In Ancient China, clothing was one of the primary means to distinguish rank and wealth in society. With a very stratified community structure based on the nobility in power at the time, great emphasis was placed on social and political standing. Outside of the noble family, all other members of society were forbidden from wearing the robes, styles, symbols, or even colors of the regime in power. The emperor was generally distinguishable by a golden-yellow garment, while other government officials also wore clothing with a distinct color palette. By looking at the color of an official’s robe, one could determine not only the rank of the politician, but also the governing power at the time, as every new regime featured a unique color scheme to demarcate their rise to power. Alongside Chinese art and porcelain, the intricately embroidered robes of ancient China have become a highly sought after category in their own right, with originals often driving six-figure prices at auction.
Chinese Robe Styles
When one thinks about Chinese robes, there are a few styles that likely come to mind. The traditional blouse and skirt combination came to fashion during the 17th century BCE, while long, gown-style robes became popular during the Zhou Dynasty. It wasn’t until the 1900s that the hourglass dress for women, also called the cheongsam, became popular in Chinese fashion. The Western influence on China became more prominent by the 1970s, leading to the adoption of Western fashion trends across the nation.
Yellow/gold, signifying the “center” and the earth, was typically reserved for the emperor and his wife. Alongside red, gold was often considered the most beautiful and prestigious color. During the Zhou dynasty, the emperor often wore a long robe called a “longpao” or “dragon robe”. This emperor’s dragon robe typically contained many auspicious symbols, including the dragon, thought to signify good luck. The dragon robe was also the official, formal uniform for court and other special events. Longpao robes were originally long and black, before yellow came into fashion during the Sui dynasty, though they could also be found in red or white on occasion.
Dragon robes were made by skilled masters and sometimes took several years and the work of multiple tailors to complete. The most exquisite examples of these pieces occurred primarily in the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). During this period, the craftsmanship involved with embroidering Chinese robes exploded, leading to some of the most stunning examples of longpao ever created. Qing Dynasty robes often featured intricate images of dragons and beautiful patterns, with materials such as gold, silver thread, peacock feathers, pearls, and precious stones woven throughout.
Common Symbology of Chinese Robes
In addition to the dragon, emperor’s robes were often decorated with other auspicious symbols such as the sun, moon, seven-star constellation, mountain, pheasant or phoenix, axe head, fu figure, seaweed, sacrificial cup, flames and the grain. Along with the five-clawed dragon, these signs represented the twelve symbols of Imperial authority, meant to portray the idea that the ruler was chosen in heaven.
- The sun represented all life and the idea of enlightenment and was often depicted alongside a three-legged bird.
- The moon, representing heaven, was often depicted with a hare within the moon-disk.
- The constellation, usually in groups of 3 or 7, represented the cosmic universe.
- Mountains represented the earth and stability of an emperor’s rule.
- The phoenix, sometimes also referred to as a pheasant, represented refinement and harmony.
- The axe shape represented decisiveness, fu for collaboration, seaweed for purity, cups for loyalty, fiery flames for intellect, and grain represented prosperity and the ability of the emperor to provide for the people.
- Finally, the dragon was the most sacred symbol, ruling both the skies and seas and demonstrating the emperor’s dignity and power. The dragon symbol evolved significantly over time, first taking the appearance of a snake-like creature with no arms or legs before transforming into a composite creature made of many animals with a serpent-like shape.
Outside of the emperor and his family, lower-ranking government officials were also obligated to wear specific colored robes, based on dynasty. These colors represented the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Earth was yellow, for emperor. Wood was green/blue, fire was red, metal was white, and water was black. According to the auspicious number nine, commonly associated with the longevity of the emperor, these officials were divided into ranks and assigned responsibilities.
Depending on the occasion, each official had different garments for different seasons, ceremonies, and meetings. Across all dynasties, the rank of the official was often denoted by the presence of an embroidered animal, usually a bird. The wives of Chinese officials and the emperor were also obligated to be in uniform to reflect the rank and position of her husband. So, if her husband were the emperor, she would also be wearing gold/yellow garments with imperial symbols.
How to Collect Chinese Robes
Because Chinese robes are generally made of silk, they are subject to the fading and fragility of aging. Should you choose to collect ancient Chinese robes, the garment must be stored in a cool, dry place to ensure the longevity of the fabric. Any color fading due to sun exposure is not reversible, so if you choose to display it, the garment should ideally be placed away from direct sunlight. As with any valuable garment, be aware of stains around the arm and collar area. When considering a Chinese robe at auction, be wary of whether or not the piece has maintained its material. Original fabrics were often repurposed for more contemporary styles and silhouettes during the 19th and 20th centuries. These sorts of alterations, along with provenance and condition, will notably affect the value of the robe. While original robes from the Qing Dynasty and earlier sometimes fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction, less expensive contemporary robes are regularly found for sale as well. So keep your eyes peeled!
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