The present dragon robe would have been worn during ceremonies for marking the winter solstice, as this was a significant event in the ritual calendar. It marked the turning point of the year, when the sun was re-born and the days began to lengthen. Shortly before dawn on the longest night of the year, the emperor and his officials performed the sacrifice to Heaven at the Altar of Heaven, a triple-tiered circular white marble structure within the Temple of Heaven just south of the Forbidden City. Fur-lined robes of this type are now rare. Few officials could afford such costly furs and many others would have only worn heavily padded robes beneath their normal dragon robes. The wearer of this robe must have been very highly placed and extremely wealthy. It was also customary for officials to be buried in their finest winter robes. For this dragon robe to have survived, the original owner must have also owned winter Robes of State, the most formal type of court robe, and have gone to meet his ancestors wearing them. As such, this indicated the wearer would have had regular ceremonial duties in the palace. After the fall of the Qing dynasty, many now redundant court robes were stripped of their furs to make other more fashionable coats. The robe is therefore a remarkable survival.
The design worked in gold thread on the robe is a cosmological scheme. If the seams were unpicked and the body of the robe laid out flat, the placement of its eight dragons would form the so-called Loshu or 'Lo River Writing' diagram. The Loshu was a very ancient diagram and thought to be a map of the universe. The wearer was therefore literally clothed in the universe and court rituals such as the winter solstice sacrifice to Heaven was believed to help maintain the harmony of the cosmos.
This robe is unusual in that its eight dragons strictly adhere to court dress regulations. Only the imperial nobility were actually permitted to have nine dragons on their robes, the ninth dragon being hidden on the inside flap of the robe. By the mid-19th century almost all Chinese officials had adopted the ninth dragon. Only a few, mainly descendants of very old mandarin families, closely followed the law. This robe is an example of such.