Dragon robe for a woman, embroidered silk with fur lining, China, Qing dynasty, 18th century. Dragon robe for a woman, embroidered silk with fur lining, China, Qing dynasty, 18th century.The Victoria and Albert Museum
This Imperial Robe was worn by a woman at the court of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the last Chinese Empire, ruled by the Manchu people. Lined with fur, grey squirrel and ermine, it is made of rich pale-yellow silk (certain shades of yellow were restricted for the exclusive use of the Emperor and his immediate family). It is part of the East Asia Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
The embroidered dragons, with five claws on each foot, chase flaming jewels across the surface of the robe – set against a background of scrolled clouds, shou characters and auspicious symbols.
The collar and sleeves are encircled with similar dragons worked in a smaller scale against a darker ground (the background silk for the embroidery). When the Robe was worn, the dragons would have flown above the waves – but the garment has been laid flat for photography.
The 'horse hoof' cuff covering the back of the hand is a distinct feature of the Qing imperial robes. It was intended to reference the equestrian tradition of the Manchus, who were originally a nomadic people from the north of China.
The additional band separating the sleeve from the body of the robe indicates that it was worn by woman: the Empress, Empress dowager or first-rank concubine.
The lower border is covered with diagonal lines, rising into a rolling sea. The lines are described in Chinese as 'standing water'.
Emperor's court robe (1875-1908 (made) - 1908) by UnknownThe Victoria and Albert Museum
An Emperor’s Court Robe
This robe is of the highest rank of formal wear; it would have been worn during court assemblies and important ceremonies. Twelve embroidered symbols on the chest, shoulders and back panels tell us that it was worn by the Emperor himself.
The red flame under the dragon's tale represents one of the Five Elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. These five were part of the Twelve Symbols that indicate the Emperor's utmost authority.
Explanatory text about the winter court robe worn by the Emperor (1736/1795) by UnknownThe Victoria and Albert Museum
This illustrated manuscript was commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor (r.1736–1795). It was intended to instil an sense of orderliness among his subjects, and functioned as a meticulous design manual for imperial tailors. The design, colour, symbols and appropriate occasions for wear are described in detail.
The people attending a function all wore the same style of dress, but a person's place in the social hierarchy was revealed by variations in materials used for their clothes, by variations in colour, and by the motifs that embellished the silk's surface.
There were comprehensive descriptions as to what was reserved for the exclusive use of the Emperor, followed – in descending order – by that for members of the imperial family, Manchu noblemen and other state officials.
This following page shows the back of an Emperor's Court Robe. Each level of official, or members of the Imperial Family, would have had their garments carefully described in this book – which serves as a record of the Emperor's passion for a rigid, ritualised life.
Chinese textiles in Western tailoring
Chinese textiles were admired and sought after in the West from the eighteenth century onwards. This banyan was made from a silk woven especially for the Chinese Imperial Court, but tailored in Italy.
Banyans and nightgowns were popular informal men's garments worn for leisure at home and among friends. Although this piece was made out of a silk woven especially for the Chinese Imperial Court, the Dragon Robes were usually not available for export to the West.
Banyan and waistcoatThe Victoria and Albert Museum
Dark blue, along with yellow, red and black were the colours worn by the Emperor and his family, according to the occasion. Imperial dragons always had five claws; the four-clawed dragons depicted here tell us that the silk was made for a relative of the Emperor.
Banyan and waistcoatThe Victoria and Albert Museum
The front opening of the banyan necessarily disrupts the main dragon motif, the symbol of the Emperor – the robes from China open at the right-hand side, allowing the dragon to be shown complete.
The continuing influences of Qing Court Dress
The dragon robes of the Qing continue to inspire fashion designers, both in China and in Europe.
This Laurence Xu dress, titled 'The Auspicious Cloud of the Orient', was launched in 2011. The designer incorporates three of the Dragon Robe's classic motifs (the coiling dragon, the scrolling clouds and the rolling waves) chosen to enhance the figure of the wearer.
The Auspicious Cloud of the Orient 東方祥雲The Victoria and Albert Museum
The waves at the hem cascade down the long flowing train. All the embroidery was done by hand, and took nearly a year to complete. However, the dress is cut according to western principles, with darts and seams, giving a body-hugging fit that conforms to international taste.
This dress by Huishan Zhang provides a different interpretation of the Qing dragon robe.
DressThe Victoria and Albert Museum
By incorporating references to the Dragon Robes as well as the early twentieth-century qipao (itself inspired by Qing robes), the dress – in silk organza and lace – subtly references two traditional styles.
Dragon robe for a woman, embroidered silk with fur lining, China, Qing dynasty, 18th century. RearThe Victoria and Albert Museum
The Chinese symbol shou, which means longevity, is embroidered multiple times over the surface of the Dragon Robe.
Although intended to bring good fortune to the wearer, we might see the symbols as a sign of the lasting influence of the Robe.
For more on the Chinese collections at the Victoria and Albert Mus