in an official guide: The Illustrated Catalogue of Ritual Paraphernalia. Official directions covered:
Yellow was considered to be the most auspicious shade, and was reserved for the royal family. Minor princes or noblemen were permitted to wear blue (the Qing dynasty’s official colour) or brown, while blue-black fabric indicated the wearer was a court official.
Symbols of imperial authority
Emperor’s robes were decorated with the ‘Twelve Symbols of Imperial Authority’: the sun, moon, seven-star constellation, mountain, fu pattern, axe head, dragon, flowery creature, seaweed, sacrificial cup, flames and the grain.
Civil and military officials were divided into nine ranks, from first (highest) to ninth (lowest). Each was indicated by a corresponding animal, stitched on to a rank badge, or bufu, displayed on an outer coat. Civil ranks were represented by birds, while real and mythical animals indicated military status.
Officials who attended Qing dynasty ceremonies were expected to dress in a particular way. Formal robes were designed in the traditional style of the ruling Manchu people, and referenced their nomadic, horse-riding tradition. Known as chaofu, these garments featured a side-fastening jacket, apron skirt, and ‘horse shoe’ cuffs, first designed to protect the wearer’s hands when riding in bad weather.
Semi-official clothing was expected for government business, including the well-known jifu, or dragon robe, which was worn with a collar and outer coat. Like the chaofu, this long, side-fastening garment featured horse-shoe cuffs, freeing the wearer’s hands should circumstance require him 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. At the height of the Qing dynasty, medium-ranking officials wore robes with eight four-clawed dragons — but at court, high-ranking officials’ robes featured a ninth dragon, hidden inside a front flap.
The climate of Beijing is incredibly varied: in the winter temperatures can plummet to -20C, while they can soar to above 40C in summer. As the Emperor and his officials held court daily, it was important that they were dressed not only well, but practically.
In addition to the rules dictating style of dress, the exact month, date and hour of changeover from summer to winter clothing was strictly outlined. Seasonal changeovers were indicated on a lunar calendar: a winter dress, for example, could be worn from the first day of the 11th moon until New Year’s Day, while summer dress would begin on the 15th or 25th day of the third moon.
Winter robes would be lined or edged with fur and padded, while summer robes would be lined with silk, or made of gauze and worn over cool underjackets fashioned from bamboo.
Women wore the same rank badge as their husband or father, if unmarried, displayed on an outer coat or fringed vest, known as a xiape. 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.
Women played only a marginal role in the Qing dynasty court and government. As such, opportunities to wear formal dress, such as chaofu or dragon robes, were minimal, and surviving examples are particularly rare. Unlike those worn by men, women’s dragon robes had no front and back vent.
For everyday wear, affluent women would wear a side or front-fastening robe with a wrap-around pleated apron skirt. Robes were elaborately decorated on both the body and sleeve-bands, which were stitched to the inner sleeves and embroidered with flowers, butterflies or figural scenes.
The Peking Knot, or seed stitch, was often referred to as the ‘forbidden knot’ because it was said to be so fine and precise that it would render the embroiderer blind. Of course there’s no evidence of this, but the stitch was nevertheless reserved for detailing and small areas.
Other techniques used in robe-making included a form of weaving known as kesi, or cut silk — so named because it created the appearance of cut threads, arranged in unbroken blocks of colour. In the 19th century gilt couching became popular, with gold thread stitched onto material creating a gleaming finish that resembled expensive silk.
As with works of art, it can be difficult to determine a textile’s date of production unless it has been marked. There are clues to look out for, however: certain colours only appeared in the late 19th century, with the introduction of chemical ‘aniline’ dyes from Europe. These were brighter than traditional vegetable dyes, delivering bold hues such as ‘Perkin’s purple’, invented in England in 1856.
Changing fashions can also offer some indication of date. In the late 19th century, for example, the Empress Dowager Cixi developed a love of bold, floral designs that was quickly replicated by court noblewomen, who sought robes in the same style. The distinct look was not seen before or after the Empress’s time in power.
Cixi was notoriously obsessed with clothing: for one short trip servants packed 56 trunks with robes, vests and jackets — each 12-inch deep trunk measuring 4 x 5 feet.
For maximum longevity textiles should be stored flat in a cool, dry, dark and clean area. If a piece needs to be folded, it should be done along the seam lines to prevent abrasion and weakening. If kept properly, ancient fabrics will survive for centuries.
Serious collectors do take condition into account. Chinese robes, however delicate, were after all made to be worn, and buyers should be aware of any evidence of wear or staining — particularly around the collar or shoulders. Sun damage should also be noted: since the silk and dyes used to make robes was often organic, any degradation will be irreversible.
Before the owner of the imperial robe below realised its significance, it hung in her home as decoration. Prior to that, she found it in a dressing up box in Paris.
Chinese robes were coveted by tourists in the 19th and early 20th century, who brought them back to Europe and America. As they are traditionally made with a loose cut, it was not uncommon for these buyers to tailor them in a slimmer, Western style, or to line them with fur to make an impressive coat.
Some robes that were originally produced for the Chinese court were sent to Tibet as luxuries for their aristocracy and high-ranking clergy. They were often re-cut to fit Tibetan costume styles or to serve new functions, such as the robe shown above.