Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive

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A Handbag’s Tale

Editor’s Introduction: This post was a creative project by MA Fashion student Anna Pollice for a special topics class called “Fashion Beyond the Clothed Body” with Dr. Esther Berry. In this post, Anna writes the narrative of an object biography from the point of view of a handbag (and her imaginary owner Eleanor). This handbag is in the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC2014.07.600) and was a gift of the Suddon-Cleaver collection. 



I remember so clearly being put on display and supported by an upright Wadco easel. I was beautiful and I sparkled. I was the newest Whiting & Davis mesh bag on display at the jewellery shop and I think I cost about $2.25 at that time (Schwartz 88). It was 1925, just after the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, that Whiting & Davis, a mesh handbag manufacturer,  embraced the Art Deco style. Although this look did not last long (as styles dramatically changed during the Great Depression), I loved my enamelled flat surface links, called Armour Mesh, patterned with pink geometric flowers, centred around a red point and encircled with two shades of green. The pattern regularly repeated all over me and only changed at my bottom edge. The edge was pinked and the floral design deviated ever so slightly with a smaller pink flower.


Some time has passed, but I still maintain many of those original qualities. I must admit that my ageing well is in part due to the excellent artistry and craftsmanship of Whiting & Davis. Founded in 1876, William H. Wade and Edward P. Davis manufactured jewellery. It was not until 1896 that Charles A. Whiting and Edward P. Davis purchased the company, changed the name and began to make mesh bags. Although my predecessors were handmade, in 1912 the world’s first automatic mesh machine was invented, and Whiting & Davis became the first company to use it, later patenting it (Schwartz 74). I was, of course, made by one of those machines. The company guaranteed my durability and strength allowing me to carry a minimum of 2.26 kg. or 5 lbs. (Schwartz 74)! Imagine that! What could a girl possibly need to carry?

Well, as petite as I was, I had the strength to carry a fair bit. My brass frame is 10 cm wide, and is embossed with a delicate pattern of small leaves and flowers. It is straight across the top and elegantly dips down on each end. My angles are clean and strong, and very modern. I am 21 cm long from the top of my rounded gold metal clasp to the bottom tip of my last flat link. My chain is a series of linked infinity symbols that measures 32 cm in length; just long enough to have me sway from a woman’s wrist while still making a stylish impact. My flat mesh looks like liquid gold and drapes beautifully. My flat mesh body is joined to my metal frame using an innovative process called hanging up (Schwartz 74), implementing a fine spiral wire without opening a single link (Schwartz 74) (Fig. 4). The Whiting & Davis Mesh Bags logo is impressed into the inside of my metal frame on the top left-hand side (Fig. 4), and I have no other label, although, indeed I say, my design and artistry speak for themselves. Continue reading

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Sustainability: The Kimono and The Haori

by Jennifer Dares and Cecilia Martins Gomes, MA Fashion Students 

The word kimono means “thing to wear” in Japanese; the original word is kirumono (Steele 2005; Milhaupt 2014; ). This paper seeks to analyze what aspects of kimono are sustainable. To answer that question two styles of kimono from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection were examined using the methodology developed by Mida and Kim in The Dress Detective (2015). We will show that the elegant design of the kimono uses zero waste in its creation, allows for alteration and facilitates reuse, and the loose fit reinforces sustainable qualities of longevity.


Red and pink silk kimono FRC2013.03.007

Kimono are T-shaped robes with long wide sleeves cut in straight lines, and the haori is a variation thereof. Traditionally cut from a single width of fabric, there is virtually no waste in the creation of the garment. Although the wearing of traditional kimono has been in decline, kimono are still worn, but usually for milestone events such as weddings and graduations. Designs have evolved over time to incorporate modern ready to wear features such as zippers and Velcro or the use of washable polyester.



Sleeve detail on kimono FRC2013.03.007

A red and pink floral silk kimono: This red and pink floral silk kimono (FRC2013.03.007) has long sleeves that signal that this garment was intended to be worn by a young woman. The main textile is a colourful printed silk Rinzu (Imperatore et al., 2016), a textile weaving technique similar to jacquard. The printed floral pattern consists of undulating bands of colour in cherry blossom pink, ruby red and sea foam green layered with contrasting disks filled with florals, some of which are bordered with gold thread. The upper portion of the garment is lined in dark red silk and the lower portion in a lighter shade of red silk. The double-layered band collar uses a contrasting textile with a ruby and white floral pattern grounded in pale pink. The sleeves are slightly curved at the lower portion of the hemline. The garment would be held closed with an obi and does not emphasize any parts of the body. This silhouette accommodates various body types and sizes.


Collar detail FRC2013.03.007

This garment is machine stitched and has been altered to shorten the length and sleeves of the garment using large hand-stitches. The most unusual aspect of this garment is in the form of the alteration using a 3-inch fold that has been hand-stitched with white thread close to the high point shoulder to shorten the sleeve length. This fold extends approximately 8-inches down on both the front and back of the garment. A fold approximately 6-inches deep has been hand-stitched with red thread at waist level to shorten the length of the garment. The location of the alteration was strategic, such that it would be concealed by the obi. These simple and reversible alterations show how the kimono was restyled without cutting the textile and demonstrate the ethos of sustainability.

A burgundy red and black patterned haori: The haori is a short, lightweight coat, with a similar construction pattern as the kimono in a T-shape that is often worn over the kimono to protect it from stains and damage, or to add an extra layer for body warmth in the winter.


Haori FRC2017.01.002

Originally a men’s garment, during the Edo period (1615-1868) Geishas popularized its use and the haori is now considered a gender-neutral garment (Imperatore, 2016). This haori from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC2017.01.002) dates to the 1990s, and the donor said she acquired and wore it in Japan. The garment is in excellent condition but has a small, yellow stain on the neckband that is somewhat concealed by the print. The main textile is crepe silk, and the lining is plain weave silk. The print motif is an overlap of three different flower styles probably printed using two processes: silkscreen for the base print and a stencil pattern for the big black flowers.


Sleeve detail FRC2017.01.002

Like the kimono, the haori does not emphasize any part of the body. The front and back panels are joined by a strip of fabric that make it larger on the sides, probably to provide comfort for the wearer and more room to accommodate the garments that are worn underneath. The uniqueness of this garment lies in the details. The lining is meant to be shown, as it is a characteristic of this type of garment to be worn inside out (Imperatore, 2016) and there is a hand stitching on the base of the lining and sleeves. Another feature is the half-closed sleeve that creates an external pocket. The haori’s neckbands are fastened parallel to each other by a silk cord, that ties together two loops inside each band, but this haori does not have a tie cord. This garment is reversible, which adds to its longevity and options for wear.

Can these garments be considered sustainable?
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals from January 2016 presented a global call to action on issues around poverty, peace and protecting our planet (see https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/). Included on this list of goals was a directive for the responsible consumption and production of garments, and this is demonstrated in multiple ways with the kimono and haori.

Sustainability is demonstrated in the materials, print and finishing techniques used in the kimono and haori. Kimono are typically made with natural fibres such as silk, cotton and wool; and may use natural dyes such as the yuzen technique (which utilizes a natural dye made from rice paste mixed with soybeans and salt). Sustainability is also demonstrated in the styling and cutting of the kimono and haori. The most noticeable element that distinguishes kimono and haori from western garments is the loose fit that allows them to be worn by both genders and many types of bodies (Kawira, 2002). This means that fewer sizes are produced during manufacturing and the garment can be passed down or passed on to others diverting it from landfill. These aspects of its production render it sustainable. As well, the cutting technique of the kimono ensures there is no textile waste, and generally the pattern is woven or printed with the key locations of the body mapped out in advance (Kawira, 2002). Kimono are sometimes recycled by taking them apart, and the fabrics reused often for accessories such as bags, scarves, brooches, quilts, dolls, and other decorative objects and crafts (Yoshimura, 2015). Cut with zero waste and altered in a reversible way, these elegant and timeless garments may be shared between generations, or the lengths of fabric may be reused or restyled into other garments. In this way, kimono and haori demonstrate sustainability.

Antonelli, P., Fisher, M. M., Lowry, G. D., & Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.). (2017). ITEMS: Is fashion modern? Museum of Modern Art.

Chrisman-Campbell, K. (2014), “Kimono for a Modern Age,” Ornament 37, p. 6, 24-27.

Hibi, S. (1989). Japanese detail fashion. Chronicle Books.

Imperatore, C., MacLardy, P., & Turner, T. (2016) Kimono: Vanishing tradition: Japanese textiles of the 20th century (Revised and expand 2nd ed.) Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.

Kawira, Aarti. (2002) “The Kimono Body” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, Pages 299-310.

Mida, I., and Kim, A. (2015) The Dress Detective: A practical guide to object-based research in Fashion. Bloomsbury Academic.

Milhaupt, T. S. (2014) Kimono: A modern history. Reaktion Books.

Steele, V. (2005) Encyclopedia of clothing and fashion. Thomson.

Yoshimura, A. (2015) An autoethnography of kin-aesthetics: Retrieving family folklore through the wearing of used kimonos.

This blog post was edited by Ingrid Mida. 

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Sustainability and a Paper Jumpsuit

By Emilie Chan and Zoe Yin, MA Fashion Students  

FRC2014.07.001AB_Front_Web (1)

Paper Jumpsuit FRC2014.07.001 Gift of Suddon-Cleaver Collection

This woman’s one-piece jumpsuit from the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection is made from a paper textile with repetitive printed patterns in highly contrasting colour combinations—pink, orange, yellow, and green (FRC2014.07.001AB). This jumpsuit is structured with a zipper back, long sleeves, wide legs that flare out from the waist, and is adorned with a self-tie paper strap and a ruffled neckline. The jumpsuit shows evidences of wear through the pilling and thinning in the movement areas, and there are observable jagged edges on the bottoms of the pant legs. This paper garment is dated between 1967 and 1969 by an unknown maker. In this essay, we analyze the sustainability of paper as a textile.

Historical Context & Elements of Sustainable Design
Paper clothing was a fashion fad of the 1960s. As printing technologies became increasingly advanced in the 1960s (Kent & Williams, 1990), Scott Paper Co., an American company, introduced paper dresses as a marketing tool in 1966 to promote their ability to print beautiful colours onto paper products (“Scott Paper,” 1966). They were composed of paper bound with a synthetic material (rayon) called Dura-Weve (“Paper-Dress Fad,” 2014). Economic expansion and increased discretionary income (“United States GDP,” 2018) allowed consumers embrace these colourful paper garments, prompting other manufacturers and brands to produce paper clothing (Schaer, 1999). The psychedelic colour and pattern combinations seen in this garment represent the aesthetic of  the counterculture “Hippie Movement” of the late 1960s (“The Sixties,” 2018).

American environmental policies and regulations moved away from a wilderness and resource preservation mentality to one that better understood the relational value between the environment and the American society in the 1960s (“New Environmentalism,” 2018), arguably sparked by the release of Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson (Levy & Wissenburg 2004). Paper clothing embodied a throwaway culture—although made with arguably less resources than today’s fast fashion, they were still intended to live a short product lifetime. Daphne Mohajer (2018) suggests that the 1960’s paper fashion “represented a lack of ecological awareness highlighted by its impermanence and disposability” (Mohajer 253). Nonetheless, paper garments were easily hemmed and customizable by the consumer with scissors, evident in the orange paper jumpsuit. Cut off material was then used as hair bows and other accessories (Schaer 1999)—these acts align with “zero-waste” bodies of thinking. Simultaneously, there was prevalent use of synthetic materials in commercial products, aided by government support for the industry (“Timeline,” 2018).

Paper As a Textile in Today’s Fashion Landscape
Although paper clothing was deemed un-environmentally friendly in the late 1960s and made no effort to be sustainable (Buck 2017), it touched on ideas of sustainable practices and ways of thinking, such as a dye-free manufacturing process, self customization to extend product lifetime, and a somewhat zero-waste culture. A few contemporary fashion designers of the present have used paper as the primary choice of garment materials. Some, like Hussein Chalayan, chose paper to convey a sociological message (Howarth 2015) while others, such as Helmut Lang, chose paper as a design preference (“Collection,” 2018). Small businesses such as Paper No.9 have also developed new paper textiles that are more durable in both garment production and product use (“About Us,” 2018). However, the uses of paper as a clothing textile today largely remains within the elite fashion market, or used within sterile environments with a throw-away mindset, such as disposable hospital gowns.

The throw-away paper clothing fad from the 1960s is similar to today’s throw-away culture, supported by fast fashion. Both forms of fashion short product lifetimes, but paper fashions are arguably more sustainable because of the lower environmental, economical and social degradation required for production compared to fast fashion products of the 2000s.


Detail of Paper Textile FRC2014.07.001

Final Remarks and Future Outlook
Paper as a textile material in the 1960s had unintended sustainable elements—arguably less chemicals were used in production, and was easily customizable by the consumer. However, it posed potential recycling problems (as the paper fibre was coated with synthetic materials). Comparing fast fashion with paper fashion invokes ideas of resource trade-off– trading less use of one resource for the increased use of another. In view of this, there is still value in self-customization and the limited resources used in paper fashion production that designers and manufacturers can learn from this 1960s fad. The use of paper as a garment textile is encouraged by many, including Japanese fashion designer Daphne Mohajer (2018), who suggests that although “paper may not seem like a suitable material for making clothing, [it] can be strong and durable if made in a specific way” (Mohajer 236).


About Us. (2018). “Paper No.9. ” Retrieved from https://paper-no9.com/about_us

Buck, S. (2017). “This wild paper clothing trend of the 1960s was the early version of fast-fashion. Medium.” The Met, Retrieved from https://timeline.com/paper-fashion-1960s-43dd00590bce

Daphne Mohajer va Pesaran. (2018). “People and Placeness: Paper Clothing in Japan.” Fashion Practice 10:2, 236-255, DOI:10.1080/17569370.2018.1458498
Howarth, D. (2015). “Clothes dissolve on the catwalk during Hussein Chalayan’s Spring Summer 2016 show.” DeZeen.
Kent, A., Williams, J. G. (1990). Encyclopedia of Microcomputers (6), CRC Press.
Paper-Dress Fad Began at State’s Scott Paper CO. (2014, May 14), Wisconsin State Journal, Madison Newspapers Inc.
Levy, Y., & Wissenburg, M. (Eds.). (2004). “Liberal democracy and environmentalism : the end of environmentalism?”

New Environmentalism. (2018). University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

Schaer, S. (1999, Feb 12). “Long Island: Our Future/Back to the Future/Predictions from the Past that Haven’t Come True…yet/Recycling a Fad into Fashion” Newsday.
Scott Paper CO. “Defers Entry into Dress Business” (1966, Apr 21), Women’s Wear Daily, Vol.112, Iss.79.

“The Sixties”. (2018). PBS.Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/opb/thesixties/timeline/timeline_text.html#culture
“Timeline of Manmade Fibres”. (2018). Textile School. Retrieved from https://www.textileschool.com/351/timeline-of-manmade-fibers/
United States GDP. (2018). Trading Economics. Retrieved from https://tradingeconomics.com/united-states/gdp

This post was edited by Ingrid Mida, Curator and Dress Historian, FRC Collection Co-ordinator

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Julian Rose, the Forgotten Dressmaker

by Guest Author Anya Georgijevic

In the 1950s, during the post World War II opulence, the expansive silhouette of crinoline skirts came back  into fashion, especially for evening gowns. As is well documented, leading couturiers like Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy embraced this bell-shaped silhouette for both day and evening wear. Ready-to-wear designers followed this fashion trend, including British designer Julian Rose. An embroidered satin ballgown dated to the 1950s by Julian Rose  is part of the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (Figure 1 below). This ballgown is made of white satin embroidered in a red satin floral motif (FRC2014.07.517), and there is a built-in crinoline sewn into the underskirt.

Julian Rose did not make the fashion history books, but a careful search through the British Vogue archives at the Toronto Reference Library revealed that Rose was not only a frequent advertiser but was prominently featured in the editorial pages of the magazine throughout the 1950s and 1960s (Figure 2), including the November 1956 cover.


Figure 2: Julian Rose editorial, British Vogue, May 1960

Well-known London-based model Barbara Goalen was the face of his collections (Figure 3). Numerous Julian Rose advertisements from British Vogue list his company address as 52 South Molton Street, London, which placed him in the heart of Mayfair district in central London, best known in fashion as the location of Savile Row.


Figure 3: Barbara Goalen in a Julian Rose advertisement, British Vogue, November 1953

Rose specialized in women’s suits, evening wear, and, sometimes, bridal (Figure 4), and did so with such beautiful precision that made him a Vogue editors’ favourite. In the several fashion editorials, his work appeared as the affordable alternative to haute couture creations.


Figure 4: Julian Rose bridal editorial, British Vogue, April 1953

The designer also played an important role in the shaping of the British fashion industry as one of the founding members of the Fashion House Group of London. This group of British high-street designers formed in 1958 and founded London Fashion Week (Come Step Back in Time). Other designers in the group included:  Polly Peck, founded by the husband-and-wife team Raymond and Sybil Zelker; Susan Small; and Horrockses, which is still around today  (“Facts About London Fashion Week”). The collective was an early precursor to what is now the British Fashion Council.

Sometime in the late 1960s, Rose stopped appearing in British Vogue, for unknown reasons. Did he fall out of favour to make room for the likes of more hippie-minded rising stars of London fashion like Ossie Clark and Thea Porter? Or perhaps it was something else altogether. Many of his garments have survived and can be found on 1stDibs and Etsy awaiting a collector who can appreciate their quiet moment in fashion history.


Come Step Back in Time. “1950s Britain – Part Three.” 26 May, 2012. Retrieved from https://comestepbackintime.wordpress.com/tag/1958-the-fashion-house-groupof-london/

“Facts About London Fashion Week… and The Fashion House Group of London.” Retrieved from


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The Journey of a Chinese Robe: Part 4

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. 


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The Journey of a Chinese Robe: Part 3

Everywhere we look, symbols abound. In historic dress originating from the Chinese culture, symbols on a robe can be read like words on a page. In this post, I will continue my analysis of the robe that has been the focus on the last two blog posts (FRC2016.01.001).  In this part, I will dive deeper in uncovering the meaning behind the symbols strategically placed on this robe.

In Chinese language, words are single syllables that can share pronunciations that are the same or similar to others. Thus, they can share the same meaning depending on the context of the phrase. This also applies to the symbols that decorate the robe. For example, the word fu, which is a bat, has the same pronunciation as “abundance” and “happiness”. Therefore, a bat represents happiness and long life. Numerous bats have been woven onto this robe (note 1).


FRC2016.01.001 Detail of bat. Photo by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

Multiple floral elements are visible on this man’s robe including peonies which symbolize prosperity and chrysanthemums which represent longevity due to its health-giving properties (note 2). The cranes also symbolize longevity but in the way that it lives a long life (note 3).

FRC2016.01.001. Peony, chrysanthemum and crane. Photographs by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

Of the Eight Auspicious Signs, which are Buddhist symbols, the parasol, vase of great treasure, banner and lotus appear on the robe. The parasol protects from the obstacles of life; the vase represents the bringing of desired things and the fortune of a glorious life; the banner symbolizes victory, while the lotus frees one from the stains of mistakes (note 4).

FRC2016.01.001. Parasol, vase, banner and lotus. Photographs by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

Four of the Eight Precious Things can be found of this robe including the pearl, coin, rhino horn and leaf. The pearl is associated with wish granting and the coin represents wealth. The horn embodies happiness and the leaf wishes good luck and prevents disease (note 5).

FRC2016.01.001. Pearl (top left), coin (top right), rhino horn (bottom left) and leaf (bottom right). Photos by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

The Eight Auspicious Signs and the Eight Precious Things are commonly mixed together. However, they always appear in groups of eight as it is a lucky number in Chinese culture. This is because the pronunciation of eight sounds similar to the pronunciation of the word for fortune (note 6).

As with many old things, the symbols have changed or been reimagined over time. Some sources call the symbol of two rectangles, books whiles others consider it bolts of silk or scrolls. One source considers a medicinal mushroom with a handle a symbol while the other considers a leaf instead. Since the motifs are so old, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly which ones are the original ones and which have been added subsequently.

This robe is decorated with nine five-clawed dragons that have been strategically placed on the garment. Beginning in the 18th century, robes were designed with nine dragons. Four are placed on the back, chest and shoulders around the neck. And when “aligned with the axial organization of the Forbidden City”, each dragon points to a cardinal direction. The other two dragons on the front and two on the back point to each intermediate direction. The single dragon located on the inner flap is the ninth. This specific organization represents Confucius’ ancient ideal of land division called qingtien or “well-field system”. The idea of qingtien is derived from the wellhead character which is the intersection of two vertical lines and two horizontal lines – like a tic-tac-toe board. The outer eight fields protect the ninth and the fields that share a border with the center one implies the cardinal directions. This establishes “the harmonious balance implied by the wu xing system”. In Chinese culture, the number nine symbolizes heaven and infinity and therefore the nine fields are represented here (note 7).


FRC2016.01.001. Detail of dragon on inner flap. Photo by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

During the Yuan dynasty, the five-clawed dragon became an emblem of the emperor. It was placed on all works the emperor used or represented. Robes of dragon patterns eventually became the official garment of the Chinese court and was the highest diplomatic gift. The robe may have been presented to Philip for his efforts and dedication to developing Chinese medicine (note 8).


FRC2016.01.001 Detail of 5-clawed dragon. Photo by Victoria Hopgood, 2018

The structure of the dragon robe represents the universe and is only complete when worn. The diagonal stripes on the hem and the semi-circular motifs embody the “universal ocean surrounding the earth”. At the centre-front, centre-back and side seams the cardinal directions, there are geometric shapes which represents the mountains. The main body filled with clouds and fire, is also decorated with dragons representing authority. When the robe is worn, the wearer supports the universe by becoming the earth’s axis. The neck opening is the gate of heaven while the head is heaven itself (note 9).

Every element on this robe has been created with thought and intent. Everything from the placement of the dragons to the structure of the robe holds some form of symbolism behind it. While I have uncovered a significant amount of meaning behind the robe, there is always more that might be revealed, since it is possible that the motifs have been reimagined or changed since the robe was created. In addition, depending on the artists who created the garment, the symbols may have been more abstract or different than the ones that I consulted. These two possibilities can make it difficult to determine each motif and its meaning in isolation.

With all the time, patience and thought that it would take to create such a detailed and exquisite garment it is no wonder why it required up to thirty months of work to make one robe. Although I could spend an infinite amount of time uncovering the symbolism behind this robe, the rest will have to remain a mystery.


Note 1: Vollmer, J. E. (2004). Silks for thrones and altars: Chinese costumes and textiles. Paris, France: Myrna Meyers.

Note 2: Kehoe, T. (2012, September 24). Symbols in silk. Retrieved from http://www.museumtextiles.com/blog/symbols-in-silk

Note 3: The British Museum. (n.d.). Chinese symbols. Retrieved from https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/Chinese_symbols_1109.pdf

Note 4: 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 5: Eight precious things. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://gotheborg.com/glossary/eightpreciousthings.shtml

Note 6: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/social_customs/lucky_number.htm

Note 7: See note 1.

Note 8. Ibid.

Note 9: Ibid.

This post was edited by Ingrid Mida.


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The Journey of a Chinese Robe: Part 2

In Part I of the series, I reviewed the history of Philip Brunelleschi Cousland, the original owner of the robe (FRC2016.01.001 shown in the photo below). In this part, I will consider the structural and decorative elements of the garment using the Observation checklist from the Dress Detective (note 1).


Man’s Chinese robe dated to 1893-1902 Ryerson FRC2016.01.001. Photograph by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

With a lining made of lilac silk, the outer shell of this robe is constructed of natural materials – heavy cotton, brocade and silk. There is also a layer of royal blue silk in between the outer and inner layers, as visible where the stitching has come undone underneath the armpit (see photo below). The body of the robe is ornamented in various symbolic motifs including dragons, clouds and mountains that will be discussed in more depth in Part III.


FRC2016.01.001. Detail of royal blue interfacing. Photograph by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

The robe is an asymmetrical design with the opening on the right side of the garment. The inner flap reaches from the right side seam to the center front and the over flap crosses over the body from the left to right. The main portion of the inner flap is made of the same heavy blue cotton used for most of the garment and there is a singular dragon motif a few inches up from the hem. The flap is slightly discoloured which is most likely due to rubbing against the lining of the over flap. The hem is a simple striped pattern with alternating shades of blue in sections abut 0.25 inches/0.6 cm wide.


FRC2016.01.001. Illustration of robe front by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

The over flap has a center front seam where the pattern of the fabric almost perfectly lines up. Whereas the back of the robe has a center back seam until 27.5 inches/70 cm down where the seam opens up into a slit. This would allow for flexibility in movement as the robe is full-length.


FRC2016.01.001. Illustration of robe back by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

Made of lilac silk, the lining of the garment is in good condition. It has been delicately hand sewn on in increments of 3 small stitches and then a long stitch between 1 inch/2.5cm and 1.5 inch/4 cm in length underneath the fabric. The stitching has come undone underneath the armpit, exposing the royal blue silk interfacing. The hole is about 12 inches/30.5 cm long. Located slightly to the right of the center back seam are three dime-sized stains, along with some yellow discolouration around the neckline. This is most likely from perspiration. There is also some slight discolouration down the center back which was probably caused from friction. Around openings of the sleeves near the wrist, is also quite a bit of yellow staining.


FRC2016.01.001. Detail of lining. Photograph by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

Rather than a sleeve sewn into a sleeve hole, it has been cut as a part of the front and back pieces which are then folded at the shoulder and sewn down the sides. The sleeve, which is also lined in lilac silk and royal blue piping, features a section blue brocade with floral patterns on it that reaches 10.75 inches/27 cm up from the wrist opening. It is then accented with a 0.5 inch/1.25 cm band of royal blue fabric with gold threading. There is then a 3.5 inch/9 cm section of horizontal stripe motifs about 0.5 inch/1.25cm wide in different shades of blue, gold, green and beige. The same colours are used in the section of cloud motifs that follow.

The garment is fastened with 5 brass ball closures and an additional hidden closure similar to the others. The first brass ball closure sits horizontally at the center front on top of the band of royal blue trim. The next one is located 4.5 inches/11.5 cm down the edge of the over flap. The third closure sits diagonally underneath the armpit about 13 inches/33 cm away from the previous. 10.5 inches/27 cm down the side seam is the fourth closure and 5 inches/13 cm away from that is the fifth closure. These last two closures have been sewn on horizontally with the loop portion of it sewn onto the back of the side seam. The hidden closure is located vertically, 7.5 inches/20 cm from the fifth closure. This one is has a knot on the end rather than a brass ball.

The brass balls boast intricate detailing and are connected to the bodice with a 2 inch/5 cm piece of royal blue fabric, the same used for the neckline accents and piping. The other half of the closure is also made of the same fabric, but has been folded to create a loop for the ball to go through. The brass balls are all in excellent condition, with the exception of the gold thread fraying from the attaching fabric.


FRC2016.01.001. Detail of brass closures. Photograph by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

The neckline of the robe is quite high and includes several decorative elements. Closest to the neck is a 0.5 inch/1.25 cm band of the royal blue coloured fabric with gold thread work. Next there is a 2 inch/5 cm section of brown cotton with green, blue and white motifs, followed by another 0.5 inch/1.25 cm band of royal blue fabric. This decorative section starts at the center front of the inner flap, wraps around the neckline, extends 3 inches/7.5 cm past the center front and then drops down, curving until it connects to the side opening. This gives the robe a unique asymmetrical shape.


FRC2016.01.001. Detail of neckline and brass closures. Photograph by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

The hem of the robe reaches 13 inches/33 cm up from the bottom of the garment and is made of a diagonal striped motif pattern. The stripes are about 0.0625 inch/0.15 cm wide, but the use of different shades of blue, green, gold and brown make it appear as through six individual stripes make up one larger gradient stripe. Above this is a section of cloud motifs about 2 inches/5 cm wide and then a section of overlapping wave patterns in different shades of blue. There is one single dime-sized rust-colour stain on the hem.


FRC2016.01.001. Detail of striped hem. Photograph by Victoria Hopgood, 2018.

For a robe that is over 100 years old, it is in excellent condition with the exception of slight fraying under the right armpit and minimal balling over the body of the garment. Consistent with garment construction of the time, the robe is both hand and machine-stitched. The seams, most are which are not visible, are machine-stitched. Whereas the lining and closures have been carefully sewn by hand. The garment is covered in different patterns and motifs each of which holds significant meaning, and in the next post, I will take a deeper look at the importance of these symbols.


Note 1: Mida, I., & Kim, A. (2015). The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. Bloomsbury Academic. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca

This post was edited by Ingrid Mida.