Saturday, 1 April 2017

Dressing To Impress: Chinese formal and informal costumes

Dressing to Impress

'Dressing to Impress': Chinese Formal and Informal Costume and Dress Accessories
(Qing Dynasty 1644 - 1911)

Lecture by David Rosier.

Wednesday 8th February 2017 at 7:30 organised by the Oriental Museum, Durham.

The Friends of the Oriental Museum organise a series of talks each year which are open to the public.

David Rosier lived for a many years in Hong Kong and worked extensively in China. During this time he and his wife became interested in the stunning imperial textiles that they saw and started to create an extensive collection of Court Costume predominately from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). His previous talk on Dragon Imagery in Chinese Imperial Textiles was colourful, informative and exciting.  I have a new appreciation of the range and purpose of the robes seen in many museums. 

His previous talk was described in my blog for December 2015 and you can quickly go it it with this link.

For the talk in February 2017, David showed us the many and varied clothing items worn by officials and the military and also described dress accessories. These ranged from elegant purses, spectacle cases and jewellery.  There were many examples of these textiles for us to see in detail.

My note taking skills have declined so I am doubly indebited to David for supplying these notes to accompany the pictures on this blog.  He is generous with his time and has a real love of these wonderful examples of Chinese costumes.

General costume

The informal costume items date from the 19th Century and would have been worn by men and women within the nobility (Imperial Clan) and the officials (and their wives) of the 9 Ranks of both Civil Officials (Mandarins) and 9 Ranks of Military Officials. In addition these items would also have been worn by those who would be regarded as being part of Chinese High Society (eminent scholars, wealthy landowners and merchants). 

The costumes worn, plus dress accessories, were not governed by the strict regulations applied to Court Costume and therefore the wearer could determine the design and iconography to be used. The items would be produced on commission by Commercial Workshops, as opposed to the Imperial Workshops, with designs either being the unique requirement of the wearer or taken from pattern books maintained by the workshop.

Whilst the majority of items originate from Commercial Workshops a few items (such as the Mirror Cover) are evidence of the skills of ladies of Chinese High Society. Embroidery was regarded as the 'premier feminine art form' and girls born into elite families would be trained in the art and expected to produce exceptional items. A prospective daughter-in-law would often produce a selection of such items to hopefully convince her future mother-in-law that she had the appropriate skills and was a suitable bride for her son. These items are generally unique in their design.

Civil Rank Badge:

This is a front badge for a 2nd Rank Civil Official. The central split indicates its position on a plain outer robe known as a Pu Fu-the badge on the back would be solid. The bird is a Golden Pheasant. The border symbols are alternating wishes for long life and happiness. Bats are an indication of happiness as are the Buddhist swastika design so they indicate in effect a wish for 'double happiness' The position of the sun symbol indicates this is a badge for a man - his wife would have had the sun in the opposite corner.

Badge for the front of a robe of a Civil Official.

I particularly liked the Golden Pheasant on the Civil Official’s rank badge.  It is embroidered in satin stitch with gold and silver couching.  It was made in Suzhou about 1870.  The bird is very lively with beautiful colours for the tail feathers and wings. I think that this will be a great source of inspiration for my a design for weaving.


Formal and informal robes had no pockets and any items required day to day for practical purposes were attached to a belt known as a Chao Dai. There were ceremonial and informal versions of the belts. Whilst there were a myriad of items created to be worn in this way purses were by far the most common articles. This was due in part to the tradition, from the Emperor downwards, to giving embroidered purses as a gift for Chinese/Lunar New Year.

Some were produced in the Imperial Workshops but the majority came from specialist Commercial Workshops and were either made from an existing pattern or a unique design was created at the request of the person commissioning the piece. These decorative accessories were most popular in 19th Century but some surviving examples date back to 18th Century but tended to be plainer in design/decoration. These items were 'unisex' and so it is impossible to tell if this was worn by a man or women. Unlike formal court costume these items were handed down the generations as were informal robes.

Purse 1: a coin purse.

Purse 1: this is a coin purse with a protective flap and the embroidery is suggestive of production in Canton. The embroidery is fine but the design is rather basic indicating this is a lower quality item made from an established pattern

Purse 2: a dalian purse.

Purse 2: this is known as a dalian purse. It hooks over the belt and has two separate compartments. This example combines a number of symbols associated with longevity such as the shou symbol, peony and lotus. The animal is a tiger (4th Rank Military animal) but also used as a protective symbol for young boys. David thinks that this may have been a birthday gift for a young boy and was probably made in Suzhou or Nanjing.

Purse 3 Tobacco or snuff purse

Purse 3: this is a tobacco or snuff purse shaped as a gourd. The size and design indicates that this is late 18th Century. The design has symbols of happiness and the tassels have the Buddhist everlasting knot design added. 

Ear Muffs:

These would have been produced for women living in Northern China where the winter climate is cold. They are embroidered with a selected design of an ancient landscape. There are remnants of the rabbit fur that would have lined the ear muffs. It probably dates to the mid 19th Century. 

Spectacle cases: 

These are for a man and a very common item worn from the belt. Women also had these cases but the glasses tended to be much smaller hence would have a much more delicate case. The bats are a symbol of happiness and hope for good fortune. The trellis background pattern is a decoration that had been used for many centuries but gave a 'modern'  or 'ageless' feel to the design. It is difficult to be specific on the date but it is probably from the 19th Century.

A case for spectacles.

Pocket Watch Cover:

Pocket watch cover

This is a spectacular piece from the late 19th Century given that the inner mauve lining indicates the use of aniline/artificial dyes which were not commercially available until 1890's in China. It may have been added later as the embroidery suggests an earlier production time.
The silk ground is in Imperial Yellow the colour reserved for Emperor/Empress so far as regulated court costume was concerned. Whilst this colour could be used by others for informal items it was rarely selected as a colour given its associations with the Emperor.

Because of the superb embroidery, David thinks that this may have been produced for the Emperor to give as a gift. The Peacock represents the 3rd Rank for a Civil Official but here it is a symbol associated with splendour and wealth. The peony and pine trees are other symbols associated with longevity.


Collars were fully detachable and were worn by women and children. Men did not wear decorative collars - only a stiff reinforced plain collar with their informal robes (Long robe (Nei Tao), 3/4 length tunic top (Wei Tao) plus collar-the full outfit was called a Chang Fu.

Collars ranged from small to vast and there was a massive range of design elements. Collars were detachable so designs appropriate to the occasion could be worn. Collar design often was coordinated with sleeve panel and robe trim themes. The plants on this collar relate to specific months of the year. Each month had a plant allocated as did the seasons.

A collar for a child with embroidered flowering plants

This is exquisite.  The curving shapes of the panels and the elegant embroidery make it a beautiful piece for a child to wear.

Sleeve panels:

Sleeve panels in terms of design were as variable as the collars ranging from auspicious or religious designs, stories from classical literature to complete random selection of imagery. They were detachable and so worn only when the design was relevant to the occasion. They were often bought with a set of matching robe trim and a collar.

They were created by specialist workshops. In David's collection and his experience of examining these textiles, it is the only item that mixes Chinese and Western images. He suspects that these were made for the wife of an official in a trading port, probably Canton, who was involved with trade with foreigners. It is unlikely to have been created for a wife of Western Trader as these items would not have displayed anything other than Chinese decoration although there are always exception to the rule. The border design has no particular meaning-purely decorative.

Silk sleeve panels

Close up of one of the boats.  

Mirror Cover:

The mirror cover is almost certainly a unique item created by one of the ladies within an elite family. It dates from early 19th Century with different domestic scenes on both sides and an inner silk-lined section to protect the mirror whilst travelling.

The interesting aspect is that the creator has recycled some much older scraps of silk brocade. These appear to be from robes typical of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and have been identified as 16th Century. Recycling of textiles has been prevalent with textiles for many centuries and continued into 20th Century following the collapse of Imperial Rule in 1911.  Items such as Rank Badges were turned into ladies evening bags, screens etc and sleeve panels/Robe trim created table coverings and similar. This was most prevalent 1920-1940 and were often bought by Westerners.

A mirror cover
The embroidery is exquisite. I love the scenes of everyday life around the edges.  The two central characters are playing the game of Go.


The times that I found most interesting were the items of jewellery.  These are made with Kingfisher feathers.  These feathers were farmed and then the sections were glued into the metal framework ensuring that the adhesive did not discolour the outer feather.

close up of another hair ornament. What delicate work!
Last year I visited Basel and there was a special exhibition in the museum.  They had a display of Chinese jewellery which the curator was eager to show me.  I think he said that it was made with peacock feathers but the uniform blue would seem more typical of the kingfisher. (David confirmed that these are made with Kingfisher feathers.)

 Here are some examples from Basel.  Some of the items were so delicately made that the ends of the flowers  or wings of the bird would tremble when worn.  This would add to the iridescence of the colour.

As usual, Davids talk  finished all too quickly.  The items he brought for us to see were spread over several tables.  Although we could not touch, it was lovely to be able to see these items so clearly.

Glass display cabinets in museums although vital, do make examining textiles very difficult. 

Porcelain flower and Kingfisher feathers

David sent me a photograph of another piece from his collection. This decoration is so delicate.It is a hair pin with a porcelain flower. 

I want to thank David again for being so generous as to supply most of these detailed notes about his collection and additional photographs.  I can recommend him as a speaker for any group interested in textiles, clothing and accessories of China. 

Contact details for David Rosier.

David can be contacted at to discuss a possible lecture or special interest day topic and the logistics associated with staging an event.

Here is a list of lectures:

Lectures of approximately 60 minutes cover a range of topics linked with Chinese Imperial Court Costume of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The most popular lectures include:
• Chinese Imperial Court Insignia of Rank-‘Ultimate Power Dressing’
• Chinese Imperial Court Costume-‘A Journey through the Emperor’s Wardrobe’
• Dragon Imagery in Chinese Imperial Costume-‘Ruling from the Dragon Throne’
• Emperor Qianlong-Ultimate Renaissance Ruler and Fine Art Collector.
In addition David gives full and half day Special Interest/Study Days ( ‘Dressing the Emperor’s Court’) plus a double lecture session. All talks are illustrated with digital images plus a display of relevant textiles.

He lectures regularly to textile and costume organisations, historical societies, museums, universities, Chinese Cultural groups, The National Trust and Art Fund around UK and is an accredited lecturer for the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS). which has 300 societies around UK and approaching 100,000 members.

There is a link to a lecture David gave for the Oriental Rug and Textiles Society. You can view his talk here.

Susan J Foulkes April 2017

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