In ancient Chinese culture, a robe is a symbol of status depending on the colour, the quality and decorative elements of the garment. In order to compare the robe in the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC2016.01.001) to others in other collections, dress historian and curator, Ingrid Mida and I visited the Textile Museum of Canada to examine similar robes. In August 2018, we studied one robe that was similar in colour, rank and decoration (T88.0261), and another robe that once belonged to someone of much higher status (T92.0276) . In the last blog post of this series, I will compare the two robes at the TMC to the one in the Ryerson collection and consider the use of symbolism and colour to represent rank.
T88.0261. Photograph by Maciek Linowsk. Courtesy of the Textile Museum of Canada.
The first robe (T88.0261) is quite similar to the one in Ryerson’s collection (FRC2016.01.001) in that the colours are alike, the striped hem is identical, and there is even a stain in the same area on the lower front. However, the structure of the robe is slightly different. The sleeves are shorter and have a curved opening whereas FRC2016.01.001 does not have the same detail. The robe at the TMC has slits up the front and back of the garment, but the back one has been hand stitched closed. It is believed that front openings allowed for easier movement when horseback riding. The robe in the TMC has significant discolouration and staining implying that it was worn quite often. There is even a section in the left armpit that has been replaced with a different piece of fabric. It is probable that the area was repaired due to heavy wear.
T88.0261. Detail of hem, brass closure and sleeve. Photograph by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.
Nine dragons have been woven into the robe. The four dragons around the neckline point to each cardinal direction when aligned at a certain point in the Forbidden City. The two dragons on either side of the robe represent the intermediate directions and the dragon on the inside of the robe satisfies the “well-field system”. This idea is based on the wu xing system which is a harmonious balance represented by the nine dragons as fields (note 1).
Ingrid and I were able to find seven of the Eight Precious Things including the rhino horn (happiness), books (learning), medicinal mushroom with a handle (health and healing), coins (wealth), pearls (granting of wishes), leaf (good luck and disease prevention) and the open lozenge (victory). The symbols always come in groups of eight since eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture (note 2). However, after hours of searching, we were not able to find a motif that explicitly looked like the solid lozenge (unbroken conjugal happiness). Ingrid suggested maybe the diamond pattern in the background was representational of the solid lozenge as the pattern is continuous and never breaks. We decided that that was the most probable answer.
All eight of the Eight Auspicious Things have been woven into the robe. This once again, reinforces the idea that the garment belonged to someone of higher status. The parasol protects from the obstacles of life. The fish swim without fear or resistance from happiness. The vase brings the fortune of a glorious life. The lotus frees one from all the stains of mistakes. The conch shell accomplishes work for the benefit and happiness of themselves and others. The glorious peu supports others in one continuous connection. The banner symbolizes victory and the Wheel of Dharma represents the teachings of Buddha (note 3).
T92.0267. Detail of fish, conch shell and glorious peu. Photograph by Ingrid Mida, 2018.
Aside from the Eight Precious Things and the Eight Auspicious signs, the robe is also covered in bats. As mentioned in the last post, the word for bat has the same pronunciation as as abundance and happiness and therefore a bat represents a long life of happiness. There are also peonies which represent prosperity, another symbol seen on the FRC robe as well. A new symbol that I have not seen before looks like it has the head of a dragon and the body of a fish. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any information of this creature.
T88.0261. Detail of dragon-fish creature. Photograph by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.
The second robe (T92.0276) has all the same symbolic elements as the previous robe; all eight of the Precious Things and the Auspicious Signs, other floral elements and bats. However, the key difference is in the quality of materials and degree of detail. The main aspect that sets this robe apart from the other one is the gold leaf threading (note 4). Yellow reveals in itself that it was worn by someone of high rank as the colour “was reserved for monks and the Emperor” (note 5). More detail also went into the creation of the motifs such as the additional embroidering in the dragon eyes. Even the balls used for the closures are larger and more decorative.
T88.0261. Photograph by Maciek Linowsk, Courtesy of the Textile Museum of Canada.
The robe is in immaculate condition and has hardly any signs of wear. The sleeves are full length with a section of black brocade and additional detailing. The trim that lines the sleeves and neckline is more decorative than the other robes with yellow and black floral designs. Rather than a plain silk lining, a gold patterned brocade lines this robe with no slits on either front or back. An aspect that is quite surprising is the misalignment of the fabric on the back. The patterns do not perfectly line up which is surprising for a garment of such quality and value.
T92.0267. Detail of hem, lining and misaligned fabric. Photograph by Ingrid Mida, 2018.
The background pattern of both of the robes include swastikas. Before it ever had any negative connotations associated with it, the swastika was a symbol used in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. In Buddhist culture, the swastika symbolizes auspiciousness and eternity and is often used on maps to locate a temple (note 6).
T92.0267. Detail of swastika. Photograph by Ingrid Mida, 2018.
After days of research and hunting for symbols on these robes, I have learned that nothing is ever as it seems. A geometric shape may represent mountains or the placement of dragons can hold a very significant meaning. Even the colour of a garment can separate the Emperor from his court officials. In conclusion, these robes tell us about the beliefs and values of people in China from more than a hundred years ago. These garments can help us understand the traditions and lives of people from another culture. And finally, it can provide a very unique and captivating story.
Note 1: Vollmer, J. E. (2004). Silks for thrones and altars: Chinese costumes and textiles. Paris, France: Myrna Meyers.
Note 2: Kozakand, R. (2017, September 4). Dragon robes of the qing dynasty. Retrieved from http://folkcostume.blogspot.com/2017/09/
Note 3: Rinpoche, L. Z. (2014, February 4). The eight auspicious signs. Retrieved from https://fpmt.org/mandala/archives/mandala-for-2014/july/eight-auspicious-signs/
Note 4: Information provided by Textile Museum Collection.
Note 5: Daveno, H. (2016, October 2). The stitchery series: part iv – symbolism in chinese embroidery. Retrieved from http://www.augustphoenix.com/The-Stitchery-Series-Part-IV–Symbolism-in-Chinese-Embroidery_b_70.html
Note 6: Swastika. (2016, April 4). Retrieved from http://www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php?title=Swastika
This post was edited by Ingrid Mida.
A special note of thanks goes to Roxane Shaughnessy, Senior Curator, Manager of Collection, and her staff at the Textile Museum of Canada for providing us with access to these beautiful robes.