Qing Dynasty Robes

Tacoma Art Museum closing 1996

by Matthew Kangas


Not only is China the birthplace of silk, where it was first cultivated 5,000 years ago, but China's history is intimately tied up with the cultivation and processing of silk. Silk turned China from a nation into a civilization; it also brought Europe to its doorstep.

When we think silk, we think brocade, damask, taffeta, twill, gauze, linen and satin. The Chinese invented them all and all are reflected in imperial court dress. The basic embroidery stitches - chain, satin, knot, appliquÈ, couched, carved, etc. - were also invented by Chinese handicraft workers (usually women). They applied their talents to aggrandizing the occupying Manchu who blended in and at first retained their own cultural distinctiveness during the Qing (pronounced Ching) Dynasty (1644 - 1912).

[Above right: Qing Dynasty Woman's Sleeveless Robe, c. 1890. Woven silk, 57.75x46 in. Tacoma Art Museum, gift by exchange in honor of Col. John Young.]

A spectacular exhibition mounted by new Tacoma Art Museum assistant curator of collections, Eva Laird-Smith (former deputy director of the Philippine Presidential Palace Museum in Manila), Women's Rites: Robes of the Late Qing Dynasty is the result of extensive travel and research to place the extravagant and sober clothing in today's perspective. Just as Laird-Smith had the responsibility to oversee the national museum after the fall of the Marcos regime (she's the one who counted Imelda's shoes!), so she has grasped the similarities between the final years of the Qing Dynasty and those of Marcos.

Along with the robes designed for seasonal, formal and informal wear, other examples from the Tacoma Art Museum's growing Asian art collection will be on view. For example, pockets and purses worn around the neck and 19 pieces of women's jade jewelry worn with the appropriate robes, are shown with borrowed nail guards, sleeve bands and archival photos. Three pairs of embroideredshoes are on view which even Imelda Marcos would envy. The 11 robes summon up how styles have always crossed borders, the exotic influencing the established, the established influencing the primitive. With the infamous Silk Road, not only did the Chinese influence textile design but also ceramics, metals, and other arts. Superior in dyeing and weaving technology, not to mention perfecting and inventing porcelain, for centuries their global success had its effect on the elaborate rituals of court life.

[Above left: Manchu Woman's Summer Formal Robe, c. 1870-80. Woven silk, 58x44.5 in. Tacoma Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert W. Priem.]

When we examine a summer palace robe in yellow (restricted to the emperor) silk, it's important to remember that as many as 10 or 20 men and women alone worked on one garment. That's not counting the silkworms, the bombyx mori moth, the agricultural workers and the buyers and sellers. After all, even the Roman Empire had to bargain with the powerful Chinese silk-industrial complex.

Men and boys did the heavy weaving. Parents and children worked side by side in the cultivation and harvesting of silk. Others would weave, dye, cut and tailor the garment. The Qing dynasty maintained the special embroidery departments within the palace. And we must bear in mind that several palaces were constantly kept busy either preparing for an emperor's visit or catering to provincial nobility.

The sumptuous clothing requirements, different from event to event, ritual to ritual, were an integral part of the Han (Chinese) people's lives but were complicated to the nomadic Manchu. By the turn of this century, however, costume conventions of the Han Chinese had been assimilated. The Chinese aesthetic of linking color, fabric, and decoration to seasons, events, and religious rituals became a part of Manchu-Qing clothing at court.

[Right: Artists Unknown, Han Woman's Ornamental Skirt, c. 1890-1910. Woven Silk, 41.25x45.5 in. Tacoma Art Museum, gift of Col. John and Mary Young.]

Thanks to the intervention of long-time Tacoma resident Jeff Smith, "The Frugal Gourmet," Col. John and Mary Young have been very generous with their gifts of Qing clothing to the Tacoma Art Museum. Smith has underwritten the entire exhibition. Curator Laird-Smith hopes that the public "will see the distinction between the two types of women - Han and Qing - and be able to chronicle their lives, women in transition during the reluctant but inevitable opening to the West."

Already noted for its dedication to Northwest art and 19th-century American painting, now the Tacoma Art Museum is taking its place as an important repository of Asian art within this region.

MATTHEW KANGAS is honorary research professor in aesthetic education at Shanghai Teachers University. Prolific art critic and curator, he was the only Westerner invited to accompany a Japanese cultural delegation to China in 1992.

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